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The Eternal Italian American Debate: ‘Gravy’ or ‘Sauce’

gravy-wars-bookIn the first chapter of her excellent and enjoyable book “Gravy Wars,” Lorraine Ranalli states that the term gravy is “unique” to South Philly Italians. By “gravy” she means what most people call “sauce” — that tomato-ey stuff that goes on pasta. I met Lorraine a few years ago when she was at a reading with Lisa Cappuccio. I told her that up here in the North End, we — at least some of us – called it gravy too. She was surprised – just as I was surprised that she thought the word gravy was only used by Italian Americans in South Philly.

After that I looked into it a bit. I started asking around. Most everyone that I knew called it gravy, by which they meant specifically the meat sauce that they had on their pasta (that is, “macaroni”) growing up. Most people I spoke to did know of a “marinara sauce.” That was a quick sauce, with no meat. But some people called that gravy, too.

As I continued to ask, I found that a lot of Italians who came to the United States after the war did not call it gravy, but sauce (salsa, ragù, sugo). That made me think it was strictly an Italian-American term. But then I found some post-WWII immigrants who said gravy, and some Italian Americans who only said sauce. So I don’t know what to think now.

One thing seems certain. They don’t have or use the term “gravy” in Italian. If they say salsa, or ragu or sugo, they mean “sauce,” meat or no meat. In America, the term gravy referred to the sauce or dressing used for meat or fish. So it could be that the early Italian immigrants, cooking meat in their tomatoes, and when in American doing like the Americans did, did the right thing and called it “gravy.”

Perhaps this is not a world shattering matter, but if you look up “gravy or sauce” on the internet you will find a lot of discussion about this. People are talking about it, and not just in South Philly or the North End.

So what is it: sauce or gravy? Here is my answer:

What is sauce for the goose is gravy for the gander.

And that is my report.

tomato-sauce

About James Pasto

James S. Pasto is a senior lecturer at Boston University, co-founder of the North End Historical Society and editor of the society's journal. To share stories about North End's past, e-mail pasto@bostoniano.info. To find out more about the North End Historical Society, visit alexgoldfeld.com/NEHS.html.

51 comments

  1. Hi James,
    It seems that neither you nor Lorraine bothered to look beyond your own back yards in doing research on this one. Friends in Brooklyn as well as Rhode Island also call it “gravy”. It appears to have been in usage along the entire northeastern US coastline, but is dying off as the younger generations switch over to calling it “sauce”. Maybe this is similar to older Bostonians saying “tonic” while the kids almost universally call it “soda”.

    Regards,
    Richard Nilo
    Revere, MA

    • Hi Richard,

      Thank you. I thought I had written that the usage was widespread but I just double checked and you are right – I made it sound like it was only Philly and the North End. You are right. This is along along the east coast, and maybe mid-west too? And it is dying off. I can always tell which of my students are ‘really’ Italian American by their familiarity and use of the term. Thanks again. James

      • Andrea Antonucci

        I’m “really” Italian-American and I get extremely annoyed when Italian-Americans call it gravy instead of sauce. Even more irritating is when the pretend to know how to speak Italian and pronounce Italian words incorrectly, almost always chopping the vowel off of the end. I feel Italian is the most beautiful of the romance languages and they make it sound horrible :-(

        • Hi Andrea, thanks for your comment. I get your point, but as I see it, “gravy” is a term that somehow emerged as the preferred term for a lot of Italian immigrants to America. The usage is very widespread so it is ‘correct’ as far as they see it. We always called it “gravy” and to me this was one of the ways we distinguished ourselves as “Italians.” On the pronunciation of words: I don’t think it is a matter of pretense but of language adaptation in a new setting as well as the fact that many of the “Italian” words that resulted were originally dialectical forms and not standard Italian. I agree that Italian is a beautiful language and it is too bad many if not most Italian Americans lost it, but I think there is a certain charm to the Italian American “Italgish” that emerged. I don’t see it as a detriment to the Italian language but rather as its survival in a majority English environment under great pressure to give up all non-English forms. But that is my view….

        • I agree, Andrea. I’m first generation US born, 1/2 Italian, who has been to Italy a handful of times. My grandmother born and raised in Italy, living there until her mid-20’s, called it sauce. I find it annoying when people here call it gravy. My grandmother made lovely gravies, from creams and wines, that were truly gravies. I dislike, even more, that I’m always corrected with “gravy” every time I say I’m making my grandmother’s sauce. The people correcting me have never been to Italy, let alone their parents and sometimes even their grandparents…they are 3rd and 4th generation to the US.

