If you come from an Italian family or have ever been to an old-world-style Italian-American restaurant, you may have seen the word “gravy” used in place of “pasta sauce”. (And no, it doesn’t refer to the thin brown sauce you put on your mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving dinner.) The use of “gravy” versus “sauce” is a long-debated topic between Italian-Americans and arguments over the proper term can get quite heated! But what is Italian “gravy” actually and what is the difference between “gravy”, “sauce”, and “marinara”? We thought it would be fun to look more into the history of debate. Read on to find out what we’ve learned!
What is Italian “gravy” and where does it come from?
Italian, or red, gravy is based on a Neapolitan ragu made with meat, tomato, and onion that’s commonly served with pasta. In most of Italy, “sugo”, as in “Sugo alla Bolognese” (the meat-based sauce Americans refer to as bolognese) is typically known to mean “gravy.” Sugo is derived from the word succo, which means juices. Juice from the meat is typically combined with broth or milk and thickened with a starch, resulting in a heavier sauce.
In many Italian-American families, making a big batch of gravy on Sunday and having the whole family over for dinner is a time-honored tradition. The term is heavily used by New Jersey-Italians, while you’ll find the term “sauce” mostly used in New York and Long Island.
What’s the difference between “gravy”, “sauce”, and “marinara”?
One of the biggest differences between the three pasta toppings is that gravy typically has meat in it, while standard pasta sauce and marinara do not. Linguistically, “sauce” comes from the Italian word “salsa,” meaning “a topping” and it is usually liquid or semi-liquid. “Sauce” can mean your standard tomato sauce, or it can refer to a pesto sauce, alfredo, or any other cream-based sauce.
Marinara, on the other hand, descended from a tomato-based sauce consisting of fresh tomatoes, garlic, herbs, and onions that was originally used for seafood—”marinara” comes from the word “mariners,” referring to fishermen who would use the sauce to top their freshly-caught fish. Now, the terms “marinara sauce” and “spaghetti sauce” are used pretty much interchangeably, however, spaghetti sauce typically contains ground beef as well.
Where do we stand?
Here at Georgina’s Pizzeria and Restaurant in the Cary and Morrisville area, we call it “marinara”, as we use the standard tomato-based sauce for all of our dishes, which range from chicken parmesan to cheese ravioli to our baked homestyle lasagna. Whether you call it “gravy”, “sauce”, or “marinara”, however, we think we can all agree that as long as it tastes good, we’ll eat it!
Want to try our marinara-based dishes for yourself? Make a reservation today!