In the discussion about Italian-American food, you simply can’t avoid the “Italian Gravy or Sauce?” debate, as tiresome as it is. Every Facebook group dedicated to Italian-Americans has been forced to endure these pointless arguments.
But hold on a minute. Is there actually something to this, perhaps?
Let’s try to dissect the linguistic origins of the terms in question and see if we might find some sort of explanation of how this topic came to become such a polarizing issue.
Italian-American Immigrant Recipes
Like any immigrant cuisine, Italian-American cooking is a mix of original recipes adapted to the ingredients found in the New World. Dishes like chicken parmesan and chicken marsala are both loosely based on actual dishes found in Italy. They became American with the addition of chicken, which was cheaper and more plentiful in the United States than it was in the Old Country.
The aforementioned gravy, on the other hand, is actually one of the most straightforward culinary transfers from Italy to the U.S.
It came from the Campania region, as did (NOT coincidentally) many Italian immigrants. Put another way, “gravy” is the Italian-American version of Neapolitan ragù’
In Old World Italian cooking, the word ragù includes almost any meat-based pasta sauce. The most famous one is from Bologna. In the rest of Italy, it’s called ragù alla bolognese, but IN Bologa, it’s just called ragù.
The other is less well known in the U.S. by its original name, Neapolitan ragù, but it is the tomato-sauce ragù that became Sunday gravy. Beyond the greater prominence of tomatoes, the defining difference between the regions’ ragùs is how the meat is treated.
In the Neapolitan version, the meat is cooked whole in the sauce, as opposed to the minced or ground meat in Bolognese. Neapolitan ragù also usually includes several different cuts of meat, from beef short ribs to sausage to brisket, that will vary depending on local ingredients and who is cooking.
Additionally, its prolonged simmering process was ideal for weekend cooking, making it a staple in many households by the mid-20th century. Then it underwent its Americanized name change, as mentioned above, becoming known as “gravy,” and it has since become a beloved tradition among Italian families to this day.
Despite these adaptations, there were only a few minor alterations made to the original recipe. Spaghetti emerged as the preferred pasta, instead of tagliatelle, and meat was incorporated into the sauce rather than served on the side. Other than these minor tweaks, Sunday gravy is essentially Neapolitan ragù in every way except for its name.