Saucy squabble: Is it ‘sauce’ or ‘gravy’?

The Brooklyn Paper
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What’s in a name? Would not a sauce by any other name taste as tangy?

That is the question among connoisseurs of Italian cuisine, when it comes to whether you should call your favorite pasta toping “sauce” or “gravy.”

It’s an age-old food fight that’s still simmering today, and not even Italian-American chefs can agree on which to call what — or why. Some say it depends on what color it is. If it is red, it is sauce, according to Anthony Russo, one of the owners of Gargiulo’s in Coney Island.

“I always know it as sauce,” Russo said. “Gravy, I always thought of as brown sauce.”

Others say it depends on what you put in the pot.

“Traditiona­lly, gravy has meat in it,” said Joe Cosenza, who manages the sauce-making operation at Michael’s of Brooklyn in Sheepshead Bay.

But if you take the Italian language as a guide, a sauce with meat in it should be called a “ragu,” not “gravy,” according to one chef.

“Italian-Americans connote ‘gravy’ to mean a sauce with meat in it, but that’s a ragu,” said Pasquino Vitiello, a co-owner of Queen Italian Restaurant in Downtown Brooklyn.

Vitiello said that linguistically, “sauce” is a more accurate term— coming from the Italian word “salsa” — meaning a topping.

So where did the term “gravy” come from and why did so many people jump on the gravy train?

Food writer Concetta DeLuco believes the confusion probably started when newly arrived Italian Americans anxious to assimilate started calling their ragu the same thing other Americans called meat sauces — “gravy.”

The term stuck, and people have been using it ever since, though some will tell you they also call gravy “Sunday sauce” because it is what their grandmothers served at big family gatherings after Sunday Mass.

“I think if somebody said ‘gravy,’ we would say it’s ‘Sunday sauce,’ ” Russo said.

As the debate rages, some prefer not to stir the pot.

“People say ‘Oh, it’s sauce;’ ‘No, it’s gravy’ — call it whatever you want,” said Fred Cacace, co-owner of Michael’s of Brooklyn. Cacace sells authentic Italian toppings under both names.

Reach reporter Max Jaeger at or by calling (718) 260-8303. Follow him on Twitter @MJaeger88.
Updated 10:17 pm, July 9, 2018
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Reasonable discourse from Ocala says:
Before we left for Mass we put on the "gravy".
Formerly of Queens, NY
We always thought calling it sauce was just American.
March 6, 2015, 10:11 am
John from Earth says:

Actually it's the opposite. I've been to Italy many times and never heard anyone refer to sauce as gravy over there. It's a term that was made even more popular because of shows like the Sopranos. But it's inaccurate. Anytime I hear someone say I know it's a person who has never been to Italy and is probably from the east coast of the US.
Aug. 9, 2015, 10:51 am
John from Earth says:
Also as a follow up I grew up next to a 6th generation Italian deli and if you went in there and asked for gravy they would probably give you the brown stuff that is put on mashed potatoes. Real Italians know sauce is not ever called gravy but mobsters movies have made the saying popular. The term is primarily used in NJ and NY. I have friends who come from a long standing Italian family in Chicago and nobody there uses the term either. And if you asked for gravy on your pasta in Italy they would literally not even know what you are asking for. It's a made up movie term that people use because they think it sounds cool.
Aug. 9, 2015, 10:58 am
Karen from Bronx says:
While in Italy in 1978, stopped at a restaurant in Verona , which was actually the lower floor of a families home. I asked for spaghetti. I was brought a bowl of spaghetti with nothing on it. I then requested to be given some sauce for it and a few minutes later to my astonishment the woman brings me a bottle of ketchup ! My grandmother that lived with us was born in Abruzzi Italy did not speak English, however, in our family we called it "Gravy" and it always had a variety of meat in it. I had been told not to ask for that when I went to Italy by a friend. In the end, after a few attempts, another woman appeared with a small bowl of " the red stuff" we are all arguing over !
Aug. 11, 2015, 9:13 pm
stelladelculetto from Earth says:
Yeah, we don't call it gravy -- I don't even know what gravy would be. We don't put that brown stuff on meats and we call what we put on pasta and pizza etc... tomato sauce. That's all it is -- tomato sauce. Simple, like Italian cooking should be.
Aug. 24, 2015, 2:26 pm
Diane Rossanese-Golfman from So. Jersey originally. Richmond,Va. Past 38 years.. says:
I was recently scooled by a close South Philly friend Joe Verna..." sauce is basically Marinara,....GRAVY has meat!! ie. Balls, sausage, pork, chicken. Whatever.." . Enough said!
Sept. 14, 2015, 7:02 pm
Michael from Philadelphia says:
Call it whatever you want. I call it sauce. And all the stubborn people saying "Gravy, enough said" lol.. ok..what do you put on mashed potatoes? Roast Beef? With thanks giving dinner? ? Sauce??? Smh
Sept. 27, 2015, 5:53 pm
Joe La Sasso from South Jersey says:
My grandparents all came from Italy. They all CALLED it gravy. Iooked it up.Gravy is made from the heated juices of heated meat. But any sauce that has meat in it is called GRAVY. MEATBALLS ,PORK, CHICKEN, OR WHATEVER. Check it. Out.
Oct. 16, 2015, 12:59 pm
Annemarie from Edgewater says:
My family is from Bari and Potenza. And I know a few other families (My husbands) that all call it sauce. Never heard of gravy until we made a meat and used the drippings. And either way, we're not speaking Italian when we say sauce or gravy so who cares. In the USA, I guess, some Italians decided to say gravy or sauce depending on how they interpreted it. But its
Nov. 25, 2015, 2:05 am
Annemarie from Edgewater says:
@ Karen from the Bronx.