  2. By my standards in good ol’ Italian-America Rhode Island, a gravy is a tomato sauce with meat, but not like a bolognese. The base of this gravy is made with braciole, pork, sausage, meatballs, and my favorite, chunks of pepperoni. Getting some color first on the braciole, pork, and sausage is a must, meatballs can be fried or baked separately then tossed in the gravy to finish cooking, and the pepperoni can just be tossed in as well. In addition, a proper gravy must cook for a solid 2-3 hours, then simmer for another couple hours. It needs that time to properly cook the tomatoes and get all that flavor out of the meats… so delicious. Also, it is typically made in big batches and freezes pretty well. Buon Appetito!

    • Hi JR,

      Thanks for the feedback. I agree. “Gravy” is just the way you describe it and just how my mother made it, she did not use pepperoni, cooking it as long as you say and freezing batches as well.

      Jim

    • It’s gravy!!! Hahaha and I’m all Italian. My mother was born in Italy! So get over it! To each his own!!!! Time to make the GRAVY!!

      • We always said gravy also! From immigrants ancestors of Sicily and it was always Gravy!

        • Thank you. I’d like to make a poll someday. I think gravy would win. Jim

        • My Great Grandparents came over from Naples & Ischia & in my family it’s always been Sunday Gravy & Macaroni & for me that’s what it will stay

    • Hi, it depends on what you are calling pepperoni. In Italian, pepperoni are peppers, bell peppers and other varieties. What Americans call pepperoni is in reality called salamino piccante. If you order a pepperoni pizza in Italy, you will get just that, a pizza with peppers on it, which might not be what you wanted.

  3. Growing up an Italiana-Americana, my family always called pasta with marinara, “sauce.” Ours always had some form of carne or meat: meatballs and sausage for sure, and sometimes we would add ribs or make Braciola. No matter what, there usually wasn’t much left after dinner and we all had to retire to the living room to crash on the couch and digest for awhile. My late Grandmother, Carmella, made our Sunday Sauce dinners most of the time since we would then be visiting both her and Grandpa, Nunzio. Later, I learned how to make it and my Dad began calling me, “the meatball machine,” when I was in high school. I usually made mine a bit larger than my Grandma’s, and near softball size. The mo’ the better, right?! Plus, they did look quite impressive on the plate, if I do say so. Nowadays, I make them smaller or maybe NYY baseball size. It helps with the waistline and there’s more to go around if there are a few peeps dining. So, God Bless Sunday Sauce and my Angels (my Grandparents) up in Heaven from Abruzzi (Italia) that taught me how to make it and create a special connection with family and friends, while enjoying a deliziosoa feast. Mangiare! Mangiare!

    • Dear Jules,

      Thank you. It sounds wonderful. And God did bless the Sunday sauce, as well as all other things Italian.

      James

  4. Andrea Tavormina

    Hi James,
    My Nonna & Nonno & my Pop’s were all in Brooklyn, NY and we have always called it sauce. This gravy thing is so strange to me as that’s the brown stuff you put on a turkey at Thanksgiving.I know there is no right or wrong answer here but some get very upset over this “Gravy” thing and consider those if us who were raised using sauce to be “not true Italians”. That is what upsets me, my last name is Tavormina and it’s due to it getting a “V” added at Ellis Island (or so my Pop’s was told and then I was told) my nonno being from Taormina and Nonna from Palermo. So weather your a sauce or a gravy italian…please remember just because some of us are Sicilian and say sauce doesn’t make us any less a true Italian! Mille grazie

    • Thanks Andrea. I agree with you. I never thought those who called it sauce were less Italian than those who call it gravy. I am just trying to figure out why some call it gravy and others call it sauce. But as you say, it is strange. A mystery that may never be solved. James

    • I’m a true Italian and I grew up calling it gravy! If you look up the word gravy in Italian it is the same as sauce: sugo!!!!

  5. Anyone who calls SAUCE gravy is a neanderthal.

  6. It’s called gravy only by Italian Americans in South Philly??? Oh I don’t think so. Its Gravy…. for most of New England (North East United States) at least is true for Massachusetts and Connecticut Italian-Americans I grew up with. We actually call it gravy, Sunday Gravy, Sunday Sauce and Sauce. My Italian grandmother, grandma Salerno called it gravy and my mom calls it gravy. I have an Italian-American Recipe website and I have talked with a LOT of Italian-Americans of the past 15 years on this subject and the term “Gravy” for the pasta sauce is definitely confined to the northeast United States. You can see much discussion about this and many other things Italian-American food related here: http://spaghettisauceandmeatballs.com/sauce-talk/.

