I recall a story that a Irish-American friend of mine told me about when she first met her Italian-American husband’s parents. Being that it was Sunday, they asked if she would like some “macaroni and gravy”. In her mind, she pictured a bowl of elbow noodles with a rich, brown meat gravy. “Uh, no thanks”, she replied, “but I wouldn’t mind a bowl of that pasta with tomato sauce.” The whole family laughed. Mortified, she turned to her then-boyfriend, who stopped chuckling long enough to reassure her and explain, “that is macaroni and gravy: pasta and tomato sauce”.
So is it gravy or is it sauce? Lorraine Ranalli, a local Philly TV and radio food personality, has written a book called Gravy Wars which claims to settle the age-old argument. We met Lorraine at Chowderfest last year and took to her immediately; last Tuesday, she invited John and I to watch as she settled another argument: “Who makes the best meatball- the home cook or the restaurant chef?” at a Meatball Throwdown, held at the Long Beach Island Foundation over in Loveladies (yes, that is the town’s name) on LBI .
We noticed there was a nice crowd watching Lorraine facing off with Chef Jim Migueri of Antionetta’s Restaurant and the Foundation’s Italian Instructor and Culinary Faculty Member, Rita Kostopolus. What made it more fun was that it was being broadcast live on WBCB 1490 out of Levittown,PA, where Lorraine regularly does her show Cucina Chatter on Tuesdays (John was a guest via telephone a few weeks back and had a great time).
It was fun to watch the different techniques and the trash talk flying back and forth as they cooked. Lorraine insisted on doing it the way I was taught by my grandma: the holy trinity of meat (ground pork, veal, and beef), mixed with store-bought bread crumbs, eggs, garlic powder, and pre-grated Parmesan-then rolled and fried, and simmered in “gravy”.
Chef Migueri mixed the meat with a paste made from fresh bread and milk, with fresh chopped garlic and herbs.
Ms. Kostopolus went in a completely different direction and made Greek meatballs, with a fresh tzatziki sauce (cucumbers, Greek yogurt, garlic and dill).
Everyone made theirs with a different variation, but one thing was a common factor- all the meatballs were served with some kind of sauce. Now, many theories abound as to why Italian-Americans would call their tomato sauce “gravy.” I’ve found that some cooks have different requirements: for some, it’s not “gravy” unless it has meat (meatballs, brascioles, sausage)-and if it’s meatless, it’s “tomato sauce”. In her book, Lorraine tells how she was refuted in her “gravy” claims by an outspoken woman from Calabria (“No, only you Philadelphians call it’ gravy’. In Italy it’s ‘salsa’ or ‘sugo’.”). I beg to differ here, because my family, which hails from Italy by way of Hoboken (across from New York City), always called it “gravy”. As Lorraine explains in the book: “Misinterpretation may be the best theory for the origins of gravy. Somewhere, something got lost in translation because ‘sugo’ literally means ‘gravy’. And yes, ‘salsa’ is ‘sauce’. Perhaps the early Italian immigrants, not understanding English, mistranslated it and used the word ‘gravy’ to describe their unique tomato sauce…That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.” The most interesting theory that I’ve come across is from a really cool cookbook that we found in the library called Down Jersey Cooking by the late Joe Colanero (we’ve used recipes and quoted from it many times before). The theory is that when the first wave of Italian immigrants arrived, English and simple Northern European was the dominant style of cooking in America, while French cooking was considered an exotic style appreciated only by the wealthy few. “Gravy” was associated with good, old-fashioned “American” food, while “sauce” was considered fancy-pants “foreign” food. Italian-Americans, always known to be strongly patriotic and looking to assimilate, would have deferred to the more American-sounding word, “gravy”, when choosing a word to translate their tradition. But one thing that all of us could agree on: red “gravy” is American. So who won the Throwdown that day? The crowd gave it to Chef Migueri, but I think the tasters were the winners. Though I liked Lorraine’s best (what can I say? They remind me of Grandma’s Sunday dinners and they melt in your mouth), all of them were really good, in their very own way. If you feel like lobbing a few grenades in the “gravy wars”, feel free to visit her blog, also called Cucina Chatter. But if you come to my house on a Sunday, meat or not- it’s gravy.