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In Nero Wolfe "Before I die", the gangster's sidekick asks for spaghetti and gravy. After Wolfe's chef Fritz prepares him spaghetti with the type of gravy used for roast beef, it turns out that the gangster meant tomato sauce when he said gravy. Looking on the internet there is a lot of confirmation that some Italian-Americans use "spaghetti and gravy" to mean spaghetti with a tomato-based sauce, for example discussions like this:

Hot From the Kettle: Talking Tomatoes with Ariane Duarte (Aug 05, 2010)

At the bottom there is an answer like so:

I think the Italian Immigrants in New Jersey put their own spin on a lot of things.... [Gravy] is an Italian American invention. I never heard red sauce called gravy until I roomed in college with my Italian roomate from Hoboken.

I also found at Serious Eats, Sunday gravy: anyone have a great recipe for it? (Jan 20, 2008)

Gravy is one of those words where Italian immigrants picked the closest word to their native word. My father was born in Naples (Italy, not Florida) and called it gravy. That's good enough for me.

Can anyone confirm or deny this?
What is the origin of using gravy to mean spaghetti sauce?

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Can't help you with the origin, but on "The Sopranos", which is my gospel for Italian-American trivia, they referred to the red sauce as gravy a lot. – Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Sep 3 '10 at 12:50
A Google image search for “sunday gravy” shows a ton of pictures of meat in a red tomato sauce. – nohat Oct 12 '10 at 15:50
This also might be an interesting question for ;) – malach Oct 13 '10 at 14:00
If you're suggesting that "gravy" originally referred to tomato sauce and was then "kidnapped" to mean a meat sauce, I would find that highly questionable. It may well be, though, that a word similar to "gravy" exists in Italian and there it means tomato sauce. But "gravy" (a word apparently from Old French, not Italian), meaning a meat sauce (generally sans tomato) is well-established in the US and is the predominant meaning. – Hot Licks Aug 1 at 2:29

4 Answers 4

I googled "Gravy Etymology" and found this link which says that "gravy is a subset of sauces made from meat essence" and it goes on to say that Italian-Americans use the word to refer to tomato-and-meat sauce. Other forums I saw suggested that unless the sauces has a meat base it shouldn't be called gravy.

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Okay, this is the deal... To an Italian American,from the NY/NJ area,"spaghetti sauce" means anything (usually served on top of spaghetti) that stains your shirt. However, if one is requesting a specific type of sauce, this is the way we differentiate:

Marinara: Tomatoes, (in one form or another) garlic, basil, salt&pepper. It may be cooked with whole onions and/or carrots, but they are usually removed before serving. This sauce is the base for "Penne a la vodka," "Puttanesca," "Fra Diavolo," and other sauces - depending on other additions.

Gravy: This is the stuff that takes poor Grandma half a Sunday to create. The base is the same as marinara but, various meats (depending on your grandmother) are browned in a pan and then added to the sauce. The meat pan is de-glazed - usually with wine and tomato paste - and this is also added to the sauce. Then everything gets cooked for another hour. The meat is often served separately - except for the meatballs which are usually served with the spaghetti or macaroni. The sauce itself is also called ragu.

Bolognese, or "Lazy meat-sauce": Brown hamburger meat in a pan - dump excess grease. Smother in marinara sauce. Cook for 20 minutes. Dump onto your favorite pasta.

If you tell a person of Italian heritage that you are serving "pasta", they will make no assumptions. If you tell them you are serving "Macaroni, on Sunday," they will expect pasta with gravy and meatballs (at least). If you tell them you are serving "Macaroni, on Sunday," and it turns out to be "macaroni and cheese" - they will not visit your home for dinner again.

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In The Sopranos's episode “Commendatori”, Tony Soprano and his friends take a business trip to Naples in order to conduct an important deal. In the hotel restaurant, Paulie Gualtieri is served a plate of spaghetti with squid ink. Although he is Italian by origin, Paulie was born in New Jersey and he looks at the dish in semi-disgust. He asks the Italian waiter to bring him some “macaroni and gravy”. The Neapolitan waiter, bewildered, asks the mobster what gravy means, whereby Paulie explains:

Paulie : Gravy, gravy. Tomato sauce!

A camorrista translates it as “pommarola” to the waiter. Here's the video clip of the scene on Youtube.