    • Hi Tony,

      Thanks for you comment and the link. Just to be clear: I didn’t say it is called gravy only in Philly. That is what Ranalli said in her book and that is what she told me she thought when I spoke to here. My family always called in gravy and I still call it that. But there were people in the North End and other Italian Americans living in New England who only call it sauce. I looked for a pattern but have not found it yet.

      Best,

      Jim

    • Brian Chidichimo

      Gravy is an East Coast Italian term… Don’t think the rest of the Italian Immigrants outside of the East called their sauce gravy. Probably originated in Philly and or New York, but I know the Italians who moved to Chicago where I grew up, did not call it gravy. Most likely the early Italian immigrants wanted to speak English so they heard Americans calling their sauces gravy…. YOu can thank Hollywood for spreading the term nationally….

  7. James,
    Che stai a dice?
    As an Italian immigrant, I helped my parents cook the Sunday meals and sauce from scratch which included: braciole, sausage, meatballs, ribs, pigskin, and other meaty bones. It was always salsa di pomodori never did we use gravy until we had the American meal: turkey or mashed potatoes.

    • Thank you. Other recent Italian immigrants told me the same thing, though some said they used the word “sugo.” We also used “gravy” for the brown gravy on turkey, but we still used “gravy” for the meat sauce we made for pasta (macaroni/spaghetti). The mystery of origins remains.

  8. You are right, we have no word for gravy. No idea why Americans use such weird words for what I assume is their version of what Italian food is. Why don’t you just call it American food? Italian-Americans, African-Americans etc… really have nothing of a semblance of their old ancestral culture but should still be proud to be American instead of worrying about a country they never even lived in D:.

    • Hi Angelica, thanks for your comment. I don’t agree that Italian American have nothing of a semblance of the ancestral culture: the food and language forms, among other things, come out of Italy. Irish and African Americans did not use the Italgish words we used, and if they now eat pizza and spaghetti, it is because Italian Americans introduced it to them and the rest of America. In fact, I think African Americans, because of the dynamics of slavery, have a far less connection to Africa than Italian Americans have to Italy in terms of the forms and practices of Italian American culture. Italian American identity was not an optional identity that people could just let go. I’m American 100%, but of a particular variety: “Italian” American. I am Italian American because of where and how I grew up: the North End. I don’t wear it on my sleeve or cling to it, but it is certainly part of my style of being and thinking. You are right that it is not “Italian” identity – it is Italian American identity because it was the identity of Italians who became Americans in Italian American majority areas. We were not the same as Irish, African, English, or other Americans because of the food we ate and the way we spoke. But this was not set against being American; it was part of being American in my day. I don’t see my Italian American identity in conflict with being American; and pride has nothing to do with it (for or against). My kids, on the other hand, because they did not grow up in an Italian American neighborhood won’t have an Italian American identity. To them “Italian” is “ancestry,” which is fine with me.

  9. All I know is that all four of my grandparents came from Sicilia and they all called it sauce. I never heard the term gravy until I met friends on Long Island that came from a different part of Italy and they called it gravy. I was a little mystified and I actually had to ask them what they meant when they said they were going to make their Sunday gravy! Well, I found out and I did tell them that I never heard of sauce referred to as gravy! So, the great controversy still exists, because they will always call it gravy and I will always call it Sauce!

  10. Good morning James! Great story. My family is from the The Bronx and we were raised to call it gravy. We still call it gravy. I don’t believe that there is a right or wrong here. Both sets of my grandparents are immigrants from Italy and when they arrived here, they called it gravy. Another issue is that some folks only called it gravy when there was meat cooked in the tomatoes. Now that is made up here in the U.S. Someone tried to calm the powers to be and come up with something in the middle…..Ours was always gravy no matter what or how it was being cooked. There was a comment above about how she was a “real Italian American” and could not stand how some people spoke Italian and would chop off a vowell at the end. The truth be known is that there are hundreds of dialects in the Italian language and some were real proper and some were somewhat slang. It also depended on where you lived….for instance if you were living in the mountains, it was somewhat slang. The folks that lived in the hills were mostly farmers and schooling was not that important. Different story if you were living in the flatlands or in the cities.

    • Hi Robert,

      Thanks for your comments. We called it all “gravy” too, though we did sometimes say “sauce” or “marinara” if it had not meat. I think this is going to remain one of the great unsolved mysteries of the universe (if not the greatest of them). ON the language: I agree. Most of us don’t speak standard English but some region dialect with a lot of slang. The Italian immigrants of the early 20th century had very specific and local patterns, and that is where their “Italgish” comes from.

