One of my favorite Christmas memories centers around crusty Italian bread and gravy. I let the soft center of the bread soak up as much gravy as it could hold and then popped the bread in my mouth. Delicious! It was good food and time together as a family that made our celebrations special since Mom didn’t have money for gifts for the 12 of us.
But what is gravy? Growing up in Philadelphia in the 1950s, spaghetti, gnocchi, and ravioli (the made-from-scratch kinds, not the pre-packaged variety) were always served with gravy. This was a robust mixture of tomatoes and herbs that had simmered for hours, filling the house with its rich aroma. Gravy, like its brown counterpart, included pan drippings. Depending on the occasion, it might also have included meat. Sauce, on the other hand, was ladled on homemade pizza and eggplant parmesan.
Fondly called gravy by Italian Americans in Philly, this term also resonates with the descendants of immigrants from southern Italy who settled in other parts of the United States almost 100 years ago. These enclaves exist in parts of Boston and New York City and portions of the states of Louisiana, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island.
Elsewhere in the United States, spaghetti and other Italian entrees are served with sauce or, more specifically, tomato sauce. In some areas, meat is added and the concoction is termed a ragu. When put to a taste test, all are some form of gravy.
The debate between “Is it gravy or is it sauce?” will continue to rage as long as families continue to cherish their family traditions. Call this delicacy whatever your parents and grandparents call it. For me, it will always be gravy, thanks to Mom. Do you call it sauce or gravy?