When it comes to Italian cuisine, there are two terms that cause the most confusion, especially for those who aren’t familiar with the culture. These terms are Italian gravy and Italian sauce. While many have opinions based on perspective and experience, we’ll be looking at this from a more technical aspect.
If you’re itching to find out what’s behind either, then this is your one-stop shop. From their origins to flavor and ingredients, I’ll cover them all with an Italian Gravy vs Italian Sauce head to head.
How It Started
We can trace back the term “Italian gravy” all the way to the early 20th century when Italian immigrants arrived in the United States. These Italian immigrants brought their traditional recipes, including their tomato-based meat sauce, which they ended up calling “gravy,” as this was easier for them to implement into American culture rather than using its direct translation.
The term “gravy” actually means any sauce made with meat drippings, giving it a thicker consistency and a richer flavor. These meats, such as pork, beef, or sausage, were cooked in the sauce for hours to infuse the flavors. What can be taken away is that Italian sauce isn’t a “gravy” but is often called so due to cultural applications.
How to Make an Italian Gravy
This gravy is the same as an Italian meat-sauce recipe, so you won’t have trouble making one. It’s typically made with crushed tomatoes, tomato paste, onion, garlic, and a variety of herbs and spices, all cooked with meat. The ingredients are combined in a large pot or Dutch oven and simmered for several hours to develop a rich and flavorful sauce.
If you’re interested in making Italian gravy yourself, you can use this recipe from GWS. It uses Italian sausage, ground meats, and pork neck or short ribs.
Italian sauce, also known as “sugo” in Italian, refers to any lighter and thinner sauce made with tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, and herbs. In the United States, the term “gravy” was basically adopted to describe its meat-based variant of this sauce, as it was easier to pronounce and more acknowledged by them.
The term Italian sauce generally refers to a sauce made with fresh tomatoes or vegetables, though they do have variations containing meat. This is what they call “ragù“.
This is probably where the confusion lies, as the basic definition of gravy is a sauce made from thickened juices and seasoned meat drippings, while a sauce is a much lighter condiment or relish for food. Italian sauce contains many variations with meat but is still referred to as so and not as gravy.
How to Make an Italian Sauce
This classic sauce is typically made with garlic, tomatoes, olive oil, and herbs such as oregano and basil. The delicious flavor comes from simmering and caramelizing the sugar in the tomatoes, giving off its iconic rich and smooth taste. Using quality tomatoes is a must if you want that delicious flavor.
This iconic Italian sauce from Inside the Rustic Kitchen is made without meat, making for a traditional tomato sauce you’ll surely enjoy.
Italian Sauces Dishes
- Spaghetti and Meatballs – This classic Italian-American dish is a favorite for many, with the meatballs being cooked in the sauce to give them a rich and savory flavor.
- Chicken Parmesan – This dish consists of breaded chicken cutlets topped with marinara sauce and melted cheese. The sauce adds a tangy and flavorful element to the dish.
- Eggplant Parmesan – Similar to chicken parmesan, this dish features breaded and fried eggplant slices topped with marinara sauce and melted cheese.
- Pizza – A delicious Italian sauce is the base for most pizzas and adds a delicious tomato flavor to the dish.
- Lasagna – Layers of pasta, cheese, and meat are smothered in marinara sauce before being baked in the oven. The sauce helps to keep the lasagna moist and flavorful.
- Meatball subs – An Italian sauce is just perfect for a meatball sub. The sauce is poured over the meatballs and cheese before being baked in the oven for a delicious snack.
- Stuffed peppers – You can also stuff them into peppers. Simply mix the sauce with rice and ground beef or sausage before stuffing the peppers.
People Who Call It “Gravy”
If you’ve ever heard someone refer to Italian tomato sauce as “gravy,” then you may have been left wondering why. Well, for some Italian Americans, calling it “gravy” is a deeply ingrained tradition.
In the New York City area, Italian Americans from the boroughs of Brooklyn and Staten Island have adopted the term Italian gravy as the term was passed down from generation to generation in Italian-American households. This term was coined as it was generally easier for them to use and incorporate within American society and a term that was already common with the people in describing a meaty sauce.
People Who Call It “Sauce”
Many people outside of the Northeast region of the United States use the term “sauce” to describe what those inside the region refer to as Italian gravy, with the term Italian sauce being more commonly used. This is the original term that was then changed to sound more appropriate when used in America. Those who call it sauce are generally from Italy or those who like to use the more acknowledged way of calling it.
What Should I Call It?
Although both have somewhat different in comparison, you should just call it by how you did growing up. But you can use a more common term depending on the region and cultural context.
In areas with a large Italian-American population, such as New York City, Italian gravy is more commonly used. However, in other parts of the United States and in Italy, Italian sauce is the more appropriate term. So pick and choose, but using Italian gravy isn’t technically “incorrect” per say.