The reason they gave you ketchup is because you said sauce, an English word. Speak Italian when you're in Italy and maybe you'll get the right thing. And I doubt they were being rude, I bet they were just confused. My grandmother-in-law (figure that one lives in the US and NEVER learned English. If you asked her for "sauce" she might give you ketchup too. But if you asked her for gravy she'd look at you like you had two heads.
Nov. 25, 2015, 2:38 am
Rich from Jersey says:
Gravy is flavored by meat whether it is roast beef, turkey or "gravy meat" Go to the Shop Rite and you will find meat labled " gravy meat", not sauce meat. No meat, ie. marinara, vodka etc. is sauce, case closed!
Dec. 7, 2015, 9:25 am
Stevo from Kenilworth says:
Sauce has no meat , gravy has meat. The end. You font eat roast beef with sauce do you.
Jan. 12, 2016, 6:40 pm
Caterina from NJ says:
I think the article explains it well. Gravy is an Italian American expression, not an Italian one. It was used by those past immigrants trying to assimilate into society, which was not easy for them to do at the time and they did anything they could to seem more American. I have never heard Italians from Italy use gravy and new immigrants do not. They probably do not use sauce either, but as they wrote above, it is more accurate than gravy. Gravy sounds like it accompanies an English, American, or even French dish, etc., derived from the juices of the meat which make it brown. I would think ragu is more an accurate term for sauce with meat in it, but to each his own I guess.
Feb. 4, 2016, 12:38 pm
Roseann Katz from Born & bred in Brooklyn,NY says:
Yeah Yeah whenever this is discussed the end result call it what u like who cares enjoy ur "gravy" or "sauce" however & whatever u like or grew up with & put it to bed! I'm so tired of this SILLY argument!! Too many more important things in life to say the least to argue who's right or wrong it's not about that it's about CALL IT WHAT U LIKE!
Feb. 7, 2016, 11:03 am
Cindia from Camden New Jersey says:
My family came from Sicily and we ALWAYS called it gravy!
Feb. 10, 2016, 7:19 pm
AJ from Bronx says:
In my family, we call the sunday sauce "gravy." It has meat in it and we cook it on Saturday over a low flame to get all those flavors from the meat. Sure theres tomatoe sauce in the gravy,but thats just one ingredient. Theres also spices and meat. Most importantly love. Sauce come in a can (or god forbid, a glass jar.) Wewill make a quick sauce on a weekday after work.
I understand the confusing, my Hispanic friends looked at me like i was crazy when I said I need to make a gravy for my pasta.
But in fairness, growing up, my family only ever had brown gravy, or broen sauce on thanksgiving. We but tomato sauce on our meatloafs.
March 3, 2016, 12:58 pm
GIA from Cobble Hill and Park Slope, Brooklyn says:
We NEVER said "gravy" and I never heard the term "gravy" until I was much older and it became grounds for a silly argument. I am a second generation Italian American and all my Aunts and Uncles called it "Sauce" regardless if it had meat in it or not. Sometimes it was just marinara w/out meat but it was always referred to as Sauce on Sundays and Weds. Sundays were characteristically special when you had the relatives over and there was plenty of meatballs and sausage and lets not forget the cheese!! In our house it was always ROMANO on the table. Left overs were eaten on Weds and the meat was either gone or a bit more was added to it usually in the form of ground beef. Many times we ate it without meat due to budget or just not being able to get to the butcher in time.
Again, in my mind "gravy" has a completely different smell, consistency and color and sometimes has onions in it and is usually very salty. It goes over mashed potatoes, biscuits, liver etc.
April 21, 2016, 1:36 pm
Regina Stein from Howell NJ says:
I compromise and call sauce I make with meat "Meat Sauce" and without meat, I call "Tomato Sauce"
Sept. 15, 2016, 3:02 pm
Gina Marotta from Boston says:
Sauce 100%. I'm second generation and my parents and all relatives called it sauce. We call Macaroni Macaroni not pasta either. My father was from Avellino
Feb. 4, 2017, 3:21 pm
Frank from Toronto, Canada says:
My father's family is from Bari in southern Italy, and we normally called it sugo or ragú. We used the term ragú in particular for when we make the tomato sauce with braciole and polpette (meatballs). Otherwise we just called it sugo. When talking to non Italians or something, we just called it sauce, or tomato sauce. However I respect anyone who calls it gravy and I understand why they would call it that. I guess it just depends on where and with you you grow up with.
Feb. 10, 2017, 2:19 pm
Tony says:
Tomato Sauce is one of the ingredients in the "gravy", so it is not sauce being made, it is gravy.
Feb. 20, 2018, 10:44 am

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