NYC Day 1: Italian Sauce or Gravy

Yesterday’s travel was complicated by horrid weather and even more horrid construction around LGA.

“When will you have an end?!?”, cried Julius II. I hope the new airport is a masterpiece of design. I’m not holding my breath. I understand that it’ll gain a runway.

45 minutes to get by bus from the terminal to the place where you now grab taxis.

And now for a massively important question.

Last night I went with a couple to a “red sauce” restaurant.  Both of them are of Italian or Sicilian heritage.   There ensued a discussion of terminology…


Is that sauce or is it gravy?

Above, is what is billed as “Eggplant Parmisan”.   I have to engage in a form of mental conditioning and preparation for these restaurants and remind myself, “I’m in America… I’m in America… Don’t compare it to Italy… You are not in Italy.   They are not pretending we are in Italy.”   What really gripes my cookies is when restaurants put on airs and try to pass themselves off as “authentic” when the only thing that is authentic might be that they reproduced on an industrial scale something like the cook’s grandmother, who had never set foot in the old country, remembered from her childhood in Howard Beach or North Beach.    So, once I was able to throw the switch in my head for American mode, I was good and enjoyed the food.

BUT… the question remains.



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  1. jwcraig11 says:

    Gravy, of course. If they call it “sauce,” they’re not Italian.

  2. Thomas S says:

    Is this a strictly English language question or is there an equivalent debate in the Italian? “Gravy” has always struck me as a bit of a deliberate affectation when everyone else in this country calls it sauce, especially among my younger age group. Gravy calls to mind a distinct, entirely different image than red sauce.

    But I don’t know the origins of the choices, so I’ll not die on this hill.

  3. scoot says:

    I’m a non confrontational person so I like to use an alternative which I think we can all agree is a happy medium. I call it “Goop”. I much prefer the red tomato goop, the “white goop” they use sometimes is hit or miss.

  4. hilltop says:

    I grew up calling that red stuff “sauce” but I am coming around to “gravy”. Made the right way, it takes too long to be called a sauce. Also sauce is something at the bottom, it seems, while gravy is something poured on top. And this brings me to my beef with American Italian cooking: it calls for way too much gravy. Father’s photo is typical with all of that gravy burying the dish and the tastes and flavors of the food beneath! He says it is eggplant, but given the inch-thick slather it could be anything. And once you load a dish of pasta with the normal American helping of gravy it simply does not matter what the pasta is, how it was made, or weather it is fresh. And people actually request that it be made “al dente”….. absurd!

  5. Gaetano says:

    Here’s my opinion from a Campo perspective:

    Sauce is thin or the meat is ground up. This includes marinara, bolognese, arrabiata, puttanesca, etc.

    If it has cream in it, it’s sauce.

    Gravy is strictly Ragu Napoletana. Lots of meat (braccole, meatballs, sausage, ribs, etc.) slow cooked in tomato sauce on the stove for hours. Most often a Sunday gravy. Still gravy if only meatballs or sausage.

  6. Ah, yes. What I have come to call “Italian theme food.”

    I know a Sicilian-American priest who always insisted it was “gravy.” It seems that this is usage among some Sicilian Americans.

    In Italian, as you know, “sugo” means both “sauce” and “gravy.” This use of “gravy” is probably a fossilized translation error going back to early Italian immigrants to the U.S. trying to learn English.

  7. PaulusFranciscus says:

    I’ve always called it “sauce”. Tomato sauce, béchamel sauce.

    Now. I grew up in an Italian household, and I am fluent in Italian. At home, we always called it “sugo”, which does not translate to “sauce”, but to “gravy”.

    So, I feel as though I’m at an existential crisis, torn between head and heart.

  8. ChesterFrank says:

    If it was served at a “Red Sauce Restaurant” and it is “Red”, chances are it is a Sauce. You didn’t say you feasted at a “Red Gravy Restaurant.”

  9. Mariana2 says:

    Sauce. Gravy is made from meat juices.

