Sauce or Gravy? - The Great Pasta Debate

image of ragu, Italian pasta sauce

New Jersey is a pretty great place to grow up, a little tough a times, but you wont hear anyone complain about a lack of things to do, see, and eat. Emphasis on the eat part. Contrary to popular belief, it’s a very diverse state both from an ethnic point of view and a culinary one. One very present diaspora around the NYC area especially, is that of the Italian-American.

It is important to note that the Italian American is not exactly an Italian. Furthermore, if you ask a European Italian, they will claim Italian-Americans bare very little, if any, resemblance to their name sake back home. I will go ahead and say, the latter could best be explained as egocentric posturing on behalf of a group afraid of tainting their very carefully guarded legacy. That said, I feel it may be best to describe them as two sides of the same coin.

With the presence of so many Italian-Americans, one becomes keenly aware of the practice, nay, the skill, of debate and argument within this community. It is a finely-honed instrument by which Italian-Americans create hierarchies of concept and action that dictate their daily lives. This can be seen in their dialectic choices, what they shop for at the grocery store, and what holidays they participate in. But one debate, a debate perhaps above all others argued over countless dinner tables, has stricken the Italian-American community for years: is that delicious red concoction ladled loving over pasta called sauce, or is it called gravy?

Well my friends, I’ve come to end yet another controversy – by explaining what some may know, and what others may not want to hear. The truth, is you can’t truly call it either.

Now, that may seem like a revolutionary statement. Maybe even to some, a declaration of war. But please, heed my words, listen to the facts, and then make your mind up for yourself. The delicious substance at the heart of this debate is in fact known by the name: ragu.

Let us analyze a few definitions, shall we?

Sauce: “The word “sauce” is a French word that means a relish to make our food more appetizing.  Sauces are liquid or semi-liquid foods devised to make other foods look, smell, and taste better, and hence be more easily digested and more beneficial.(Source:

Gravy: “Gravy is a sauce made from meat juices, usually combined with a liquid such as chicken or beef broth, wine or milk and thickened with flour, cornstarch, or some other thickening agent.  A gravy may also be the simple juices left in the pan after the meat, poultry, or fish has been cooked.” (Source:

Ragu: “a sauce typically made with ground meat, onions, tomato puree, and red wine, and served with pasta. Etymologically speaking, the term comes from the French ragoûts and reached the region of Emilia-Romagna in the late 18th century(Source:

While there is technically a lot of overlap between the terms, it seems that the most specific fit to the substance we spoon over our pasta is most certainly ragu. One may contend: “hey man, it says right there – ragu is a sauce!” While that may be the case, ketchup is also a sauce, but it is within its very own class of sauces, much like the ragu, the barbeque sauce, hot sauce, and many others one could name.

So the conclusion we can draw today: you definitely can’t call that tasty red stuff gravy. If you are sitting there putting flower, milk or corn starch in your ragu, then you deserve a visit from Tony Soprano.

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