Sauce versus Gravy

There are some Italian-American’s out there who have a thing for correcting people who say “sauce” and telling them it’s called “gravy”. It’s often accompanied by a (an even more grating) statement about how they say it that way because their family is Italian.

Before I get too ranty about this pet peeve of mine, I want to give a disclaimer. I understand how third (or so) generation Italian-Americans cling really heavily to their/our heritage. I myself have gone so far as to spend years re-learning the language forgotten in the generations in between and even re-emigrated back to the motherland. When our Italian ancestors first moved to America they were eager to become American and embraced the local culture, unfortunately not leaving much of the cool old stuff for the next generations.

Now, as for “Italians say gravy”. This is an absolutely preposterous statement. Italians speak Italian, not English. They say neither “sauce” nor “gravy” when referring to such things. If you are curious, the Italian word “sugo” translates closest. This word would be used for a tomato based sauce and anything of similar texture. Also for juice. There is also the word “salsa” which describes pestos and other thick sauces which you may want to add a little pasta water. Something like a pasta fagoli is actually considered a soup (zuppa) and the non-pasta elements are not distinguished with a different descriptor than the pasta, which should be a small shape (like a mini farfalla), by the way. Besides adding to the “soup” texture of the dish, the small pasta cooks faster which is important because it should be cooked in the rest of the soup. This process takes longer than cooking in boiling water. But I digress.

If you were to ask an actual Italian from Italy whether it is “sauce” or “gravy” they would be dumbfounded. Non-native speakers look to us native speakers for clarity on such acute differences. It would be like an Italian asking you which is the most American of two Italian words that mean almost the same thing.

So, is it “gravy” or is it “sauce”? I tend to agree with Merriam-Webster, Oxford’s British and American Dictionaries. But I think Julia Child put it best, “A gravy without meat is just a sauce.” Which makes “Red Gravy” just “sauce” and is why I get annoyed when someone corrects my calling it “sauce” with, “we say gravy, we’re Italian.” No, actually, it really is sauce.

If anyone guilty of this habit happens to be reading, I petition you to cease and desist. Besides having already established it is annoying, the claim of “Italian-ness” is unfounded, and the term is technically incorrect, I’ll present another reason. Our Italian ancestors came to America without speaking English and had to learn quickly with likely little resources. It is understandable they did not learn the language perfectly, maybe not even the correct term for something as everyday for an Italian immigrant as ‘sauce’. But it is a little more strange that their native-English speaking children would continue this mistake rather than learn the correct term. Then for these children or their children to take it further by insisting the wrong term is actually “how Italians say it”– that takes some coglioni (the expression works better with fegato / liver, but I didn’t think anyone would understand that). Therefore you should stop with this whole “Italians say gravy” thing because it pronounces your (and your ancestor’s) ignorance more than your Italian-ness also someday you and I may be at a dinner party together and you don’t want to unleash this rant in person.

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