  10. mysticalrose says:

    Gravy. I grew up in a neighborhood that was about half Italian and about half Irish (I’m neither). No one called it sauce.

  11. tho says:

    As a red blooded American, I call it Ragu, or Prego.

  12. abdiesus says:

    If you’ve never seen Big Night, it’s a wonderful movie which is at least in part about the differences between “authentic” Italian cuisine, and what most Americans *think* is “authentic” Italian cuisine.

    “In a restaurant run by two Italian immigrants, the tables sit empty despite the extraordinary talents of Primo the chef (Tony Shalhoub) and the ambitious efforts of his brother Secondo (Stanley Tucci).”

    Here’s a clip to wet your appetite:

  13. Nathanael says:

    With due respect to the denizens of New York, New Jersey, and Philadelphia, I believe what we have here is a category error, albeit an admittedly long established one, because gravy… is a kind of sauce.
    Specifically it is the sauce made from, at least, turkey drippings and flour, and it is used on English-style roast and potato meals of the sort common to Thanksgiving.
    I would admit that there may be a discussion to be had concerning so-called “brown gravy,” a beef variation, yet still served with English-style roast and potato meals. Beyond such relatively trivial errors such as this, using the term, “gravy,” is quite simply beyond the pale.
    Would one ask if pesto sauce, is sauce or “ragu sauce“? Would one ask if marinara sauce, is sauce or “alfredo sauce“?
    That is the error in question here.
    The pilgrims may have had some peculiar religious ideas, but when they roasted those turkeys, opened those bags of stuffing, brusseled those sprouts, and mashed those potatoes, they knew precisely what sort of sauce to serve with it: Gravy sauce. Gravy sauce, and perfectly cylindrical jellied cranberry sauce.

  14. albinus1 says:

    I second the recommendation of Big Night. It’s probably my second-favorite food movie, after Babette’s Feast.

    At the time I first saw the movie I didn’t have nearly as much experience traveling–and eating–in Italy as I do now, so I confess that at the time I didn’t pick up on the significance of the brothers’ names, Primo and Secondo. ;-)

    The distinction between what really is authentic Italian cuisine and what most Americans think is authentic Italian cuisine reminds me of Thomas Day’s discussion, in *Why Catholics Can’t Sing,* about authentic Irish songs vs. what most Americans think (or used to think) were “real Irish songs,” with once-popular numbers like “Galway Bay” and “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen” falling into the latter category. And, as with Italian food, people who have developed a taste for the American pretender while thinking it is “authentic” often reject the genuine article when they experience it.

  15. I have to speak up in defense of red-sauce restaurants. Sure, the food isn’t authentic Italian–but it’s authentic Italian-American. It’s never going to be gourmet, but it’s pretty good. Nothing wrong with tomato sauce.

  16. capchoirgirl says:

    Sauce. My dad is 100% Italian, from Calabria, and we have always called it sauce. Gravy is what you serve with turkey.

  17. Ages says:

    If it’s made with meat juice, flour, and butter, it’s gravy.

    Anything else is sauce.

  18. Colm says:

    I grew up in an Italian neighborhood. Real Italians called it sauce. Italian Americans with a distant connection to Italy called it gravy.

  19. JabbaPapa says:

    Sauce — it’s fleshy and tomato-ish, not liquid and meaty.

    It looks rather too French rather than Italian enough, but me personally ? Way too dodgy to eat, but that’s clearly sauce not gravy.

  20. Gerard Plourde says:

    Regarding the “gravy or sauce” debate – it may be that depending on where the immigrant arrived in the United States and how they acquired English may explain why some Italian Americans use the term for what is either sugo or salsa.

  21. majuscule says:

    The family I married into (whose roots go back to northern Italy) call it gravy. It’s usually served on polenta.

    In my non Italian family of birth (British/German/Iberian/French heritage) we call it sauce and serve it on pasta. Early in her marriage my mom learned to make something we called “Pasta Shuta” (I’m sure that’s phonetic and not the the real spelling) from the Italian next door neighbor…but we called the red stuff sauce.

