The Real Reason Some People Call Pasta Sauce 'Gravy'

What's in a name? A pasta sauce that's delicious called by anything else would just as satisfyingly alight taste buds afire with delight. However, amongst Italian-Americans, according to Slate, there is an intense debate about whether or not the holy grail ingredient of an Italian spaghetti, a tomato sauce, should be referred to as pasta sauce or gravy. 

Per the Matador Network, the author of "Gravy Wars," Lorraine Ranalli, writes that in Southern Philadelphia, the debate isn't even argued, and some "non-Italians refer to the magnificently smooth pureed tomato masterpiece as gravy." Surprised? If you haven't heard of pasta sauce being referred to before as gravy, you aren't alone, since apparently gravy is the accepted term only in certain areas of the United States, like the Bronx, east Boston and Chicago. Mostly everywhere else in the United States, sauce is the go-to term to describe tomato sauce found on pasta, whereas gravy is used more for what we pour on turkey during Thanksgiving.

What gives with gravy as a sauce name?

There are lots of different theories on why some Italian-Americans call tomato sauce gravy, ranging from immigration waves, generational divides, and influence from the definitive TV show on Italian-American culture, "The Sopranos," (per The Somerville Times). However, these theories don't really explain why there's a lack of consistency — both across regions and within the five boroughs of New York — for why some use the word sauce and others use the word gravy.

Per the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word gravy is derived from the Old French word "grané," which means grain. However, by Middle English, per the Oxford Learner's Dictionary, grané became "gravé," most likely the result of an adopted misspelling, to mean a "spicy sauce" (in other words, grain = spice). Gravy later became more popular in English, whereas the word "sauce" has closer associations with the Latin and Italian word "salsa."

These associations, according to linguist Roberto Dolci, who spoke with Slate for a "Lexicon Valley" piece, may have played a role in why some Italians pointedly chose to use the word gravy instead of sauce. Purposely using the word gravy instead of sauce could have been a way for Italian-Americans to self-identify as more American rather than as foreigners, especially during a time of discrimination.

Gravy or sauce, no matter what you call it — or mix with your pasta — the American foodscape is better off thanks to our Italian immigrants.