This isn't the first time I've heard American movies or TV series use the term gravy for the Italianissimo pommarola. But I've never heard it being used in the UK, and I come from a Ligurian family who immigrated to England soon after the second world war. For the Brits, gravy is synonymous with Bisto, OXO and Sunday roast beef. No Englishman or woman would possibly confuse gravy with tomato sauce—gravy is a British institution—and although the art of making gravy from scratch is sadly dying, no Christmas dinner would be complete without it.

image: Sunday roast meal with gravy

So why do Italian-American families call pommarola gravy?

Firstly, pommarola (tomato sauce) is never made with meat, but only from fresh tomatoes with a few torn basil leaves chucked in at the end. Secondly, the meat sauces which Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 mentions in his answer is an ambiguous term. A meat sauce (salsa di carne) can also be a thin sauce that coats the meat or complements any meat dish. However, the thick meaty sauces for spaghetti and macaroni are called ragù; ragù alla bolognese or sugo di carne.

image: terracotta pot of ragù

It seems probable to me that the first Italian immigrants in America translated ragù or sugo as “meat sauce” which the Americans interpreted it as being something like gravy.

Apparently, the term stuck and is still used today by italoamericani in New Jersey to mean plain tomato sauce. However, for most Americans and for all Brits, gravy refers to the sauce made from the fat and juices left over in the roasting pan.

For many Italian Americans living in New Jersey, it seems gravy is the Italian “pommarola”

For a Former Pizzeria Owner, It’s All Gravy

Last week, we published a case study about a New Jersey pizzeria owner who recently debated two different paths in the food industry: Should he enlarge his tiny restaurant to boost stagnant revenues? Or should he sell the business and start another one to manufacture his restaurant’s red sauce, which he had been selling over the counter as Jersey Italian Gravy?

[background information on the owner, Carlos Vega, and his enterprise]

Q. It’s called Jersey Italian Gravy, but you’re making it in New York?

A. The product evolved in New Jersey. We’re from New Jersey. It’s still a local product. It’s made 60 miles from where we are. Our customers ask us all the time, “Do you use Jersey tomatoes?” We say we used to, but they’re inconsistent. One crop is too sweet, one is too bitter, one is too seedy. So we switched to a California tomato.

Q. Several readers questioned the high retail price of your sauce, $8.99 a jar.

A. […]. Ours is a slow-simmered, small batch, hybrid grocery/specialty product with only five ingredients, and our tomatoes are as expensive as those certified DOP San Marzano.

enter image description here From The New York Times, January 7, 2014

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You realise that the recipe you linked to, quite apart from being taken from a book of microwave recipes (which I thought was tantamount to sacrilege to Italians), also has both carrots and various other non-tomato-or-basil things in it, right? ;-) – Janus Bahs Jacquet Apr 15 at 21:55
@JanusBahsJacquet This is the classic traditional sauce. You can make tomato sauce without the celery and carrot, but onions are an essential ingredient. If the tomatoes (in season) are particularly ripe and juicy, you can make a quick delicious sauce w/o any onion, but I would always add some garlic. The microwave recipe (which I admit I had not seen) is the cheater's/shortcut version, even Italian housewives need to save time in the kitchen! However, ragù must never be cooked in the microwave but on the stove, for at least two hours. – Mari-Lou A Apr 15 at 22:11
Also, the Sopranos YouTube link points to the same recipe. I think this is da link that you were referrin' to: (I considered writing the whole comment in the patois of la cosa nostra, but thought that it may be taken the wrong way. And that there may be a contract taken out on me as a result.) – Alan K Aug 1 at 0:07
@AlanK thank you for pointing out the duplicate link! I'll make amends now, I'll use the same link you have kindly posted. – Mari-Lou A Aug 1 at 5:49

"Gravy", as it is known through most of the (non-Italian) US, is made approximately as follows:

In a skillet where meat has cooked, add some flour to the drippings and cook until the flour browns a bit, then add water and simmer. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

If you don't have a skillet where meat has cooked, put meat drippings (combination of fat and juice) in a clean skillet. Or one can use butter or cooking oil and some (fat-free) meat bouillon. What is sometimes called "fish gravy" is made entirely without meat -- just butter and flour.

Instead of the flour, some people use corn starch, but this must be used with care as it causes the gravy to get very thick if too much is used.

Some people add a dash of soy sauce for additional flavor and color, or other seasonings. You can even add tomatoes (in the form of catsup, of course).

Of course everyone's mom has their own secret recipe, but they generally follow this basic framework.

(I would guess that the Italian-American use of "gravy" occurred when some early immigrants mistook the American use of "gravy" to mean a "sauce" of any sort, vs specifically a meat sauce, and so applied it to the sauces they were familiar with. This use then presumably took hold in the Italian-American community before the error could be corrected.)

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