  22. Lepanto ! says:

    Seems rather that the question is one of subtle but important distinction between either pride and hubris or hubris and priggishness.

  23. Cafea Fruor says:

    The New York Italians I know make the distinction that it’s sauce until such point meat is added, and then it’s gravy.

  24. roma247 says:

    First of all, my condolences…once I returned from studying in Italy in college, I lost the ability to eat the sort of stuff you have photographed with anything like good grace.

    As to your question:
    I don’t care what bad translations or family traditions have led to some people to insist that the red stuff in the picture is gravy. Words mean what they mean, and you can easily solve the problem by referring to a dictionary.

    The fact is that in these U.S. of A., the word gravy refers to a condiment produced by thickening the drippings/juices left from cooking meat. Could involve deglazing the pan with some sort of liquid, and in cases where there are no drippings or juices, some will thicken broth made from bouillon or other soup base. One can add flavorings to this concoction if desired, but if your sauce is not essentially produced from meat cooking juices or their rough equivalent, then it’s NOT GRAVY.

    Incidentally Gravy is considered a type of sauce.

    However, Gravy is NOT a multi-ingredient recipe produced on its own (i.e. not primarily from meat juices), even if it does include meat, or require long cooking. Sauces may include but are not not limited to Bechamel, Hollandaise, Bolognese, Ragu, Alfredo, Puttanesca, Harissa, Hoisin, Sweet and Sour, Mole, Chimichurri, etc.

    Hope this helps settle the debate…

  25. kalless says:

    My mother-in-law was born in Calabria. She calls it sauce. My father-in-law was born in the US, but his family was from Calabria. He calls it gravy. It makes for interesting conversation. Thankfully, neither of them douse their food like that! The Italian side of my family is further removed from Campagna. We call it sauce.

    PS Bravo for the Big Night reference!

  26. ArthurH says:

    I agree with a couple of answers above: A NYC Italian– many (most?) of whom were from the Naples area when I lived there– called it gravy, esp when it was made with meat.

  27. teomatteo says:

    henceforth for me it shall be: graviauce

  28. bobbortolin says:

    My Sicilian grandmother always called it “Sugo” which translates to gravy.

  29. CasaSanBruno says:

    On the North Side of Chicago, it’s sauce. On the South Side, gravy. So, sauce it is.

  30. Maria G says:

    In our Sicilian household it’s called Sugo.

  31. mpsguard says:

    My grandmother from Ceprano called it gravy. My grandmother from Sicily called it sauce. The differentiator is the Sunday Gravy had sausage, meatballs, chicken breast, and braciole, one with stuffing, one without. It was elaborate and after about 5 hours of cooking was definitely more like a gravy then a sauce. Basically the broth from the meats became the stock for a heavily thickened “gravy” that just happened to have tomatoes in it – ideally freshly crushed roma tomatoes using seeds from Italy.

    All followed by a heavy dosage of Brioschi.

    My grandmother from Sicily didn’t make anything that elaborate, but her sisters did.

  32. JamesA says:

    I learn something on this blog every single day !

    Full disclosure, I am about as Italian as Liz Warren is Native American, so I don’t have a dog in this fight. I never knew that “gravy” was the preferred Italian usage. And all this time I’ve been laughing at New Orleanians for calling tomato sauce “red gravy” ! It must be a result of the rich Italian heritage in the Crescent City.

  33. JustaSinner says:

    Depends…was it prepared with meat juices? If not, no gravy.

  34. mpsguard says:

    I forgot to mention. If you don’t get heartburn its a sauce. If you get heartburn, it’s a gravy.

  35. Charivari Rob says:

    Oh, dear, you went THERE.
    The “Sauce or Gravy” there.


  36. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Re: authentic, remember that a lot of ethnic American cuisines are closer to Victorian or pre-Victorian cooking styles in whatever region that immigrants came from, than it is to how people in those regions cook now. The U.S. is sometimes a little time capsule as well as a catalyst for change and adaptation.

