In 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.