Central and Upstate N.Y. Italian Sauce and Gravy Debate

Sunday, February 21, 2016
There is always a debate on what this delicious stuff on top of pasta is called sauce or gravy?

Is there a right and wrong?

People will argue for hours to project their upbringing and hometown nicknames or love for this fabulous topping for macaroni.

Growing up in the East Utica area of the U.S., our family always made sauce from real tomatoes, not canned sauce which it states on the can itself as tomato sauce,

Tomato or Crushed Tomatoes, whole tomatoes, tomato paste, we all make ours differently from Region to Region of Italy, it's no wonder many names hit the US to make the sauce, and gravy to become such a debate.

But is there a difference between the two names, sauce or gravy?

There is no difference at all except for the family history in the area you grew up in from the hundreds of interviews I discovered.

The sauce is primarily just that, the topping on pasta, and gravy came from traditions passed on by different parts of the country as well.

Still today, it will be one of the most heated debates on food, no matter where you live, it's called one or the other.

Honestly, just ladle it on my pasta, it's all good to me and whatever you do, don't be late for the dinner table!

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

Tomatoes Make The Best Topping for PASTA!

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. The sauce was all we ever knew it to be called.

She said in Italy it was called sugo. It was tomato sauce with meat it was never looked back or thought about it again, till now because in different States and cooking additions such as meat, many knew it to be gravy when meat was added to the tomato sauce.

I for one love a thick easy Italian meat sauce and my Grandmother from Rome, who spoke broken English said gravy is brown and not red..

So is there a right or wrong, nope I would sit at anyone's dinner table and not bring up what seems to turn into a debate most like a "political" discussion, and I am thrilled to eat any dish of pasta with this fabulous red topping!

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 over the dinner table and you will for sure start a heated argument.

Why do some call whats on top of their macaroni, and 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 very different sometimes and by family history they are both correct and how they were taught with the love of food by family.

So What's This Debate All About IS it Nonsense?

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." if you're a Soprano TV series fan, New Jersians call it Gravy according to Tony Soprano.

A section of Long Island was 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 Sauce or Gravy?

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 areas. 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 because of a family bond for the passion for food.

It really doesn't matter as long as the finished product brings joy to your tables and "family" is all that matters in the end as the closeness that your foods and recipe bring to all.

Our family who was from Bari and Rome, Italy call it sauce, period there was never a discussion brought up because no one was arguing over their beliefs.

We also never use onions in our sauce. Italian Americans make it all kinds of ways and no oregano in sauce only pizza, the list of differences can go on indefinitely!

There is no oregano in sauce only on pizza in Italy, here in America some of us love oregano and I love it on everything and anything I cook.

Here's what I think. Make it how you like it and who taught you traditions really that is the end of any discussion.

If you love those things even though it's not the original it's your original. Carry on your family traditions and history it's the love of cooking and family and nothing will break those bonds from the heart.

Meatballs in Italian Sauce in a slow cooker to keep warm

Traditions from Region to Region and State to State

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 not 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 who called the pot you see below as gravy-only sauce.

Interviews Who is Correct on Gravy Sauce Debate

I kept interviewing different folks from Italy, bloggers, readers, 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) and so many other terms.

Wondering now if it's just an Italian-American term. But then I found some post-WW 2 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 and many original-born Italian readers said it's tomato sauce in Italy and Americans changed it even some of their ancestors when they moved to America.

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

This Sauce/Gravy Interviews Varied in Opinions

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, that many would argue they were more Italian than you were.

The 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 by others.

Italians from Italy said chicken is never served on a plate of sauce and a separate dish for them so Chicken Parmesan is a totally American food.

The differences in cultures, traditions, rules, thoughts, and processes of cooking are all amazingly different but the end result is all that matters as to how you prefer to name it, eat it and what's in it.

Does it really matter what you call it Sauce of Gravy?

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, there are plenty of folks that will argue the point! Mangia! Enjoy!

It 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

For the Love of Food Let's Be Thankful.

Well, there isn't any. Or, really, the answer is, that it’s okay to use both phrases.

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

And whatever you call it, let's eat! Mangia, and have a love for Italian foods in America and around the world! Ciao for now.

Sauce and Italian Recipes to Try

Italian Meatballs
Homemade Sausage
Calamari Sauce
Bolognese Sauce
Puttanesca Sauce
Marinara Sauce