    I have heard a lot of scoffing about how corned beef isn’t authentic Irish food, but then I read an Irish culinary historian explain how it used to be universal in Dublin and other Irish market towns. The American Irish remember, and the Irish Irish forget.

    My family’s springerle recipe is just as old as the recipes in Germany and Switzerland, and we have been less inclined to tinker with it.

    I have no opinions on sauce vs. gravy. I just eat that stuff.

    [Interesting. I am reminded of pockets of German speakers in Minnesota who were speaking a German of a century before, because they were separated from where German was evolving.]

  37. karmato says:

    Award this lady a star!

  38. Benedict Joseph says:

    Sauce! A native of the Italian and Irish ghettos of northern New Jersey I have NEVER heard an Italian refer to sauce as gravy.

  39. joekstl says:

    Interesting use of of language. In German we use the word “sosse” which can mean both sauce and gravy.

  40. TRW says:

    Growing up in southern New York State I never heard it called anything other than sauce. Pronounced ” Tuhmayta Saws”. That veritable sea of extra sauce is for the copious amounts of complimentary bread that one might sop it up with.

  41. MI1 says:

    Gravy is always made with meat drippings. It looks to me like “Grandma” just opened a jar of Prego!

  42. Rob83 says:

    I have never heard it called anything but sauce around here. The one side of the family is Sicilian, and “sauce” has traditionally been served much as it’s pictured above.

    The number one Italian-American restaurant in town takes the middle course of lightly coating its pasta with sauce and providing a bowl of sauce so that patrons can have it however saucy or not they prefer. Part of this is practical since their most popular dishes involve broiling mozzarella on top of the pasta.

  43. excalibur says:

    Sauce, of course. Though not of Italian extraction I lived among many Italian-Americans. When my late mother was young an Italian immigrant couple rented an apartment in her parent’s four-family house, and the wife taught her how to make sauce.

    Italian-American cuisine is its own world, and thankfully so.

  44. bobbird says:

    I’m NOT half Italian, I am half Tuscano. There is a difference. Sicilians also are NOT Italians. I had two sisters that I home schooled and their grandparents were … Tuscan and Sicilian. When I began to explain the difference they cut me off because they already knew the drill. Their grandparents met in America. How that marriage lasted is impossible to believe. They bickered constantly over the proper presentation of pasta. To a Tuscan it is olive oil, Italian seasoning, parmesan. To a Sicilian it is GOBS of heavy tomato sauce. [Yuck!]
    My Tuscan cousin’s 1st visit to America was in Chicago. Our mutual Italian aunt warned him NOT to eat at an Italian restaurant. When he saw the McDonalds and burger joints he couldn’t abide, he did not follow her advice. In he went to an “authentic” Chicago Italian restaurant. He left.

  45. mo7 says:

    The Calabrese side called it sauce, the Barese side called it gravy. The head of the household demanded (there is no way to soften this word) his mother’s cuisine, so mom capitulated and sauce it was, that is Nana’s sauce it was. I’m the 3rd generation, the sauce has not changed one oregano flake and I’m happy to report the 4th generation is happy to comply even while away at school. But is it possible the erudite Father from the midwest could possibly understand the deep and grave significance to the question, ‘is the water on??’

  46. Gab says:

    My Italian mother-in-law (originally from Bari) calls it “sugo”, which means sauce.

    If I called it “gravy” I’d get thrown out of her house.

  47. JonPatrick says:

    I also am less Italian than Elizabeth Warren is Native American so don’t have an opinion on sauce vs gravy, but I would like to comment on the photo at the beginning of the post. New York is a world class city with a Third World transportation system. No comparable city in Europe would have its primary airport unconnected to the city center by a fast modern rapid transit system thus requiring passengers to spend hours in traffic jams. Thanks to Robert Moses the Annibale Bugnini of New York city planning who detested any form of transport other than private automobile, the various financial crises the city has gone through, and the ridiculous cost of doing any kind of construction in the area, such a link has never happened and is not likely to happen anytime soon. End of rant.