      Best,

      Jim

  11. Hi, just want to say as a 2nd generation Italian from Chicago (mama’s family from Calabria /pa’s from Abruzzi) that we call it Sunday Gravy. All of my 24 aunts and uncles and 27 cousins did the same.We put it on before mass, went to Visit Nonna/grandma at my aunts house, came home, boiled the water and put the pasta /macaroni on and ate. It was loaded with meatballs, sausage, etc. On Fridays we didn’t eat meat but we had datalini with sugo (meatless gravy). I’m in my 60’s now and I have about 22 +/- people over almost every Sunday’s for “pasta Sunday’s” my older sister, her children and grandchildren and my own. We crowd around the table(s), adults and kids.A table cloth and real dishes just like Mama taught me. I will make several pots of gravy with a lot of meat and pounds of pasta. We pass the pasta,gravy and freshly grated cheese around, eat,talk, laugh and enjoy. The youngest are 1 year old twins and the oldest …well older then me. It is getting harder to do but even the little ones ask in the middle of the week, is it almost “pasta Sunday”. It doesn’t matter what you call it gravy/sauce, it’s the heritage and link to our past. Keep the traditions going and pass the recipes down. There’s always enough to give every family leftovers with extra “gravy” LOL

    • Suzann LaForte Melton

      My family also calls it Sunday Gravy!! My grandmother and grandfather on my dad’s side are from Ribera Sicily and they always called it Sunday Gravy and macaroni. My great-grandparents on my mother’s side or also from Southern Italy and they too called it Sunday gravy

    • Beautiful! That is what it is all about!

  12. This is just strange to me! For me gravy is made from the fat drippings of cooked meat. Sauce is what you put on spaghetti. I have no claims of being “Italian” just plain old American. However, I’ve completely enjoyed reading everyone’s responses and admire people for their tenacity in keeping with their heritage.

    • Hi Diane, thanks for your comment. The “gravy” we talk about has meat in it. The meat makes it (tomato) gravy. Without the meat it is sauce (tomato sauce). Jim

  13. My Sicilian Grandmother called it salsa and she cooked it every Sunday for the whole family gang of aunts, uncles and cousins. We lived in Italian Harlem in New York City. My aunt from Queens called it gravy but we all ate with the same gusto.

    • There are italians in the south. lol…I know not many but we are here. Both my mom’s and dad’s family came from italy straight to the south!!! Mississippi delta to be exact. The first italians here. No influence on us from previous italians here. There are other italians here too. Most of us call it gravy. Some call it sauce. I personally have witnessed the birth of the word “gravy” being used once Italians started learning english here. My mom and other italians here called it gravy because it was thick like a “type of gravy”. It was not thin like a salsa or sauce. So the war goes on here in the south too!!!! Tooooo funny. As I grew up what I noticed was white southern americans calling anything red was a sauce. Especially because their gravy was brown. We knew nothing about that stuff. So to them the only gravy in the whole world was brown so they called our “Sugo”, “Ragu'” “Condimento” etc. a sauce. I see it being called sauce more now. As with anything involving food and language nothing is right or wrong. To me it was just a matter of how they wanted to translate or “find” an english word that would describe it. Our “Sugo” is pretty thick so I guess that’s why we call it gravy. Such an interesting subject. Please don’t think the only italians that came to america only live in the north east. Many of us in the south came in through New Orleans!!!!!!! All I know is that whatever you calll it, it is sure good!!!! Ciao tutti!!!

  14. Brian Chidichimo

    Obviously the Italians who came to america spoke Italian (various dialects depending on what region they came) and called it salsa or marinara or other Italian term for sauce. Perhaps after learning English or their kids learning English in school, in the New York/Philly area must have heard their British American counterparts calling their pour over sauces “gravy” and they translated their sauces to this popular English word. Kids went to school and discovered “meatloaf with Gravy”, or mashed potatoes and gravy, and Macaroni with tomato sauce and taught their parents the word and thus it took hold for “macaroni gravy”. (macaroni was pretty much the only Italian pasta that American’s knew prior to Italian immigration) thus those Italian immigrant kids, took home both Macaroni and Gravy to their Italian families that were eager to start speaking like their American neighbors.
    But hailing from an Italian American family in Chicago, I don’t ever recall anyone calling spaghetti sauce “Gravy”. We called it spaghetti sauce. and I also think “macaroni” is a new York, east coast term for pasta, just as the word Gravy….mostly used in East Coast cities… In Chicago we had Spaghetti and Mostaccioli…with sauce, never called it macaroni.
    You can also thank Hollywood for taking a regional dialect of New York, Philly and the slang used by the Italian Americans and spreading it nationally through their stereotypical movies like Goodfellas, Soprano’s, etc. The Italians in Chicago and outside the east coast didn’t speak this way…

    • Thanks Brian. Your theory makes sense.

