It’s Gravy, Not Sauce!

“It’s Gravy, Not Sauce”

 Reading that sign at last Saturday’s inaugural San Gennaro Feast in Belmar brought me as close as I’ll ever be again to the Sunday suppers of my childhood.

Perched next to pots full of bubbling “gravy,” the sign conjured up the cauldron that would greet our eyes and stimulate our youthful culinary senses every time we entered the doorway of our grandparent’s home in North Jersey.

Grandma’s gravy was rich in the essential elements of a truly Americanized version of the Neapolitan brew – good, canned tomatoes from Italy and enough meat to boggle the mind. When I think about the combination of veal, brasciole, sausage, chicken and chopped meat that floated through Grandma’s gravy, it reminds me of St. Francis of Assisi’s Christmas command to consume huge amounts of meat and even “smear the very walls” with it when welcoming the Christ Child.

The gravy also roiled with oil – can’t say whether it was EVO or not – and cloves of garlic – and nothing has ever tasted as good if you ask me.

 It demanded to be tested immediately by dipping a nice chunk of Italian bread into the pot which I would strive to do as soon as Grandma turned her back. Grandma passed her recipe to my Mom so for much of my adult life, I had the extreme pleasure of sneaking a dip of bread into the pot for an advance taste.

The gravy vs. sauce argument has been boiling for decades over at the shore. I’m certain differing migratory paths are the cause of it all. Internet chefs explain the variation on the tasty theme geographically – ascribing “sauce” to the north of Italy and Gravy and “gravy” to the south.

The explanation is relatively simple, the chefs write: Northern Italians typically begin Sunday dinner with a first course of pasta that’s basically topped with a tomato sauce, from which the meat has been removed. The meat becomes a “second” course served with vegetables and salad.

In the south – which Grandma’s classic “gravy” seemed to emulate – meat and sauce remained one perfect whole topping for the pasta which was consumed with gusto.

These days, when “gravy” is called for, I offer a “healthy choice” version which seems to pass muster: lots of turkey and chicken sausages. The family enjoys it and, I always turn my back so they can rip off a hunk of Italian bread while it’s still in the pot and dip their hearts out.

 Sunday Dinner Gravy for a Full Tavola – about 10 people


-4 pounds of  Italian sausage – I like to use Italian-style sweet and hot chicken and turkey sausages

– Extra Virgin olive oil as needed

-6 cloves of sliced garlic garlic

1-medium sweet onion

-generous pinch of crushed red pepper flakes

-3 (28 ounce) cans crushed tomatoes (I like to use Cento)

-1 can tomato paste

-1 teaspoon dried oregano

-1 teaspoon dried basil

-salt and pepper to taste

– two pounds of pasta of your choice

– reserve two ladles full of pasta water

Directions for preparing the meat:   Finely slice 3 cloves of garlic and half a sweet onion and set aside while warming enough olive oil to cover the bottom of the largest sauté or frying pan you have. When it is warm but not boiling, add the garlic and onion and sauté til golden; then sauté the sausages until they are nicely browned, blot off the excess fat with paper towels and set aside.

Cover the bottom of a large pot with extra virgin olive oil and warm over medium heat. Before it boils add the remaining three cloves of garlic and the sliced onion and sauté until golden. Add the red pepper and stir and then add the tomatoes, tomato paste, oregano, basil, salt and pepper. Stir in one cup of pasta water. Add the sausage and cook over very low heat, stirring occasionally for at least one hour. If the gravy starts to thicken too much, add a bit more water, return to heat for a half hour then remove from the heat.  Remove the sausage from the gravy and toss the gravy with your favorite pasta in a serving bowl, then top with meat and serve.


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