Upstate NY Italian Sauce or Gravy? Debate

Friday, February 25, 2011

There is always a debate on what this is called. sauce, gravy? Is there a right and wrong?

This is a pin for later meatballs, sauces, sugo simmering in a pot for pasta

collage of meat italian Sunday Sauce with meatballs, sausage and braciole simmering in pots

A am big Sauce fan!

Mom, Dad, Grandma all from Rome Italy and Bari Regions called it sauce. Period.

Grandma came off the boat to Ellis Island and then to Utica New York. Sauce was all we ever knew it to be.

Homemade Gnocchi
with Traditional Sunday Sauce

Gnocchi homemade pasta with Traditional Sauce Italian Tomato Sauce

She said in Italy it was called sugo. Sauce it was never looked back or thought about it again, till now.

I for one love a thick easy Italian meat sauce.

Another favorite is Mom's East End Sauce with sausage.

this is sauce with pork meat, braciole, meatballs and sauce made in a big saucepan on top of the stove called Sunday Sugo in Italian

What's Sauce and Gravy anyway?

The question (and sometimes, the passionate debate) has been brought up to me many times.

Why some call whats on top of their macaroni, pasta "Sauce or Gravy" ?

It goes without saying that they are both basic words in the American vocabulary, but accurately understanding what each word really means can be the very different sometimes.

Marinara plum tomatoes crushed with garlic and simmering in a big pot

So What's This Debate All About?

Depending on what region of Italy your relatives came from (most immigrants from the North never began using the word gravy in any sense once in America). It was always sugo which is sauce in Italian.

Though the term is used in all major cities, the original practice of calling "sauce" gravy started in the Long Island, New York region "Port Washington."

A section of Long Island mostly made up of Italian immigrants at the turn of the century.

Meat Italian sauce with pork ribs, meatballs sausage and braciole

American or Italian?

Though some American Italians did not refer to it as "sauce", only gravy depending again where it started in their family history.

It became a mix of both in many area's. This term of gravy was then carried into New York City and the northern parts of New Jersey.

From there, it migrated into cities such as Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston And Chicago.

It's not a Region in Italy thing or the area you grew up in. The controversy continues to be a constant battle on who is right.

It really doesn't matter as long as the finished product brings joy to the table.

Our family who was from Bari and Rome, Italy call it sauce, period.

We also never use onions in our sauce. Italian American make it all kinds of ways. They called it sauce, sugo. NOT GRAVY ever!

There is no oregano in sauce only on pizza in Italy, here in America some of us love oregano.

Here's what I think. Make it how you like it and who taught you traditions.

If you love those things even though it's not the original it's your original. Carry on your family traditions and history.

Meatballs in Italian Sauce in a slow cooker to keep warm


Many traditions have changed over the years and will continue to change from generation to generation. Reading the history of food in Italy is not the same in America.

Gravy is “unique” to South Philly Italians. By “gravy” it means what most people call “sauce” in my home town Utica New York, it's sauce always sauce and will never be called gravy. Gravy is for Turkey, Beef poured over mashed potatoes.

I started asking around and taking polls. Most everyone that I knew called it gravy, by which they meant specifically the meat sauce that they had on their pasta growing up in South Philly.

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. Here is East Utica New York, I met no one that called the pot you see below as gravy only sauce.

marinara is a quick sauce in a pan with a ladle showing the fresh plum tomato pureed


I kept interviewing different folks from Italy family and American friends from all over. People/ Italians who came to the United States after the war did not call it gravy, they called it sauce (salsa, ragù, sugo).

Wondering now if it's just an Italian-American term. But then I found some post-WWII immigrants who said gravy, and some Italian Americans who only said sauce. So it went back and forth with the debate

I have gotten in several discussions with many reasons why every family may have a different version of whats right and wrong, but our family calls it sauce and in Upstate NY, (Utica/Rome area to be exact where I am from,) they called any topping for macaroni, sauce period.

collage of meat italian Sunday Sauce with meatballs, sausage and braciole simmering in pots

This will go on forever

As a matter of fact some were totally disgusted by the word gravy and would take offense by referring to it as gravy and argue about this for hours.

They would get so passionate about it, many would argue they were more Italian than you are were.

Gravy was something you would have on Thanksgiving with turkey but not on pasta, never, ever, perhaps the following will provide a bit more information on why it was referred to as gravy to begin with by some, but never to others.

