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Is It Sauce or Gravy?

It’s the heated debate circulating Italian America that never seems to reach a clear verdict: Is it sauce, or is it gravy? While the reasoning for the tiff of titles may be unclear, what each of us knows for sure is which side we're on—and we will let you know!

It’s Sunday morning and you’ve awoken to the fragrant aroma of tomato, basil, and garlic bubbling away on the stove as your mom or nonna have just thrown together a pot of homemade…sauce? Gravy? Many Italian Americans believe that the way you choose to fill in that blank says everything they need to know about the kind of Italian you are. And though we’re not here to judge, we are here to discuss this never-ending deliberation.

The History

In the year 1902, the term gravy was used by an Italian woman in an article for a New York newspaper and many believe this is where the word was first brought to light. Whereas the first written record of tomato sauce can be found in the Italian cookbook Lo Scalco alla Moderna dating back to 1692, with a second volume in 1694. Similarly, a cookbook from 1790 entitled L’Apicio Moderno by Roman chef Francesco Leonardi was the first cookbook where the use of tomato sauce with pasta was documented. So let’s dig into where these terms potentially originated… 

The Italian word for sauce is sugo—a direct translation—and hence why most believe this is definitively the correct terminology. Sauce is the broad term for what accompanies pasta, whether it’s a simple tomato sauce or a white clam sauce, this is the most recognizable verbiage. Whereas gravy is said to have originated many years ago when Italians were immigrating to America by the masses and had a desire, and arguably a necessity, to assimilate to American culture. It’s speculated that they noticed these thick gravies being poured over foods and instead of further polarizing themselves from their new environment by using the word sauce, they clung to the word gravy as a way to fit in.

State Your Case

The argument against gravy lies in the fact that nowadays, gravy is the name used for the brown stuff you douse your Thanksgiving turkey and mashed potatoes in, or perhaps a cut of meat like roast beef. The defense continues when sauce connoisseurs adamantly state that gravy belongs on meat—not pasta—but to rebut, gravy enthusiasts affirm that “meat sauce” would, in fact, suffice, thus allowing the name gravy to stand. However, true Italian foodies know that “meat sauce” isn’t the chopped meat and tomato sauce we see mixed into pastas in America. 

This dish has a real name and that’s Bolognese, native to the region of Bologna, and composed of a combination of various ground meats, finely chopped mirepoix, a small addition of tomato paste, and a select few other ingredients for flavor. Thus, the “meat sauce” argument has no real leg, or plated dish, to stand on due to the fact that it’s not actually composed of just tomatoes and meat as Americans have dissolved it into. 

What It Boils Down To

Despite the delicate information that’s been presented, it must be revealed that the deciding factor for which name to claim is actually based on what one’s parents, grandparents, or family members alike have called it for generations. It’s often that simple. So today as you stake your claim on the side that resonates more for you, it may just be that your sauce vs. gravy destiny was written many moons ago.

Even at America Domani, our team is at odds with this controversial topic as team sauce comes in at 86% just about sweeping the 14% standing firm on gravy. (With a shameless plug that I am definitely a part of that 86%.) Nevertheless, we still find a way to work collaboratively and set our differences aside… (Until it’s time for Sunday dinner!)

So, as for that delicious ‘stuff’ that’s poured over pasta, we may never know what the correct term should truly be, but what we can all agree on is the indelible mark it has made on dinner tables, families, and memories alike! We’d love to know, which side are you on?

Sarah Talarico

Sarah Talarico is a writer at heart, with a deep passion for all things Italian. Much of her writing inspiration comes from her Italian American roots that trace back to her father’s beloved hometown in Calabria. Southern Italy holds a special place in her heart, right next to homemade sauce and cappuccini. Sarah has a Bachelor’s in Creative Writing and English and a desire to use her writing skills to share the timeless charm of Italy and that ‘dolce far niente’ feeling. In her downtime, she finds joy in filling the plates and seats at her dining room table.