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

Do you call it "sauce" or "gravy?" It's an age old beef.
Photo by Steve Solomonson

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.

Where’s the beef?: This meatless tomato sauce is certainly not a “gravy,” says a panel of Brooklyn’s Italian restaurateurs.

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 mjaeger@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-8303. Follow him on Twitter @MJaeger88.
It’s (not) all gravy: Some might say gravy adorns this tagliatelle, but chefs say the names “ragu” or “sugo” are more accurate.

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