They don’t have or use the term “gravy” in Italian. If it's referred to as salsa, 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.

This is a pin for later meatballs, sauces, sugo simmering in a pot for pasta

Does it really matter?

Whatever you want to call it is fine with me. I love it.

Sauce, sugo here in our household. I don't think it matters, however they are plenty of folks that will argue the point! Mangia! Enjoy!

Doesn't matter. Italian food is the best food in the world!

So in conclusion, what is the simple right answer, gravy or sauce? The debate will never end.

Meatballs, sauce in a black pot simmering

No really good answer, it's a family thing.

Well, there isn't any . Or, really, the answer is, it’s okay to use both phrases. Again, our family within two regions (Rome Italy and Bari) call our sauce, "Sauce". No one in Italy I have interviewed called the pot of tomatoes anything but sugo, which is sauce in Italian.

If you are still not convinced and still want to call your tomato sauce, gravy, that’s perfectly fine with me, it's who you are right?

As long as your preparing it with love and care just like your mama, grandmom, and great-grandmother, aunt whomever your back round originated did, you can’t go wrong.

And whatever you call it, let's eat! Mangia, Ciao

Traditional Sunday Sauce from Utica New York

Sunday sauce with meatballs in a black crockpot or slow cooker

Check out some of these pasta recipes:


  1. I'm Italian & I call it sauce too lol. To me gravy sounds like gravy you would put on a turkey or mashed potatoes, not something you would add on pasta. I guess every Italian is different in terms of whether to call it sauce and/or gravy.

  2. It looks like a perfect sauce to me :)

  3. Growing up in the midewest, it's always been sauce. What an educational post, Claudia...I'd never heard it called gravy till the Internet entered my life! Happy Friday, my friend~

  4. My family always called it sauce. I love learning about how customs get started! I'm researching St. Joseph Day doughnuts. What do you know about them, Claudia? Are they part of your tradition?

  5. How confusing...I grew up (in Chicago) hearing both gravy and sauce. Both my mom's parents came from Sciliy and they called it gravy. Both my dad's parents came from Naples and they called it sauce. Being a student of Italian culture and cusine, I call it sauce. Let's confuse it more by just calling it Sugo :-)

  6. Fun information! What ever you call it, it looks delicious!

  7. Well I'm glad that's settled Claudia. Either way, its all good!

  8. Claudia, I guess it depends on where you are from, but I think many of the traditional home cooks would call it a gravy. I did just see one of Anthony Bourdain's "No Reservations" and he toured NYC, the local Italian deli places called it the tomato sauce on meatballs a "gravy". I always call my tomato based sauces a "sauce".

    In the culinary training, I was always told that a "gravy" was made from the drippings and juices from roasted meats, and that a sauce was made from stocks and broths. Just my 2 cents!

    Bon appetit!

  9. What fun! It's always been sauce in my home. And Grandma who indeed did come over from the "old country" said "suace." Gravy was for meat. I lived in Port Washington for awhile - had no idea there were early Italian settlers! But how I love that town.

  10. We call it sauce too! It sounds like sawce with our NY accents! My great grandpa was from Bari too!

  11. Claudia, this is a discussion I've had with my Italian friends in the past. Some of them call it gravy, while some say sauce. I'm glad to finally understand the difference (at least in theory) is the addition or absence of meat. Thanks for clearing this up!! I personally call it sauce, but I'm not Italian either, haha.

  12. My family was from the Boston Italian areas. To me it's a sauce. BTW, a gravy is defined as being made from meat drippings. I'm thinking that's not the same thing as making a sauce that has meat in it.

  13. I call it sauce usually :) But, here in Croatia people also have different words for same thing :) Sometimes even five or six words..

  14. My family has always called it sauce, I always get a little bit annoyed when I hear people call it gravy, lol, even though it's not a big deal. :)

    Principessa Gabriella

  15. My family, being of Italian decent, has always called it sauce. I think it's called gravy when it's made from the meat drippings.

  16. Agreeing with Cajun Chef Ryan we have always known gravies as made from pan drippings of meats and sauces from broths, vegetables etc. In any event, if the dish is Italian, we are firmly in the sauce camp.

  17. Very interesting read...hope you have a great weekend :)

  18. I'm originally from Long Island - most of my family was from brooklyn and/or queens- and (as an adult) I actually lived in Port Washington for a few years. My family is from Sicily on my mother's side, Naples on my father's side- my mom's side of the family did just about all of the cooking. To my mom, and my maternal grandmother, it was always gravy - for my entire childhood I ONLY knew it as gravy. To my mo's side of the family, all pasta was macaroni. Mom's "gravy" always had meatballs, sausage, and sometimes a good bracciole or even rolled pork skins.

