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Is it Sauce or Gravy? Why Italians Argue About The Term.

 

Italian-Americans are pretty split (and heavily opinionated) about whether their delicious Italian Sunday sugo is called “Sauce” or “Gravy.”

As owner and content creator for Hardcore Italians for over 10+ years, I have seen this argument pop-up countless times. Opinions are always very one-sided and harsh. Nobody seems to care about where the term originated. In fact, if you even clicked opened this article instead of posted your opinion in the comments, you are one in a hundred!

Literally listening to the rationale of hundreds of thousands of Italians over the years, I’ve come to, oddly, understand both sides of the story (I know, pretty crazy).

So… Where did the term come from? Should I call it Sauce or Gravy? Tell us already!

Where the term came about
Although the term “Gravy” doesn’t exist in Italy, it WAS in fact invented by Italians from Italy. When Italians immigrated to the United States, they tried to assimilate to American culture. Although they wanted to keep their traditions and heritage, they desired to become accepted in the new country. For most Italians, this meant learning English!

During the Americanization process, there was a confusion with the word “Ragu” (A.K.A. Meat Sauce). If you translate “Sugo” to English you get “Sauce” but when you translate “Ragú” to English you get “Ragout.” Ragout is a French-styled stew. Uh, oh!

I’m not sure about you, but if I was new in America trying to fit in… I certainly wouldn’t invite people over for ragout!

This lead to a difference in opinion. Some Italians choose to call it “Meat Sauce” while some decided to call it “Gravy.”

Why gravy? Americans were already using it to describe sauce containing meat. That is actually how it is termed in the definition. Understandable at the time to choose the word, since there weren’t many resources or speech pathologists on hand!

It is rumored that only certain areas started calling it “Gravy.” For example, many people will comment that it’s a ‘Jersey thing.’ However, I’ve heard people from all over the United States use it. This makes it very hard to pinpoint the exact origin.

Where ever it may have caught on… Little did they know the aftermath of their choices would disrupt the Italian-American community for all of eternity!

 

What should I call it?
Now that you know where it came from, it’s time to pick a side! (maybe AFTER you in some body armor…)

Well, all of America will recognize the term “Sauce” with no problems. Many believe that because of this, “Gravy” should not even be an option. The other opinion is that it’s actually kind of cool to have a term unique to Italian-Americans.

There is really no right or wrong answer. It’s a matter of preference.

 

My opinion
I would suggest to call it by whatever you grew up saying.

It’s easy to argue because both sides have great points for and against them. However, if you look below the surface, there is a deeper reason why people are so defensive on the topic.

It ultimately comes down to an appreciation and respect of our Italian ancestors. If your grandfather sacrificed everything to come to America and called it Sauce/Gravy, and somebody says that’s wrong… It can definitely be aggravating. 

We should be able to joke about the situation in a friendly way, but the argument should try to remain under control. It is a little disheartening to see others get called “Fake Italian” or “Stupid” for their preference. I have unfortunately seen this too many times.

I’m dedicated to the mission of the page, which is to make Italians feel more connected (and to celebrate) their life’s story and background. It’s a shame, really!

 

What do you think?
We are interested in hearing your comments! What do you call it? How did your family pick a side? Do you have a different opinion than me? Let us know!

 

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Sources

68 comments

  1. I think of gravy as a smooth topping made specifically from meat drippings, with a thickening agent like flour, whisked into velvet. Even if I use meat in my tomato sauce, I don’t add a thickener, and I cook it slow to a nice thick, rich texture and flavor or I bang it all into a hot pan and get a fresh, lively chunkier version..

    1. This is an awesome and thorough description. Thank you for your thoroughness. I don’t remember Grandmom, from Campagna calling it either. She made it twice a week with chicken, meatballs and sausage. All three! Funny I remember grandpop calling it “gravy”. He also called the white stuff “macaronsies”…..lol.

      Ken from Norristown, PA

    2. nonsense, sauce was called gravy as a ethnic put-down by the Irish in NYC circa 1900’s. Over the last 50 years I have often asked Italians the word for gravy in Italian. There is none. Stop using it for sauce! be true to your roots.

  2. Yes sauce!! My parents are from Italy and in Italian they call it Ragu (pronounced ra-yuu) , meaning sauce… gravy goes on roast beef. But I’m from the Boston area, and alot of other people call it gravy. I noticed the more americanized Italians say gravy.

