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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 cooking.stackexchange.com ;) –  malach Oct 13 '10 at 14:00

2 Answers 2

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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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, he looks at the dish in semi-disgust and 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 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 be a sauce that coats or complements any meat dish. The thick meaty sauces for spaghetti and macaroni are either 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 Americans and italoamericani to mean plain tomato sauce or the sauce made from the fat and juices left over in the roasting pan.

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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

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