Ahh, the age-old debate among connoisseurs of Italian cuisine. Is it called Sauce? Is it called gravy? Is it a Ragú?
Yes is the answer. You can research this topic all day long and find that Italian-Americans connote “gravy” to mean a sauce with meat in it. But Italian chefs will tell you that is what’s called a Ragú. Linguistically speaking “sauce” is probably a more accurate term, as it comes from the Italian word “salsa” – which means “topping”.
Some Italians will tell you that “gravy” was a term that their grandmother used for Sunday sauce because it is what they served at big family gatherings after mass. If someone said, “where’s the gravy?” they were looking for the sauce or topping. Some hot-headed, Italian-Americans that are multiple generations detatched from their heritage will tell you prolifically that gravey is a brown substance they put over their meat and potatoes and you’re a f*****g idiot if you think it’s anything else.
The passage from sugo/salsa to sauce/gravy must have occurred when immigrant families settled into new neighborhoods in the U.S. and became an Italian-American family/neighborhood tradition more than anything else.
Geography has probably played a large role in the debate about where the term gravy came from. Early immigrants eager to assimilate to their American counterparts may have adopted the term gravy on the East Coast – we’ve all heard the term Brooklyn Gravy.
My Own Experience
I have to tell you that this argument can be heated. I’ve personally written recipes or put videos on Youtube talking about sauce as “gravy” and I’ve had people comment on them and use foul language and call me an idiot for doing so. They are of course no more Italian born than I am, so I guess they are the expert behind the keyboard. Over the years, I’ve read many forums of people spewing hate, trying to convince people that one way or the other is right. I’ve come across people from New Orleans saying “hey, we have a long Italian heritage in the Quarter here and Italians call sauce gravy – at home and at restaurants”.
I have a book written by Elodia Rigante, who was born in 1916. She was first born here in American her mother was an immigrant who opened a restaurant and Italian delicatessen in New York and operated them for over 40 years. Her mother called sauce gravy and she states that she never knew why, but that’s what the Italians called it. I suppose a non-English speaking immigrant cooking her whole life does not know what she might call her family recipes…
I’ve seen testimonials of people having gone to Italy with the “Mozzarel’s” and “Manicot’s” that many accuse them of being stupid with, and the older locals would ask them to speak to their relatives because they had not heard that use of the dialect in generations. These are the people that use the term “gravy”. So it’s my assumption that some of the assimilations into the East Coast of the United States in the early 1900’s were actually the English equivalent of what the Italian cook may have called it. And in any event… the Italians would not be using the word “gravy” or “sauce”, they would be describing their own cooking in their language. Most people today think of a meat-based sauce as a Ragú.
What do they call it Italia?
In Italy, there are sugo and salsa. Sugo derives from succo (juices) and refers to pan drippings that come from cooking meat or from a rich meat-based sauce, such as, sugo alla Bolognese and thick vegetable sauces (which often go over pasta). A salsa is a semi-liquid raw or cooked sauce that’s used as a condiment. It can go over pasta or used to season other dishes, for example, pesto alla genovese or salsa verde that is served over boiled meats or potatoes. If a sauce is especially delicate, it may be called “salsina.” The passage from sugo/salsa to sauce/gravy must have occurred when immigrant families settled into new neighborhoods in the U.S. and became an Italian-American family/neighborhood tradition more than anything else.
This is really a case of Old World meets the New World. Some immigrants may have translated the Italian for what they put on their pasta as gravy, while others translated it as a sauce and the translations have been passed down through the generations. It is an interesting piece of food history and a debate that will cause blood pressures to rise for generations to come I’m sure.
In the end, there’s no right or wrong answer. If you’re America and calling it sauce, you’re as un-Italian as the person referring to it as gravy.