  48. PostCatholic says:

    I had the pleasant adventure of landing at the 23rd St Skyport Marina this summer. The East River is a spectacular runway, plus you’re in Midtown as soon as you step off the float plane. I commend the experience to you.

    [Now THAT is how it is done.]

  49. My parents were born in America, but all four of my grandparents were born in Italy. My grandmothers, born in different regions of Italy, didn’t learn to cook from Americans. They brought their local style of cooking with them. It’s quite possible that those styles were eventually altered due to the influence of their husbands who were born in different regions than they and were attached to their mother’s cooking. Still, all native Italian influence, not American. For me, it’s fun to be an Italian American and enjoy delicious homemade Italian food (authentically regional or not) however differently prepared by grandmothers, mothers, sisters, aunts and cousins (and some men of the families). And my non-Italian wife who acquired recipes from my mom and an aunt (from yet another region) and who could take constructive criticism from me as I imagine my grandmothers did from my grandfathers. Some restaurants may serve more currently authentic regional Italian food, but I couldn’t care less. I’ve found some restaurant food to be awful whereas others at the table might be perfectly satisfied.

    Sauce or gravy? Mom called it gravy. My wife (raised in Indiana) calls it sauce. She can give constructive criticism too.

  50. poohbear says:

    Growing up just north of NYC, my Italian immigrant grandparents and family called it sauce if it was tomato, oil or cream based. Gravy is whats made from meat drippings. The Hungarian side of the family called all liquids served over food gravy. Tomato sauce is still sauce if its served over turkey, and turkey gravy is still gravy, even if served over pasta.

  51. Claudio Salvucci says:

    We never called it “gravy” growing up…my parents were born in Italy and only came here in the 60s. But there are many Italian-Americans whose families have been here longer than we have and who insist on it. I’ll defend it on their behalf.

    There is salsa and there is sugo in Italian (well, our region’s Italian anyway)…which you could loosely translate as “sauce” and “gravy”. But whereas Americans differentiate sauce and gravy by what they are served over (something over pasta vs. something over meat), Italians differentiate them by what they are *made with*. If it’s made with just’s “salsa”…but if you make it with meat or cook meat in it, it’s a “sugo”, whether it’s going over pasta or a roast beef.

    The semantic categories don’t match over the two languages, and that seems to be the reason people fight over this so much. Some adopt the English distinctions with the English words, whereas others (perhaps going back to an older time before widespread assimilation), continue to insist on the English terms with the Italian distinctions.

    We would be better off just realizing this is to some degree a dialect distinction. And consulting the Dictionary of American Regional English, I also find that “gravy” has been used in parts of New England for a sweet pudding sauce. Just to really throw a wrench in the works.

  52. Gerard Plourde says:

    To follow up on the comments made by Suburbanbanshee and Fr. Z. upthread, the observation that the linguistic usage may reflect that of an earlier time, this phenomenon was also present in Canadian French, which preserved 18th century vocabulary and usage into at least the early 20th century following the British seizure and annexation of New France.

    Also, even in American English there are regional differences. For my New England relatives the carbonated, flavored, sweetened beverage I called “soda” was “tonic”. For my wife growing up in Buffalo it was “pop”. Some places split the difference and call it “soda pop”. Would anyone really want to make a value judgment as to who’s right?

  53. Charivari Rob says:

    The notion that LGA is NYC’s primary airport is arguable, but yes, it does suffer in comparison to the others for Transit access.
    …and yeah, that Robert Moses was a pip.

  54. Charivari Rob says:

    In fairness, I should have added that an Airtrain link to subway and commuter railroad is in the planning pipeline (though I have no idea how long that might take)

  55. Charivari Rob says:

    Interestingly, LGA was NYC’s home to seaplanes. The old clippers flew in and out using the still-standing, still-used Marine Air Terminal.

