The Great Debate: Gravy vs. Sauce

By Jane Fusco

Growing up Italian – especially in Johnston, which has the second highest Italian population in the country* – nothing says Sunday morning like that huge pot of red, tomato-ey bliss simmering on the stove. The sight of mom or Nona rolling the meatballs then dropping them into that bubbly mixture only meant that a loaf of crusty Italian bread was nearby and ready to be dipped for tasting.

Ah, the gravy was on. But then there are those who say it is sauce, not gravy.

Anyone who has prepared a traditional Italian meal knows of this dilemma. What we call the emulsion that we pour over pasta (Italians call it macaroni, but that is another discussion entirely) has been the subject of debate for some time, and it is not about to end anytime soon.

So, to get a definitive answer, it was time to consult the experts of that exclusive circle of intellectuals who can discuss anything that matters to everything that doesn’t – the members of GUIJ (Grew Up In Johnston). Yes, this is an actual, group.

Here is what they had to say:

“Come to my house and ask for sauce and I will prepare you eggs benedict topped with hollandaise sauce. I was a teenager before I ever heard anyone refer to the gravy as sauce. Gravy was made on most Sundays always with meatballs, sausage and sometimes pork! Never made without meat.” Danny Buonanno, one of the founding members and the official Godfather of GUIJ.

“I was brought up that it was gravy. Brown gravy was brown. And ALWAYS macaroni, it was never pasta.” Ellen D’Abate Ingram.

“My family is of Sicilian descent, called it gravy when meat was put in the pot. They also called it marinara sauce when there wasn’t any meat.” Pamela Previte-Wilson

“In every Italian household including my in-laws, and every restaurant I have ever been to, it’s either sauce or marinara. My in-laws are from the (Federal) Hill and their parents from Italy. They call it sauce.” Joanne Hetherman Bianco.

“If you take the Italian language as a guide, a sauce with meat in it should be called a ragu, not gravy. Italian Americans anxious to assimilate started calling their ragu the same thing other Americans called meat sauces – gravy.” Steve Finn (born in Pozzuoli, Naples, Italy)

“Growing up it was always gravy. At home, with family and friends, it’s still gravy, even a marinara. When I’m in a fine establishment, it’s sauce. I believe that is proper.” Diane Jasper Lakeland.

“Always gravy, since I was a child.” Francine Mangiante Medeiros

“We always called it gravy, but if someone wants to serve me and call it sauce, that’s fine with me.” Vin Langella

“Without meat = Sauce. With meat = Gravy. I have to note that I always used the term gravy because my entire family did. Some families, from different areas of Italy, use the term sauce whether it has meat or not.” Candice Sasso Honeycutt

“If it was made with tomatoes, garlic and olive oil, it was gravy in my house, growing up and even now. Any other type of gravy was referenced by its color or some other characteristic (e.g. brown gravy, turkey gravy, .etc). Waking up to the aroma of the gravy simmering and meatballs frying was one of the most comforting memories of my childhood. I’m very lucky that my mom is still here and in my house and STILL makes the gravy and meatballs. And just to be clear, I am quite the gravy and meatball snob. I eat ONLY my mother’s!” Christiana Varrica Provencal

“In my house, my mother’s house and grandparents’ and great grandparents’ houses, it was and is GRAVY.” Christine Conetta Botelho

“Gravy comes from meat. Sauce comes from tomatoes.” Everett Fortin

“Red sauce with meat is called gravy. Red sauce without meat is called marinara sauce. Why? Because my mom said so. The same reason I keep my coffee in the refrigerator, because mom did! Every Sunday the meatballs were fried and many were made because they were eaten like popcorn before they were put into the gravy. And always two loaves of Italian bread, one for dunking and one for the dinner.” Cheryl Macera Carnevale

“They do not call it gravy in Italy because they do not speak English but if you Google gravy you will get Sugo and that is what they call it in Italy which really everyone would think it would mean sauce.” Rosanne Hutnak

“My family is Italian, three of my grandparents came from Italy. It was passed down to call it gravy. As a child growing up in Johnston, I learned what my parents called it. It does make sense if you think about it, because all the meat juices make the gravy.” Dolores DiLorenzo Duhamel

“Add any meat to a sauce and it becomes gravy. Except in my house, if it’s red, it’s gravy and do-able for bread dunking.” Peter DiSarro

“When you add meat stock and simmer to any sauce, it becomes gravy. No meat, it’s sauce.” Edward Ferrante

“Many memories were made on a Sunday going to my grandmother’s for macaroni and gravy. She would start very early in morning. Gravy was not just something she made. It’s what the gravy created. Sunday visits seeing your family, laughter, tears, but pure love. She’s gone now but not the memories that surrounded crock pots full of tender meats, meatballs, and GRAVY.” Michele Puleo

“Our family always called it gravy. My friends from Massachusetts would say gravy is brown, and sauce is red. We Italians know better.” Sylvia Sgambato

“No real Italian calls it sauce!” Patti Pisano Shaffer

Arnie Vecchione summed it up. “It’s gravy because that’s what grandma called it. End of story.”

Backing up a bit, this meal usually began with a huge platter of antipasto full of cured meats, cheeses, olives, roasted peppers, and marinated artichoke hearts, followed by some type of pasta (macaroni), the ever-so-tender meats and a fresh green salad often with vegetables straight from the garden. All of this was followed by dessert – fruit, nuts, and homemade pastries, and brown coffee or black coffee, known today as espresso, often with a shot of Anisette and lemon rind. It was a long Sunday morning waiting for this feast to begin at 2 p.m. That’s right, dinner was at 2 p.m. Is that a problem? Only when you’re so hungry that you wished it would be ready by noon. Mangia!
* According to a recent U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey conducted in Fall 2015.