Red Sauce Red Gravy
Tales From Topographic Kitchens is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
I have such a love for Italian- American red sauce (or red gravy), the name given to a hybrid recipe that developed as first and second-generation Italian-Americans established cafes and restaurants in the New World. They became known as red sauce joints, a term popularised by Americans, and less commonly used in the UK (although this review by Marina O’Loughlin back in 2015 deploys it). Still, looking back at a visit in the seventies to an Italian restaurant in Chelmsford of all places, I recognise the vibe. It was always over here; I just referred to it as ‘Italian’.
A red sauce joint used to be seen as inferior. The name became a derogatory term for Italian food that bore only a passing resemblance to anything served in the motherland. But recently, people have been championing its merits, seeing it for what it is- a cuisine redolent with nostalgia for times and territory long gone but possessed of its own identity and history too. 2021 saw the publication of a cookbook by the owners of Don Angie restaurant in NYC devoted to red-sauce classics with a modern twist. This refinement, for that is how Jean-Georges Vongerichten describes the execution of Don Angie’s ‘red sauce’ cuisine, continues.
A good red sauce joint will serve bold and unapologetic oregano and garlic-heavy tomato sauces that risk staining the ubiquitous red-checked tablecloths. Think candle wax-encrusted chianti bottles, a straw sleeve for the wine, bread baskets, and family photos on the wall along with the ubiquitous Frank (the chairman of the board). Already we feel nostalgia for a version of Italy we probably wouldn’t find if we went there. A forkful of herb-scented pasta serves as a walk through the macchia where scribbled bushes of oregano, rosemary, thyme, and myrtle give up their oily vapours in the heat. We romanticise the contadino’s way of life and imagine that we too might live on a simple diet of home-produced jug wine, cold-pressed olive oil rubbed over unsalted bread, eaten with chunks of fatty salami, bowls of pasta flavoured with little more than a lemon plucked from a nearby tree after a hard morning’s work. Our shirts are stained with tomato juice. We don’t care.
All the cliches…but yet
I see red sauce cooking as an abridged version of a national cuisine that continues to evade definition. A singular, cohesive ‘Italian cuisine’ never really existed. The formation of the modern Italian nation-state from a fragmented system of duchies, kingdoms, and city-states had its start in the 1840s when the Italian people began their struggle to liberate themselves from foreign control. Until 1946, the country we now call Italy was known as The Kingdom of Italy until a referendum ended monarchal rule.
This is recent history in the grand scheme of things, so it is unsurprising that many Italians primarily identify with their region of birth and their nationality, second. Strong regional ties remain with traditional conflicts re-enacted through debates about whose food is better, whose method of preparation is Superiore, what is Autentico, and what is not. When Italians started moving to the USA and their meals were influenced not only by what ingredients they could find, afford, and cook, but a yoke of prejudice and discrimination about their food, the gloves came off. In a relatively short period of time, the diaspora evolved yet another ‘regional’ cuisine- Italian-American.
Enter red sauce cuisine, a product of a particular Italian-American cooking and dining style that is becoming recognised as remarkable in its own right. We shouldn’t dismiss it for its relative youth, yet the arguments about the legitimacy of this branch of culinary genealogy continue. In its 2008 survey of Italian restaurants outside Italy, Italy’s Accademia Italiana Della Cucina sniffily concluded that chefs incorrectly prepared six out of ten dishes. Only a few years later, 450 chefs staged an international protest at what they considered to be our (non-Italian) abuse of the classic Bolognese sauce which, according to them, should only be made according to the recipe deposited with the Bologna Chamber of Commerce in 1982. Unless the meat is flank of beef, the pancetta unsmoked, the recipe devoid of garlic and accompanied by tagliatelle, it should not be called Bolognese, they demanded.
If one moves away from Bologna or Italy itself, retaining absolute authenticity is too much of a tall order when so many local ingredients never make it out of their region of origin: cooks and chefs must therefore improvise and substitute. In the United States, that improvisation resulted in Italian immigrants who specialised in the growing and import of regional Italian foodstuffs, including seeds and plants, to the degree that, by 1915, an employee of the US Department of Commerce travelled to Italy to investigate the threat that Italy's exports posed to American industry. It became essential that the farmers and producers of the United States start to meet the needs of this large and influential immigrant community.
Some Italian Americans confuse things even more by using “gravy” specifically for a sauce made with tomatoes which may be regional, associated with New York City, New England and Boston in particular, where there is a substantial Italian-American population. Other Italians will argue (fiercely) that a sugo is a tomato-based sauce that is smooth and consists in the main of tomato and nothing else, whilst purists decry the term ragu because it is derived from the French ragout, which in Italian is a spezzatini. However, the word sugo is derived from succo (juices) and also refers to the pan drippings from various cuts of cooked meat. Italians will add these drippings, along with either pan-seared meats such as sausage or garlic-y meatballs, braciole, and pork or ground beef to the tomato-based sauce, cook them down until they produce a profoundly savoury sauce (gravy) eaten either alone or as accompaniment and flavouring to all manner of meals. Or is it possible that 'the term ‘gravy’ cannot be perfectly translated into Italian at all because it did not travel across the Atlantic with people migrating from the old country? In an Italian-American context, it is a coinage.
