I was always an inquisitive child. Inquisitive, nose-y and easily perplexed. The aerodynamics of birds. Where babies came from. Lint. In general, these were the compelling mysteries of my life as a 5 year old. And as an Italian, born and raised in Brooklyn, NY, the mecca of Italian-American cuisine, it only makes sense that the source of a lot of my questions and confusion was also linked to food in some way, shape or form.
For example, for the longest time I could never understand why Pizzerias always asked if you wanted a slice of cheese. I was convinced it wasn’t cheese on the pizza, it was Mozzarella. The two were clearly not the same. I also swore tripe was fish, and ate it wholeheartedly when masked by a buttery marinara sauce with sweet peas and onions and served by my grandma for lunch on hot Summer days. And I consistently questioned why every time Sunday came around did my dad say we were going to have pasta and gravy. I knew gravy to be the brown stuff that came out of a can and you drizzled over turkey on Thanksgiving, not the hearty, meat rich tomato sauce I was served instead.
I have since come to learn and accept that mozzarella is yes, a cheese- a delicious one at that, and tripe is the lining of a cow’s stomach. Eek! What I have still yet to decipher, however, is why Italian American’s call that heavenly infused traditional Sunday meal-gravy. Well, for any of you, like me, who have subserviently and automatically sat down to this phenomenal feast week in and week out wondering but never knowing where the name came from, and only ever abruptly being told to finish your pasta and stop talking with your mouth full when you asked, this is for you and your awkwardly confused inner child.
After researching this topic a bit, I’ve gladly come to learn that not only was I not the only 5 year old that was confused, but not the only person , in general, that was confused. Turns out it’s a highly controversial issue that has spanned generations of Italian Americans (and Italian Americans alone) and has even been coined the “Great Italian American Debate.”
Here’s why. In the motherland aka Italy, despite the vast differences among the Italians of different regions, there are two nationally accepted phrases that easily translate to either mean sauce orgravy. Salsa, in Italian, literally refers to a semi-liquid cooked tomato based sauce that is used as a condiment. Unlike American condiments like ketchup or mustard that you would never put on macaroni, but similar in that salsa is used to lightly dress a dish. Traditionally, this is the light, and vibrant marinara sauce Americans have come to slather on everything they deem Italian food in America. Plain and simple.
This is where it gets confusing. In most of Italy, Sugo, as in Sugo alla Bolognese, (the full and proper name for the meat based sauce Americans matter of factedly refer to as Bolognese at restaurants) is typically known to mean “gravy.” The word Sugo is derived from succo which means juices and refers to the pan drippings from various cuts of cooked meat. Italians add these drippings along with either pan seared meats such as garlic-y meatballs, sausage, braciole, and pork and/or simply ground beef to the tomato based sauce , leave it to simmer for hours until it thickens like a gravy and finally manifests itself into a well balanced meal of meat, meat and more meat that would feed the family all day, starting with a hot, fried meatball for breakfast. In Tuscany, the term is Ragu, not Sugo. Same concept. This is their gravy. And at the end of the day, everyone knows it means gravy.
On the other hand, Americans, typically those of English and Irish descent that dominated American land and culture well before Italians, for years have added these same pan drippings to butter and flour to create the widely accepted “brown gravy” we pour over mashed potatoes. It is when the first Italians came to America that the term became lost in translation and continues to be perpetuated.
Like a New Yorker who would never, ever want to be mistaken as a Floridian or vice versa-no offense, I’ve been both- Italians of the North, South, East and West did not want to be confused for each other. We all know Napoleans hate Sicilians, Romans despise Napoleans, and so on and so forth… When these different groups came to America, not only did they tote with them plenty of luggage, kids, pots and pans, but dreams and ambitions. For some that meant sticking to their regional identities and more closely to their Italian roots calling the meat based one gravy and the plain one sauce, for others it meant embracing the new culture and calling the brown stuff-gravy and any and all red stuff-sauce .
Therefore, what we call our Sunday feast all comes down to how our ancestors decided they were going to adjust to being in America. It was that decision that eventually set the traditions in place and dictates how Italian American’s refer to this classic, carnivorous gorgefest today.
So what have we learned? If you want to call it gravy, call it gravy. Want to toss in a flank steak instead of pork loin, be my guest. Prefer penne over rigatoni, you got it. For each and every Italian-American family, the spicy, thick tomato-based almost stew that becomes the crown jewel of every Sunday dinner may be prepared somewhat differently, taste some what different and of course, be called something different thanks to our ancestors, but at the end, no matter which way you stir the pot, as long as it’s often (gravy tends to stick) it’s really all the same. Same tools- fork and plenty of fresh bread for the dipping and wiping your plate clean. Same approach-attack from all sides, all day with out putting down your tools. Same result- quality time spent with family, traditions at play, a belly ready to pop at the seams and memories that will last a lifetime. Memories of a meal so rich and so consuming that even the most inquisitive, wide-eyed 5 year old can get lost in the sauce (or gravy,) forget to worry about what’s in a name and instead focus on more important things – like what’s for dessert.