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 in which it states on the can itself tomato sauce,

Tomato or Crushed Tomatoes, whole tomatoes, tomato paste, we all make ours different from Region to Region of Italy, it's no wonder many names hit the US to make the sauce, 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 on 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

A fan of Tomatoes!

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.

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 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 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.

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 Americans 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.

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 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!

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

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

Grilled Shrimp with Bowties
Lemon Pepper Bowties
Vermicelli Peas
Herb Orzo
Calamari and Pasta
Chicken and Bowties
Shrimp Parm Vermicelli
Veggie Chicken Ziti pasta

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


  1. It is true that recipes have changed through the years. A good pasta with tomato sauce is a classic though and never seem to change much.
    My favourite is spaghetti al pomodoro with fresh basilico. Che delizia ho gia' fame. Yum!
    Have a great week!

  2. Claudia, love your take on the debate. Even in Alabama, we call it sauce, and we are not Italians. I do believe some recipes do stand the test of time and that is why you will never see much change in the classics.

  3. It was sauce in Queens, New York. Tomato sauce simmered with pork neck bones. Many things changed - the onions, the garlic, the herbs, the pasta - but it always started with pork neck bones. I love how every region, every household really had its own version. But for so many, Sunday remains the traditional pasta day.

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

  5. My Italian grandparents (young adults with 1 child w/ 16 more births on the way) got here in 1890 from Montesano sulla Marcellana. Province of Salerno - Campania. Pittsburgh via Ellis Island

    Pizza = Tomato Pie and topping for pasta is Sauce


Remember to use the search option for a recipe you're looking for and thanks for all your kind words and support. We love our readers all the best Claudia