An American friend maintains that the older Sicilians who arrived in New York on Ellis Island and remained in their original neighbourhoods still refer to a tomato-based sauce as gravy. Working with Italian-Americans led to an invite for a family lunch on a Sunday where nonna served the gravy that she had started to prepare the day before. On weekdays, the men would gather to eat ‘out the back’ of Italian- American general stores such as Manganaro’s Grosseria in Hell’s Kitchen to be served lasagne and spaghetti with meatballs on paper plates. The sauce swam right up to their edges; there was no stylised napping of the plate. Standing at a counter which ran the length of this narrow and deep store, the great-great-granddaughter of the original owners would have served you. Manganaro’s Grosseria Italiana closed in 2011 and the sandwich store followed in 2021.
It’s kind of hard to make red sauce or gravy for one- or by one. It’s more suitable for batch cooking and family-style service. My favourite recipe takes six hours of cooking plus an overnight rest. It uses ten pounds of beef and meaty pork bones, a half-pound rind of Parmesan or Pecorino Romano, and a skillet and cooking pot heavy enough to cause me to cross myself each time I heft them onto the top of the stove. It really needs two people. If I spilt the pot of finished sauce, I’d have to hire crime scene cleaners to sort out the mess. Made in small quantities, it would not taste the same, even though I am the sole meat eater in our home and end up with a freezer filled with the stuff. And it is no longer inexpensive; power bills are going through the roof, and finding ‘cheap’ cuts of meat that stretch to feed a family on a modest budget has become much more challenging since the food industry repackaged cuisine povera as an M&S £10 meal deal for two.
Not everyone has access to speciality cured meats imported from Italy either. When I moved to East Anglia from London, online shopping barely existed. I had to make do. Streaky bacon when I could not afford — or find— the good pancetta for our ‘gravy’; any old tinned tomatoes or ones I grew and cooked myself when Mutti could not be found locally; Fi hybrid and nondescript tomato plants and seeds from the local plant nursery or weekly market. Back then, it wasn’t easy to find the right type of tomato seeds, whereas now every single allotment is home to a multitude of tomatoes; black, yellow, red, green, tiger-striped. My favourite name is the ‘small hanging tomato of Vesuvius’. Another is the strawberry-shaped Cuor di Bue’. The Tomato Principe Borghese da Appendere is from Puglia and sounds like an aristocrat. It can be sundried or picked pink. Pomodoro Camone is dark red with flashes of green; I first ate it in Sardinia, and it is only grown there and in Sicily. (The variety has a PGI.)
Looking back at my history of red sauce-making, much of what I cooked might not count as ‘authentic’, and undoubtedly I would have been excluded from worship at the ancient, venerable altar of culinary history, but they all tasted good. Ultimately the quest for a palatable —and even delicious—plate of food using whatever you have to hand lies at the heart of every single act of cooking since time began. The name you give your meal, though…that’s a different matter entirely.
[This piece was published on my blog years ago in a different form.]
It is interesting that in an interview with the Irish Times about the role of the Accademia Italiana Della Cucina in assessing and promoting ‘real’ Italian cuisine, its chairman Paolo Zanni says that for Italians, their cuisine “expresses who we are, helps us rediscover our roots, develops with us, and represents us beyond our borders.” Surely red sauce joints are the very epitome of this?
Bon Appetit’s ‘Red Sauce America’ series.
In Sarah Grey’s essay, ‘Friday Night Meatballs: How to Change Your Life with Pasta’ for Serious Eats, the scene is set for a meal, conceived in a rush of toy tidying, napkins folded by one of the children, and a table set with fourth-generation china. It is vivid and homely and celebrates red sauce through a communal meal whilst reminding us that freelancing can add to loneliness – especially when you factor in the difficulties of maintaining a social life when you have small kids. Grey discovered that Friday Night Meatballs transcended many cultural barriers to communal eating. “We'd noticed that visiting friends often requested them; they seemed to us too pedestrian for guests, but our friends from other food cultures—Indian, Jewish, West African—adored them … “This is our little attempt to spend more time with our village. You’re invited.”
Fabio Parasecoli’s new book (out in June) will examine themes of authenticity, regionality and identity, and 'the ideological use of food to advance ideas about who belongs to a community and who does not'.’
Dear Francesca by Mary Contini tells the story of her ancestors' migration to Scotland from the region of Abruzzi to the south of Rome.
Building Italian communities in the UK: a helpful overview.
Visitors to New Orleans should drive out to Moscas, a red sauce roadhouse on the west banks of the Mississippi. Food is served family-style and one of my favourite writers, Julia Reed, adored it, as does Brett Martin, who wrote about New Orleans’s red sauce joints for Bon Appetit. Moscas have published some of their recipes online too.