    • Dear Brian, I have read all the comments and I concur with your theory. In my situation, I grew up with Sicilian grandparents and my mother was born in Sicicily as well. I always heard the Italian word Salsa which translates into English as Sauce. (The pronunciation should not be confused with the Spanish word Salsa It is pronounced totally different.) I think that gravy did become used as second generations Italians were becoming more Americanized, but my family continued to say salsa and then sauce. (I’m 69, and this is what I heard when I was growing up in the 50’s. It was not until later in my life I started to hear many of my younger Italian -American 2nd and 3rd generation families use the word gravy. We also ate every kind of Pasta, but generally asked for macaroni and often when we said pasta it sounded more like “Basta.”
      I believe the closer your family was to Italian born parents and grandparents the tendency to use the Italian word for Sauce (salsa). And, like many of us we also ended up speaking Itag-lish. It was very natural for our ancestors native language to be merged with English. These experiences are what we all shared and in my opinion made our Italian upbringing unique to us which also creates for myself and others many sentimental memories of our past as Italian-Americans.

  15. I’ll never get over the idea of people calling something that contains absolutely no seafood as “marinara” sauce. I’ve been to Italy a number of times. I’ve never seen anything called “a la marinara” that wasn’t seafood. You can have risotto a la marinara or various types of pasta a la marinara and they all contain seafood, and often without tomatoes.

    • Stefan, thank you. I looked it up and it seems that spaghetti alla marinara originally meant in a sauce “in the sailors style” rather than a sauce with seafood. But how it became the general term I don’t know. Another one of those Italian food mysteries.

      • I think spaghetti a la marinara might be using “marinara” to mean marinated, and not as a marine/seafood reference…

        • In our house growing up “marinara” sauce was almost always on “meatless Fridays” with or without fish – in the Catholic tradition of no meat on Fridays (all year, not just Lent) and Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

  16. It’s interesting to me that people who call it “gravy” believe that the people calling it “sauce” must only be those who came as immigrants later and that “sauce” is a newer term. Not in my estimation.
    My grandparents from Italy only spoke Italian, came over in the 20’s and their families called it “SAUCE” no matter if there was meat in it or not. Sundays was always meat in it the “sauce” and on Weds, leftovers, less meat or no meat at all. They lived in the Cobble Hill area of Brooklyn and Park Slope respectively as the children (my Father) became adults. We NEVER said “gravy” and I never heard the term “gravy” until I was much older and it became grounds for a silly argument. I am a second generation Italian American and all my Aunts and Uncles called it “Sauce” regardless if it had meat in it or not. Sometimes it was just a marinara w/out meat but it was always referred to as Sauce on Sundays and Weds. Sundays were characteristically special when you had the relatives over and there was plenty of meatballs and sausage and lets not forget the cheese!! In our house it was always ROMANO on the table. Left overs were eaten on Weds and the meat was either gone or a bit more was added to it usually in the form of ground beef. Many times we ate it without meat due to budget or just not being able to get to the butcher in time.
    Again, in my mind “gravy” has a completely different smell, consistency and color and sometimes has onions in it and is usually very salty. It;s usually white or brown flour based and goes over mashed potatoes, biscuits, liver etc.

  17. East Boston was predominantly Italian for several decades in the last century. Our story tends to get overshadowed by the in-town North End Italian settlement. So, as a former East Bostonian whose grandparents came form the province of Avellino in the Campania region (like so many other EB families), let me weigh in on this topic. EVERYONE in my neighborhood called it gravy. I don’t really remember whether my grandparents called it that, but all the Italo-Americans did.

    • That’s curious because my maternal grandmother had family in East Boston and was also from Avellino (as was my maternal grandfather) but I never remember her calling it ‘gravy’, always ‘sauce’, with or without meat!

  18. I was brought up in the north end and everyone called it Gravy my family as well. I was the top winner of Emerils Italian contest out of 1500 contestants and my winning recipe is called Frankies Gravy and Meatballs which is in my cookbook the good life favorite italian recipes. I appeared on emerils show the foodnetwork emeril live and he even called it gravy!! remeber its the Sunday Gravy not sunday sauce.

  19. My grandfather came to New Orleans from Sicily. My family always called it macaroni and red gravy.