In many ways, Italian-American culture centers around food. From pizza to pasta to cannoli, every family has their favorite restaurants, recipes, and ingredients. Debates about who makes which dish best happen across families, neighborhoods, and regions. But no debate is as fierce, or as American, as the one about what to call the pot of stewed tomatoes and meat that gets served over pasta on Sundays.
Is it sauce? Is it gravy? Depends on who you ask.
The Origins of the Sauce vs Gravy Debate
No one knows exactly how some Italian Americans came to call it sauce and others gravy, but the consensus is that it has to do with the immigration process. There is no sauce vs gravy debate in Italy.
When Italian immigrants came to the New World, they often faced discrimination and likely wanted to fit in however they could. Though gravy is not a word used in Italy, in the early 20th century, when many Italians were coming to America, their American neighbors called any sauce of meat cooked in liquid a gravy. Abandoning an Italian word like ragu for the American gravy may have been a way to assimilate.
Why some families switched to gravy and others made the more logical jump from the Italian salsa and sugo to the English sauce is not clear. In general, those that say gravy tend to be clumped geographically, though those clumps are scattered across the country.
People often say gravy not sauce in parts of New Jersey, the Bronx, East Boston, Louisiana, and Chicago, though those are by no means the only places.
What is most clear about the Sauce vs Gravy debate is that these days it comes down to family tradition. What your grandparents and parents said will likely inform what you say far more than any other factor.
Italian Sauce is Much More Complex Than the Debate
At this point, you’re probably wondering what we say here at Nicola’s, and the answer is neither sauce nor gravy.
At Nicola’s we pride ourselves on providing authentic Italian food and in Italy there is no broad category of sauce or gravy. Instead, there are a variety of different sauces. When we talk about sauces, we like to specify the exact type.
There are three main categories of sauces in Italy and each has its own characteristics and uses.
Ragu are the sauces most similar to an American Sunday Gravy or Sauce. Many people believe that the tradition of Sunday pasta dinners derived from Italian immigrants making ragu.
A ragu is a meat based sauce made generally with ground meat and finely chopped vegetables. The meat cooks in the sauce which adds rich flavor throughout.
Our favorite ragu is a classic Bolognese. The Nicola’s Bolognese Sauce is made with grass fed beef, local farm vegetables, and extra virgin olive oil. It’s perfect for a cozy winter lasagna.
Sugo is the most basic tomato sauce in Italy. Made from tomatoes cooked simply with onion and garlic, sugo is delicious on its own or can be used as the base for numerous other dishes.
Pasta all'amatriciana, for example, begins with a base of sugo then adds guanciale and a bit of red pepper.
At Nicola’s, our Tomato Sauce is a sugo. It’s perfect on its own or as the base for your favorite Italian pasta dish.
An Italian salsa is not something to put on a taco or dip a chip into. It’s a raw sauce that can be used as a condiment or tossed with pasta.
Salsa Verde, the fragrant parsley, anchovy, and caper sauce, is one of the most well known Italian salsas. It’s a perfect accompaniment to grilled meats or fishes.
Pesto is another Italian salsa that pairs excellently with pasta. At Nicola’s, we make our Basil Pesto Sauce using freshly sourced, organic ingredients. It’s a bright taste of summer all year round.
Specifying the type of sauce, rather than giving it a generic title of sauce or gravy, allows you to choose the correct pasta shape to pair with the sauce and to plan the rest of your meal.
But, at the end of the day, what matters more than the name of the sauce is that you are able to gather around the table with loved ones and share a delicious meal. Whether you want to call it gravy, sauce, ragu, or sugo, Nicola’s Marketplace is always here to provide you with the very best Italian pastas and sauces.