    1. I grew up saying Gravy, My Grandparents on both sides cane from Italy, they called it Gravy, so it’s gravy for me. I’m 77 years old and there’s no way I’ll say sauce at this point, either way it’s all delicious

      1. same with me ,my Grandparents came to America from Italy, and I grew up hearing them and my Mother and aunt refer to it as gravy. but, as you say, either way it is delicious

    2. The true word is SAUCE. “Gravy ” is strictly Northeastern United States, Jersey, New York, etc. How many jars of spaghetti sauce have you seen, “Spaghetti Gravy,” “Redpack Tomato Gravy”, “Spaghetti with meat gravy”, “Bolognese Gravy”, “Hunts Tomato Gravy”. Do you prefer your pasta with “white or red gravy?”My parents emigrated in 1920, no gravy was ever used in our Italian American household. When my brother married my sister-in-law from the BRONX, that’s when the —– hit the fan. BTW, I made reservations for my family for dinner at “It’s All Gravy”, Italian Restaurant in Nag’s Head, NC. Of course the owner is from Jersey !! Lots of fun. Enjoying life at 90 years of age.

      1. Anne, my grandparents came over in 1910 and my they called it GRAVY as did all the other Italian families that settled in the Mississippi Delta…….long way from the NE US

  3. I call It Sauce, But I Am Sure other members of my Family Call It Gravy, I agree with Susanne; Gravy goes on Roast Beef And Biscuits. I Think The Truth is With the Facts, ie
    There is No Tomato Gravy and There Is no Meat Gravy its Tomato sauce @ Meat Sauce and The Dictionary Says; Gravy.. A Sauce etc.

    1. Cara Francis, my Papa was from Molfetta in Puglia. In English he called it “Gravy”. In Italian he jokingly called it something else he refused to translate. It sounded like “Capra da cots”…

      1. That is something my grandfather from Avellino said. Its a slang term I believe about testicles haha

    2. Sorry, that’s not true. I was born in Genova, northern Italy. Gravy doesn’t exist in Italy anywhere (also, Italian alphabet doesn’t have the letter “y”). It’s “sugo” (any sauce for pasta, not necessarily tomato-based, or also the liquid left over from cooking meat, or fish, etc.) or it’s called salsa (strictly for pasta and tomato-based), or “ragú” (meat and tomato, plus “soffritto”, note the accent)

  4. I was born in South Philly…, and so we and our relatives from the burbs and South Jersey too, always went with one clear distinction on this matter: IF it had MEAT in it, we called it GRAVY…PERIOD!!! Whereas, if it had NO Meat, OR, had Seafood in it, we then called it SAUCE: Marinara Sauce…Clam Sauce…Crab Sauce…etc…Capisce?!?

    END OF STORY ~

    Grazia!

  5. I call it sauce, and I call it gravy, as well. Either way, it tastes the same, and is delicious.

  6. It’s Sauce not Gravy. Simply Marinara Sauce goes on Pasta Gravy goes on Turkey and or Roast beef. End of discussion,Thankyou!

  7. In our New York Italian family we call Sunday Gravy, Gravy because it has a variety of meats in it and cooked for a few hours. We call regular tomato sauce either sauce or Marinara. Because there is no meat in it. Other success we call by there true name Ie, Spaghetti agile e olio etc.

    1. the point being the ” sauce is not made from the meat that you put in it. It is made from tomatos. If you call this gravy what do you call the red stuff on pizza? Pizza Gravy???Never heard that term its Pizza sauce

  8. i grew up going to grandma’s for sunday macaroni and gravy, regardless of the shape of the pasta, LOL. so that’s what i call it. it’s pays homage to my upbringing and reminds me of the best times of my life: being with the whole family, cousins galore all fitting into my grandparent’s small house and loving our time together over grandma’s amazing gravy. we now live all over the country. when someone comes for a visit, i make them feel at home with a sunday gravy. 🙂

  9. The British have been calling the mixture poured over a a hot meal even if it does not have meat, ‘Gravy’. Well before tomatoes arrived in Europe from South America many hundreds of years ago and along time before Italians went to the Americas. They would never call anything with tomatoes in, a gravy, it would always be called a sauce. That is if all those years ago the British made sauces.

    1. Uh, I don’t think Italians will take cooking lessons from the Brits… that would be like the Spaniards taking corrida lessons from the Swedish 🙂

  10. If you go to Italy and ask for marinara sauce your going to get a sauce made with creatures of the sea marinara, marine. Get it it. Now when you make turkey gravy you make it from the drippings of the turkey when you make beef gravy you make it from the drippings of the beef. Now when you start a tomato sauce with the drippings of meats ah ha you now have red GRAVY does that make any sense to those of you who call it marinara sauce? And both of my parents are from velletri and bari Italy. MA what we havin for dinner? Where having Gravy macaroni meatballs sausage braciole now that’s Gravy

  11. This story is all wet. In 1870 the great gastrognome Pellegrino Artusi, personal chef to King Emmanuel I and Emmanuel II, toured the entire country of Italy collecting recipes from each province. Most Italian dishes we know are made differently in each province. Artusi cataloged this for his “Cook Book” La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiar bene. In that book he cites that “for Pomodoro and Marinara it is call sauce. When it is made with meat it is a gravy.
    At the end of his journey, Artusi took his book to a publisher. The publishers turned him down because “What woman needs a book to cook from”. It took another 20 years to get the book published. La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiar bene can be ordered at Barnes and Noble in the original Italian language or on Ebay, Amazon and other book outlets in English.