    As I moved into adulthood, and really began cooking on my own, I somehow started calling it tomato sauce - even when I used meat. I don't really know why. I use the term pasta in general, and usually say spaghetti, linguini, rotini, cavatelli, etc.. when talking about a specific shape of pasta. Again, I'm not really sure why. All the old school first generation Italians in my family (all southern Italy which is probably the common thread) were the same way. My generation seemed to have started to diverge from that tradition, even when I make basically the same "gravy" - maybe it was to avoid confusion in a wider more connected world, I can't really put a finger on it, but that's my story.

  19. Claudia, I loved reading about the continual debate regarding the terms 'sauce' versus 'gravy' among Italians and Italian-Americans. Having grown up in the Midwest (Iowa), we always called it 'sauce', even if meat (Bolognese Sauce) was included. I've never heard of a "Bolognese Gravy". So as you said, no matter what you care to call it, if made with love, it's ALL GOOD! Thanks for posting this on Fresh Clean and Pure Friday. . . .it certainly is a recipe that is PURELY ITALIAN! Amore amica, Roz

  20. who cares what's it called... i don't .. really .. it taste good and that's all i need !

  21. Growing up I ate macaroni with gravy. As an adult, it became pasta with sauce. Seriously, it had more to do with whether I was talking food with family and Italian-American friends or people not in either of those groups. It does make more sense that "Sunday gravy" is gravy because of the meat, but in my family we never differentiated.

  22. What a great discussion Claudia. My family is from Northern Italy and use the term sauce. I notice many who use the term gravy claim Sicilian ties. I had a boss, Tony, whose mom was from Sicily. She spoke no English so I don't really know what she called it but I do remember Tony calling it sauce.

    Great post and recipe! Oh and what about Reeni's comment, "sawce". What a riot but so true especially after migrating to Florida.

    Have a great weekend friend.

  23. I've actually never heard a tomato sauce called "gravy" before, so I'm definitely on the "sauce" side of this debate! =)

  24. I would take that as a perfect pasta sauce!

  25. mmmm. I love pasta sauces. Yes, I'm in the sauce camp too... gravy, to me, is meat-based. brown, and what you put on turkey. :)

    Thanks for linking up with Friday Potluck again this week. You're always so supportive of me! :)

  26. I always associated gravy as a brownish sauce for meat based dishes.
    Our Italian sauce is always referred to as 'La Salsa' ;o)

    Have a great weekened,

  27. You can call it whatever you want as long as I can have some. It looks fantastic.

  28. I grew up in Cleveland, and we always called in sauce. Some of our parents' friends from New Jersey and Brooklyn called it gravy. For the life of me, the "gravy" sound always reminded me of the "brown" gravy we used to top meats...go figure, at either rate, can't live without a good sauce!
    Love your braciole, as well!

  29. We love Italian food! Look forward to seeing what kinds of recipes you've got. Found you at eKat's Friday Potluck... I'd like to invite you to come link up your most popular recipe so far at Make a Food-"e"-Friend Monday #2: Most Popular Recipes from the Food Blogosphere
    . Look forward to finding out what that is!

  30. Grew up in Philadelphia; family from Sicily. We always called it gravy. I don't think one word is more right....whatever you want to call it is fine with's all good.

  31. My parent came over in the 60's from the old country! I was born in Queens, NY and moved out to the Island as a child! They always called it SAUCE!

  32. This is absolutely silly. Real simple, Sunday Gravy was reserved mostly for NYers (NY City & Burroughs), Sunday Sugo and Sunday Sauce for Western NY (Buffalo & Surrounding area). My family was All Sicilian and most all neighbors were either Sicilian or Calabrese. Every last family said Sunday Sugo when describing Sunday Meat Sauce...........

  33. Gravy or sauce...I like it anyway you call it!

  34. It's gravy :-) Basically if you grew up in an Italian-american household in the north east united states (New England) then you called it gravy, anywhere else, sauce.

    1. Exactly Tony! Although I grew up in Chicago.. We call it gravy..or to my friends that don't understand.. I call it RED Gravy.. my Nana called it gravy, my great Nana called it gravy..I'm.not changing it :-)


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