Gravy vs Sauce

Gravy vs sauce. Sauce vs gravy. What’s the difference in an Italian kitchen?

Well, I’ve been married into an Italian-American family for more than three decades. No one ever called pasta or tomato sauce gravy. My mother in law may have referred to all pasta as “macs” but that was the only vernacular variation I’d ever heard about Italian food.

In fact, it wasn’t until watching “The Sopranos” that I first became aware of these two, shall we say, competing terms. So, where did that gravy come from? Which kind of Italian families refer to sauce that way?

And is it a regional thing, like pork roll and Taylor ham in New Jersey? FYI, both pork roll and Taylor ham are the same thing — a processed pork product. However, depending on where you live in the Garden State determines what you call this sandwich staple.

Fun sidebar: some New Jersey cooks put pork roll in their Italian meatballs. Ah, yes, but do they serve those meatballs with gravy or sauce? We’ll, we’ve come full circle.

A spoon full of tomato sauce on a white wooden background with space for text. Ingredient Tomato Sauce for Cooking
Photo credit: Adobe Photos.

Origin of gravy vs sauce

One article I read on the sauce vs gravy debate suggested this: when Italians first immigrated to the United States, they faced tremendous discrimination. Some theorize that they decided to start calling their tomato sauce gravy as a way to assimilate or not stand out.

Perhaps that’s how that Sunday sauce that Italian families would simmer all day began to be known as Sunday gravy or grandma’s Sunday gravy. You were going to your grandparents for Sunday dinner, no matter what, so the sauce or gravy or grandma’s secret recipe all got wrapped up in one.

Or, in the case of my husband’s secret sauce, it was actually his grandfather’s recipe. I love that so many men, including my husband, in his family did the cooking.

Which regions call sauce gravy?

Based on my unscientific research, I can tell you that the fictional characters from northern New Jersey in “The Sopranos” definitely called it gravy. Turns out so do some Italian families living (fairly) closeby. I’m told that those from The Bronx in New York City may use this moniker, too.

Other places where you might hear someone say gravy sauce or even red gravy includes:

  • East Boston
  • South Philadelphia
  • Chicago

Now in one of my favorite movies involving Italian food, “Goodfellas,” Ray Liotta’s character implores the folks in the kitchen to stir the sauce (not gravy) so that the sauce doesn’t stick. Those characters are all based in either Queens or Brooklyn, New York, or on Long Island.

vintage 1920s map with a red pushpin, selective focus
Photo credit: Leah Ingram.

What my Italian-American friends say about gravy vs sauce

Finally, I put this question out on Facebook in hopes that my friends of Italian descent would respond. Boy, did they. A dozen friends of Italian descent answered my query about gravy vs sauce. Here’s what they told me.

One friend had grandparents who were all from Southern Italy, including Calabria. Part of her family was from Sicily as well. When they came to the States, they lived in New York City (Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn). How did they refer to the red stuff? As sauce.

Another friend also had family members that came from Calabria, plus parts of Northern Italy, and settled in Brooklyn. Same with her husband. However, they referred to all sauce as gravy. She did concede that her in-laws were a little less on “Team Gravy,” unless you were talking about a meat sauce. Then it was OK to call it gravy.

Both of these friends mentioned above had grandparents who were born in Italy. What about when your own parents are Italian immigrants? You don’t even use English words at all to say sauce versus gravy. I’m describing a friend who was raised in Boston and, when referring to what was simmering on the cooktop, she called it “Sugu.” “Which, I suppose, is Italian for gravy,” she added.

Still other friends, who were raised north of New York City, with Italian grandparents, always said they were cooking sauce but might say they were having gravy with their pasta.

I guess we’ll never know which is the actual right term for a red sauce. What say you?

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