    1. Gravy is not an Italian word, we don’t even have the letter “y”, so I’m pretty sure that il signor Artusi did not use that word. As per marinara, the only marinara thing in Italy is pizza, being with just tomato salsa and garlic. No such name for any pasta condiment. Sorry to burst your bubble.

  12. Both sets of my grandparents called it gravy so I will not call it anything else. We called marinara sauce ‘friday gravy’ because it had no meat. Although it is not the accurate name for sugo in English, that was how my grandparents translated it when they came here and it stuck. When I lived in Italy several years ago, I learned that two words with similar meanings can have different interpretations based on context and I would often get corrected. Apparently noone corrected some of our ancestors and the word stuck.

    1. We grew up calling it sauce. My “more-Italian-than-thou” sister in law insists on calling it gravy because it has meat in it. My retort is, “Gravy has flour in it, but that don’t make it bread!”

    2. Same here! It always sounded like the was a c instead of a g, but sugo and sauce were the only terms I ever heard.

  13. I was raised knowing that sauce is just that, saucy juice, without meat. Sugo (gravy) is thick and with meat. I’ll never know it any other way, and I’m more than ok with that. I respect your way, you respect mine, one big happy Italian Fest!

  14. Maybe this will help. Italians use just enough sauce to coat the spaghetti where as Americans cover the spaghetti. Lightly coating is a sauce. Covered completely is a gravy.
    This is where I was told the phrases came to change through the years as the dish was Americanized.

  15. It’s sauce. Uneducated New York Italians called it gravy trying to assimilate in the 1800’s. Later it spread to Chicago, Philly and Jersey as the Italians did. It’s ignorant American Guido Wannabee speak! If you use the term “gravy” you are telling the rest of us you lack education. P.S. Meat Sauce id Meat Sauce. Get over it already!

    1. Get over yourself! Your comment just perpetuates the stereotype that italian Americans are arrogant and full of themselves. I am of Italian hertiage. I have two degrees, one in Linguistics, by the way, and until I the day I die, I will refer to sauce with a variety of meats in it as gravy. Just because it is not a direct translation does not mean it is wrong. It is a mere WORD to decribe the way a dish is prepared. Language evolves, it happens with all languages and all cultures. Even the “Italian” food here has evolved. There are many things Italian Americans eat, or the way that eat, which is either vastly different or unheard of.

  16. OK LET ME EXPLAIN, IT’S CALLED GRAVY ONLY IF IT HAS MEAT IN IT!!!! IF IT DOSN’T HAVE MEAT THEN IT IS SAUCE! GOT IT? SAUCE DOES NOT HAVE TO COOK FOR HOURS, GRAVY HAS TOO.

    1. All caps don’t make you right, sorry. Gravy is not an Italian word. Salsa, sugo, ragú are. Got it, as you say? And ragú (the one with ground meat) need to cook 2/2.5 hours, not all day as they do here. That’s a good way to destroy all the nutrients in the ingredients.

  17. I grew up in the New Orleans are where many Italian immigrants made their American homes. My grandfather immigrated from Sicily. I don’t recall what he called it but all his children (my Dad & his five sisters) called it red gravy. Some versions had meat in it, some other red gravies were meatless. One aunt would put hard boiled eggs in it. I choose red gravy term out of habit.

  18. I grew up in Staten Island. My family always called it gravy but then I moved to Florida and gravy is brown and goes on turkey. Needless to say I grew, I learned and now I call it sauce. Funny cause I’m still 100% HARDCORE Italian either way and I make everything from rainbow cookies, pignoli cookies, rice balls, panelle, and pasta Sunday is still a tradition!

  19. I grew up calling it sauce, but as I got older and developed my own recipe, and learned more about my heritage and grandparents, I started calling it gravy. I think it’s a silly thing to argue about. Just like, “are you Italian or sicilian. ” that has always bothered me

  20. All I can say is I am SO glad that when Italians came to Australia they didn’t feel the need to change things to “assimilate.” They proudly kept their language, their culture, their Italian traditions. Still authentic and true to their culture and traditions today so we don’t have to have stupid arguments like this one. There is not one Italian or descendant of an Italian that would ever call it gravy.

