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Pasta:

Sauce or Gravy?

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Season your pasta with sugo.

Season your pasta with sugo

Kyle Phillips
Articles occasionally arise from reader requests. A while back Jennifer wrote to ask:

"I was witness to a heated discussion at my brother's dinner table last evening. We were raised that it is sauce; my sister-in-law was raised calling it gravy. I've spoken with Italians who have called it sauce, and some who have referred to it as gravy. Is it a regional thing? Is it gravy when it is cooked with meat? (I've received that explanation). Please advise and potentially stop a divorce from occurring."

Since this is the sort of thing lots of people will find interesting, I mentioned it in Cosa Bolle in Pentola (my newsletter), saying:

Fools rush in where angels fear to tread, so this is right up my alley. In Italy there are sugo and salsa. Sugo derives from succo (juices), and refers to pan drippings from the cooking of meats, rich meat-based sauces along the lines of sugo alla Bolognese, or thick vegetable sauces (which often, though not always, go over pasta). A salsa is a semi-liquid-to-liquid raw or cooked sauce that's used as a condiment. It can go over pasta, for example pesto alla genovese, but can also be used to season other dishes. For example, salsa verde is wonderful over boiled meats or potatoes, as is mayonnaise (salsa maionese in many cookbooks). If a sauce is especially delicate, it may be called "salsina."

The passage from sugo/salsa to sauce/gravy must have occurred when immigrant families settled into new neighborhoods in the US, and is, I expect, an Italian-American family/neighborhood tradition more than anything else. Some immigrants translated the Italian for what they put on their pasta as gravy, while others translated it as sauce, and the translations have been passed down through the generations, becoming law in the process. People get amazingly passionate over things like this.

Since I associate gravy with meat drippings thickened with butter and flour (something that's not at all common in Italy, though I have encountered it in Piemonte) I call what goes over pasta sauce when I refer to it in English. As is all too often the case with Italian food, there's no right answer here, and I'll be quite interested to hear other people's ideas.


A number have come in, most along the lines of Tony Smith's: "Simply put, sauce is quickly made i.e., salsa di pomodoro, pesto etc. and gravy takes all day." He went on to say that he thinks of gravy as something along the lines of a ragù, in other words (paraphrasing here) a chunk of meat that's stewed, and consumed as a second course, while the drippings are used to season pasta, risotto, gnocchi, or what have you -- even mashed potatoes. As an example of a ragù he suggests the Ligurian tocco, which is essentially a pot roast (link to a recipe below) with a rich sauce that generally goes over pasta.

This isn't what I think of as a ragù -- in Tuscany it's a meat sauce made from ground meat, along the lines of sugo alla Bolognese. However just because a word means one thing in one part of Italy, there's nothing to say it doesn't mean something completely different in another region. So I checked Ragù in Antonio Piccinardi's Dizionario di Gastronomia. He says,

"Ragù: A word of French origin that is applied to dishes that differ considerably, but share as a common characteristic the use of meat that's cooked for a long time in a sauce, which is generally destined to go over pasta. There are two main kinds of ragù: one is made with ground meat, and the other from a single piece of meat slowly cooked for a very long time, to which other ingredients can be added. In addition, a number of dishes typical of the southern Regions are called al ragù, for example carne al ragù or braciole al ragù, which consist of slabs of meat of varying size, rolled up around flavoring agents and cooked slowly.

"The first type of ragù includes dishes of the Emilian tradition, as well as those from Bari or Sardegna, while the second group includes all the southern dishes."

Since Bari is in Puglia, which is certainly in the South, and Sardegna is generally lumped in with the southern regions, it's obvious that the breakdown between the ground meat and chunk-of-meat types of ragù is not regional, but local.

What do you think? Tell us, via the Reader Reply Page!

And finally, here are some examples; you may call them sauce, or gravy, or even ragù, but they're all good:

Orecchiette al Sugo
A tasty, slow-cooking tomatoey meat sauce from Puglia.

Orecchiette col Ragù
A meat sauce for orecchiette, with an interesting creamy ricotta variation, and scarafiuni, a Puglian stuffed pasta that goes especially well with ragu.

Maccheroni alla Chitarra con Polpettine
A Classic feast-day dish from the Abruzzo region, much more than run-of-the-mill pasta with meatballs.

Sugo Alla Bolognese
You may grow old, ugly, even doddering, but you'll never want for company if you can make a good meat sauce for pasta, otherwise known as Sugo. This is one of the best.

Tagliatelle all'Agnello
Very tasty tagliatelle, just the thing for a crisp early spring day.

Tagliatelle con Sugo di Rigaglie di Pollo
Pasta with a rich sauce made with ground beef, giblets, and tomatoes.

Tajarin Al Sugo di Arrosto
Tajarin (Piemontese tagliatelle) with the sauce froma pot roast. Makes for a fine first course and a tasty second course too.

Sasicheddi
Meat rolls Frank's grandmother, who was from Termini Imerese (Sicily), used to add to her pasta sauce.

Maccheroni alla Monteroduni
A classic Neapolitan pork sauce, in three variations

Tocco di Carne
Rich Ligurian stewed meat in tomato sauce, which goes over the pasta.

Tocco di Carne Stufato
Similar to the above, with the addition of rosemary and other herbs.

Carne al Ragù
An elegant Neapolitan pot roast that also provides sauce for pasta..

Gran Ragù della Festa
An extraordinarily rich, festive Sicilian stew that also provides sauce for the pasta. In many occasions it was the reason for the festivities.

And Finally:
Red Sauce Revisited
Corby Kummer's passionate look at Naples's signature sauce, with detailed instructions for making it and interesting asides on tomatoes.

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