  56. cbmiamiensis says:

    53 year old NY-Miami Sicilian-American/Barese-American. Priest, one-time professional restaurant critic and home/rectory cook. Growing up we called the “sauce” sugo or gravy when referring to tomato sauce with meat and especially bones (pig feet, ribs, etc.). I’m fully aware that lots of people think of brown stuff on Thanksgiving when they hear “gravy” and others think reddish purple fruit stuff on Thanksgiving when they hear “sauce. I don’t get too hot and bothered about what people call the red stuff with meat but when I make it, no matter what day, I just say, “I’m making Sunday gravy, you know, tomato sauce with meatballs and ribs, want to come over?”. Most people say yes.
    As for Italian-American food…get over your Italianate selves, good food is good food, if something is well made with quality ingredients than it’s good. Not everything made in Italy is perfect just because it’s Italian. I happen to like well made Italian-American food (yes, that’s a real thing) and also well made regional Italian food. Sometimes the two countries mutually enrich one another in the kitchen too!

  57. hilltop says:

    This is a great discussion and two negronis tipped to Fatha Z for prompting this discussion. GREAT reading!

  58. Gerard Plourde says:

    Dear cbmiamiensis,

    I heartily agree. Quality ingredients prepared by a good chef is good food.

  59. The Masked Chicken says:

    Comparing the proper use of the terms, gravy and sauce, is a little like comparing the TLM and the NO Mass – both are valid, but one is more authentic than the other (I’m not taking sides in the gravy/sauce debate). Priests should learn to cook both, so there can be mutual enrichment between the recipes.

    The Chicken (no, I don’t go well with sauce or gravy :) )

  60. Giacomo Capoverdi says:

    Ok. Let me settle this debate. My credentials are that my ancestry is 100% Italian from Southern Italy. The reason why the proper way to call what is put on pasta is, “Gravy,” and not “sauce” Is for the following reason. What Italians would traditionally make on Sunday is called a, “Gravy,” because it’s made with meat drippings. Like all sauces one makes, a sauce is made without meat. To start the, “Gravy,” You put olive oil in the bottom of the pot, some garlic (take out the garlic before it burns) then you fry meats in the bottom of the pot like pork and other meats. After theses meats have browned, then you throw the cans of tomato puree or crashed tomatoes into the pot and let it simmer. Then in a separate frying pan you fry up meatballs and sausage and throw them in the gravy and let all these meats simmer, allowing the meat dripping to cook with the tomatoes. This Sunday Gravy then is MUCH different than what you would put on pizza, for example. That is called a, “sauce,” because it is just made with tomatoes and seasonings. Other sauces are made with clams or with just basil and garlic. So just like “brown gravy” is called, “gravy” because it’s made with the meat drippings, red gravy should be called, “gravy,” because it’s made with meat drippings. So why then do some Italians call a gravy a sauce and not a gravy? Because they have been Americanized. It is easier to say sauce, because their American friends wouldn’t understand what they meant if they called it gravy. Some people just want to fit in and call it what their American friends call it, sauce. But I have found that the Italians who call it sauce now, had grandparents when they were younger, who came from Italy, who called it gravy. Although I love America, I will never change what I call what I put on pasta that may be incorrect, but easier for my, “metigon,” American friends, to understand. I would rather be accurate and take the time to educate and explain why it is correct to call it gravy than be inaccurate and call it a sauce, when that’s not what it is by definition.

  61. OntologicallySpeaking says:

    OH boy, here we go again. As a Sicilian-American, I am amused with all the fuss over this issue. I grew up calling it GRAVY (ragu) if it had a boatload of meat in it; you know, meatballs, bracciola, lamb, sausages, etc. Sauce (salsa) if no meat was in it.

    This argument rears its ugly head where I work with many non-Italian, Boston Irish who INSIST, that I am wrong. Whoddathunk?? Anyway, Buon Natatle (not happy holidays, ugh!) and buon appetito!!

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