  21. I grew up calling tomato sauce “gravy”. It was the word we used in my family, so that’s the word I use for it when I am with them. I use the standard English ‘tomato sauce’ in all other contexts. It is obvious that the term gravy is not Italian and it doesn’t exist in Italy. The term was born out of a unique immigrant experience of a sizable segment of the Italian American population. It is a fact that large numbers of Italian Americans use this term. So regardless of it’s origin, it is a legitimate term in English because native English speakers use it. Languages are alive- they arise organically and evolve. How many other commonly used terms in English or any language for that matter can trace their origins to a mistake or a misinterpretation? Many, many I am sure. An Italian from Italy will tell you you are wrong because that’s not how ‘they’ say it. I don’t agree because we are not even talking about the same food. Italian American food and even customs, while they are based on aspects from the mother country, are uniquely American and were born out of the realities and limitations of living in North America. They evolved over time and became something unique and separate from what exists in Italy. I will call it gravy, and I will defend my fellow Italian Americans who call it sauce. Don’t let anyone convince you that words you use in your native language are not legitimate.

  22. For the purist ,when you come from Italy to USA you are Italian and the name is sugo salsa e ragù than i you melt and you still are Italian but your sons became Americans and call the sauce gravy , gravy is never a sauce I am an international Italian chef , the main reason when 200 years ago the Italians came to the USA ,almost all came from the south of Italy and they were mostly agricultures you can imagine they didn’t speak Italian because they didn’t go to school they spoke the Italian dialet from the region they were coming from so this people had the audacity not speaking Italian not knowing English to invent a knew word from sauce to gravy and in this country they should fix the dictionary because sauce is never gravy and never will be.

  23. It’s “Gravy”…… sauce is like wine sauce or Holland aide etc…. brown gravy is for meat and mashed potatoes……GRAVY! 🍝🍝🍝🍝

  24. Our family calls it sauce or sugo, not gravy, but we are Italian-Canadian, not Italian-American. From what I’ve read and know, the sauce vs gravy debate in an American phenomenon. Italians in Australia, Britain and Canada don’t call sauce, gravy.

  25. My grandparents called it gravy so we called it gravy. To our friends we called it sauce so they would understand. Once they learned it wasn’t turkey fat on pasta, then gravy. I taught my kids gravy the way my parents taught me and my parents and I are born native Californians this is where my grandparents immigrated to.

  26. When I was a boy my parents (1st gen Americans both of whose parents were from Naples [dad] and Bari [mom]) called meat sauce gravy, largely because my father did. Somewhere along the way my mom stopped calling meat sauce gravy and started calling it meat sauce to differentiate it from marinara sauce. My dad also dropped the word and if it slipped out my mom commented on it. Native Italians tended not to cook either sauce for too long, and both my paternal grandmother and my mom used very little onion for the meat sauce and only garlic (sautéed in olive oil) and basil for marinara. Grandmother put a whole onion in her sauce to flavor it but mostly to take away the acidity of the imported Italian tomatoes available in the 1950s and ’60’s. Mom copied that and all was well even though it was her passion to use only Redpack canned tomatoes (from California) for her sauces.

  27. The confusion lies here. All gravy’s are a type of sauce most commonly made from the juices of meats. Because an Italian “Sunday” sauce is primarily considered a meat sauce/gravy, you have conflicting opinions. However, it’s technically correct to call it either. Where anyone is going wrong by calling a sauce a gravy is when we are talking a marinara, which has no meat. You wouldn’t say a marinara gravy. It gets even more confusing when you think of Bolognese. Typically referred to as a sauce but it wouldn’t be wrong to call it a gravy.
    Bottom line if it has meat it’s ok to say either, but no meat, it’s a sauce. 1st gen ital/amer

  28. I’ve said this on many of Italian sites when this “fight” begins. It was Pellegrino Artusi, the great chef to both King Emmanuel I and Emmanuel II, that said “If it’s made with meat, it’ Gravy and when it’s made plain, with fish or for pizza it’s a sauce.” Please look him up, He wrote the first recipe book in Italy, capturing each dish from all the different provinces of Italy.

  29. Hmm, thanks for that info. My grandparents were right off the boat, and always called it gravy. I guess that answers why they did. So we grew up also calling it gravy. I do remember my pop saying.. if there’s meat in the sauce it’s gravy. No meat it’s sauce.. eg pizza sauce. God I love my Italian heritage!

  30. From what gather the first and second generation italian dont call it gravy. Its usally the 3 rd up generations! Gravy belongs on turkey for me but i dont care what people call it.

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