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Authentically Italian American: Where Do Our Favorite Sauces Originate?

Learn about the origins and popularity of these popular Italian pasta sauces

Italian immigrants arrived in America with bountiful, high-quality ingredients suddenly available to them. With these ingredients, they created many new dishes unheard of in Italy. Today, Americans want authentic Italian cuisine. So which sauces originate in Italy, and which were invented in America?

Here’s a primer for your favorite sauces: 


Italian Americans often say gravy, a translation of the word ragù, for tomato sauce. But not everyone says gravy! The Italian words salsa, sagu, or sugo translates simply to the sauce and can mean either a vegetarian ragù or stewed fruit. Sometimes gravy refers only to Sunday sauce containing meat like veal shanks, sausages, and meatballs to differentiate it from the tomato sauce served during the week. Most immigrants spoke in a dialect rather than standard Italian when they arrived in America, and the phrases were translated differently depending on the local community. 


In Bologna, traditional Bolognese sauce is served with tagliatelle rather than spaghetti, but American restaurants hoping to appeal to customers outside of the immigrant communities served spaghetti, a more common shape in America. Early on, the sauce was often listed as Bologneze, with American recipes incorporating more tomatoes, a southern Italian influence. 


Today, fra diavolo sauce is a spicy tomato sauce filled with shellfish like shrimp, crab, and lobster meat, but originally it topped a whole lobster. Lobsters were plentiful in New York restaurants, and Italian Americans competing with the “lobster palaces” likely drew inspiration from the flavors of southern Italy to invent the dish. As the price of lobster increased, the sauce became a condiment for pasta filled with less expensive shellfish. 


A traditional sauce of Rome and surrounding Lazio, Amatriciana consists of tomatoes, pecorino, pepper, and salted pork. Alla gricia, sometimes known as white Amatriciana, is the same recipe minus tomatoes. The origins of the dishes are either in Rome itself, where bucatini is the preferred pasta, or in towns in the surrounding hills, with the town of Amatrice laying claim to Amatriciana and the town of Grisciano to alla Gricia. The sauces became more popular in America after World War II. 


Many myths attribute this pasta dish – prepared with cheese, pepper, bacon, and eggs – to the American soldiers serving in Italy during World War II. The term Carbonara appears in a Chicago restaurant only after the war, with an Italian chef claiming to have invented the dish for a feast held in honor of the Allied commanders. However, the recipe existed in Italy before the war with pancetta rather than American-style bacon and was known then spaghetti alla Marchigiana – spaghetti in the style of Le Marche. 


Known as the coachman's spaghetti, the easy-to-prepare sauce allowed travelers to prepare it while on the road. However, there is no standard recipe. In Rome, alla Carrettiera refers to a recipe like alla gricia but with the addition of mushrooms and tuna. In Sicily, the ingredients include garlic, cheese, and breadcrumbs. Neither version was widely available in the United States. 


The sauce of the pizzamakers, Pizzaiola sauce was another term for tomato-based, like marinara. Pizzaiola sauce often includes oregano, also known in mid-century America as the "pizza spice.” The sauce was often served over meat, like steak, and frequently was the braising liquid for tougher cuts.


Today, in the United States, marinara sauce typically refers to a thin, slightly sweet sauce topping pizzas or served alongside fried foods. Earlier in the 20th century, it was considered an ingredient used as a base for more complex sauces or topped on spaghetti, and sometimes appeared on menus as "Marinari sauce." However, in Italy, the term marinara can refer to variations with tuna or ingredients similar to puttanesca depending on the region. 


Another term for Neapolitan style ragù translates as the gatekeeper's sauce. The gatekeeper of residential buildings in Naples kept watch over who came and went, and was in an ideal position to stoke the open fire required to slow cook the ragù. 


The myth that this sauce was made from anchovies, black olives, capers, and garlic was invented by prostitutes as a quick and easy meal. The name for the pungent dish was actually invented on the island of Ischia by a group of drunken artists and arrived in the United States later in the 1960s. However, the recipe, if not the name, likely has roots in the coastal cities of Sicily, especially around Siracusa where a similar sauce includes eggplant. 


Cream and vodka augment the flavors in this tomato-based sauce. The dish usually includes salted pork like bacon or pancetta and spicy red pepper flakes. Chef Armando Mei created the dish in the 1960s in Manhattan before exporting it back to Italy in the 1970s. Vodka sauce had become a popular late-night dish to serve at the discotheques around Bologna. A similar dish created by Luigi Franzese was known as Penne alla Russia. 


The dish of tomatoes, eggplant, onions, and salted ricotta is popular in the city of Catania, Sicily, but only became well known in the United States in the 1980s. The term has been linked to Vincenzo Bellini's opera Norma, but food scholar Oretta Zanini de Vita in Sauces & Shapes: Pasta the Italian Way suggests otherwise. Zanini de Vita believes the name comes from an Italian dialect translation of the word “marvelous,” used to describe the sauce. 


The sauce is named after the chef and inventor, Alfredo di Lelio, who supercharged a traditional Italian pasta dish known as pasta al burro – butter pasta – and enriched it with extra cheese and more butter. The Roman restauranteur wanted to nurse his wife back to health after a difficult childbirth. His fettuccine noodles contained extra egg yolks and then he added extra butter and cheese. The original recipe has no cream and only finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. Di Lelio served the dish personally tableside. It arrived in America in the 1920s courtesy of the movie stars Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, who ate at the restaurant during their honeymoon. 


Spaghetti alla Caruso was named for the Italian opera singer Enrico Caruso. He spent almost two decades singing opera in New York, and his fame among opera fans encouraged many non-Italians to patronize Italian restaurants. He kept standing reservations at Del Pezzo in Manhattan where the dish was invented. Many fans dined at the restaurant hoping to glimpse the famous Caruso and the owners of the restaurant named the dish in his honor. Spaghetti Caruso was widely available at Italian American restaurants through the 1960s, but since then has faded from popularity. 

Ian MacAllen

Ian MacAllen is the author of Red Sauce: How Italian Food Became American. He is a writer, editor, and graphic designer living in Brooklyn. Connect with him at IanMacAllen.com or on Twitter @IanMacAllen. 


Ian MacAllen is the author of Red Sauce: How Italian Food Became American. He is a writer, editor, and graphic designer living in Brooklyn. Connect with him at IanMacAllen.com or on Twitter @IanMacAllen.