Gravy with Sausage and Meatballs. Why Gravy Instead of Sauce?

I have researched far and wide and could not find a specific reason why some Italians call it gravy rather than sauce. The best I could do was that gravy takes all day to simmer on the back burner while sauce is done quickly.

Any other thoughts?

And here is the recipegravy

Meatball Ingredients:

2 pounds lean ground beef
4 eggs
2 cups (approx.) seasoned bread crumbs
1/2 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. ground black pepper
1 tablespoon fresh parsley, chopped

In a bowl, mix all ingredients for the meatballs with hands until well blended.  Form about 16 meatballs (or more if you make them on the smaller size) and place on a platter.  In a frying pan, add olive oil and when hot, add meatballs, leaving enough room to gently turn each for browning (use a wooden spoon).  Cook on medium heat until browned; repeat until all meatballs are browned.  Do not overcook as they finish cooking in the sauce.  Place meatballs on a clean platter. 

Gravy ingredients

1/4 cup oil
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
1 pound sweet or hot Italian sausage links (optional)
3 large (35 ounce) cans Italian tomatoes — Pastene Kitchen Ready are fine
1 (6 ounce) can tomato paste
1 can (use tomato can) of water
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 Teaspoon fresh parsley, chopped
Fresh basil, if desired

In an 8 quart saucepan, heat the olive oil and saute garlic and onion until lightly browned and fragrant, about 2 minutes.  Add the sausage links and brown. 

Add 3 cans of tomatoes, tomato paste, 1 can water, salt, pepper and parsley, and fresh basil, if using. Bring to a gentle boil over medium heat and cook for 15 minutes, stirring often.  After 15 minutes, carefully add the meatballs, stirring with a wooden spoon to avoid breaking meatballs.  When all meatballs have been added, reduce heat to low, partially cover and cook for 2-1/2 hours, stirring every 15 minutes or so to prevent sticking.  If sauce seems too thick, add a little more water.

Serves 6 to 8


By | 2017-07-10T16:10:12+00:00 May 7th, 2015|Food, Minna's Favorite recipes|27 Comments


  1. A Giammarco May 7, 2015 at 2:08 pm - Reply

    I think it’s called gravy when you cook it with meat. It’s sauce when there’s no meat, as in marinara sauce. Just a thought!

    • Ed May 8, 2015 at 1:29 pm - Reply

      Agree. And it needs to simmer on the back burner all day. And….you need to sample it by dunking your Italian bread.

  2. chris bigelli May 11, 2015 at 2:36 pm - Reply

    Absolutely. If youstart the gravy with the browned piecesof meat — it is gravy. As told to me by my dear mother inlaw.

    • Ed May 11, 2015 at 4:42 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Chris. We are in agreement with our grandmothers.

    • Ed May 12, 2015 at 12:27 pm - Reply

      On it, Chris. Thanks.

  3. Bob /Norma Conroy May 11, 2015 at 9:13 pm - Reply

    I may be irish but i know you have to have sauce not gravy with meatball.
    Learned that by marrying a great italian girl.

    Bob Conroy

    • Ed May 12, 2015 at 12:26 pm - Reply

      OK, Bob. We will now make you Sicil-ish.

  4. Frederick May 13, 2015 at 8:56 am - Reply

    We called it sauce and it did take hours. Basil was essential. Never added sugar! Basil and onions made it sweet.Best was the fragrance in the kitchen and dunking fresh Italian bread to see if it was ready.Today Bettina users beef, pork and veal in the meatball mix – she uses bread along with the breadcrumbs .and adds some sirloin steak tips – delicious after the pasta.

    • Ed May 13, 2015 at 4:40 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Fred. I agree. As I read all these comments, I now believe this: “Italian or not…if it looks like gravy and you think it’s gravy, then…it’s GRAVY! But, it has to be red, not brown.”

  5. Mort White May 13, 2015 at 2:07 pm - Reply

    Hi Ed,
    Mom cooked it all day, My stepfather , Charlie Sepe did not know why it was a gravy. I thought it was gravy because it was added from a separate bowl with the meat. Although we often had a veal roast on Sundays. If the pasta was served with the sauce, I called it sauce.
    Because it was gravy , we poured it on.

    • Ed May 13, 2015 at 4:38 pm - Reply

      Stick with the gravy, Mort, and we will make you an honorary Italian. Now you pour it on.
      Once you used to ‘bring it on’

  6. Steve Mascena May 13, 2015 at 3:18 pm - Reply

    In our family we always referred to it as gravy weather it was cooked “con carne o senza carne.” While I can understand the distinction of calling it gravy depending on if there was meat included in the cooking process, I simply adhere to the “if it’s red, it’ sauce and if it’s brown, it’s gravy” explanation. That, and of course, my staunch refusal to believe otherwise. Sort of like the way toilet paper should come off the roll (from the bottom). To further add to the stew, the word for either sauce or gravy in Italian is “sugo. Buon appetito!

    • Ed May 13, 2015 at 4:36 pm - Reply

      Thank you, Steve. Except for the toilet paper, I agree.

  7. Linda Duguay May 16, 2015 at 9:32 pm - Reply

    I agree with many and think that if it’s a marinara it’s sauce but if it’s made with meat and simmers all day it’s a gravy. I’ve never really thought of my Italian mother’s gravy as being brown, but it is darker than a sauce. It’s funny, but what I have found is that people who are not Italian think of “gravy” as brown gravy like you put on mash potatoes so my aunt sometimes referred to it as “red gravy” to clarify. I find even now that I won’t use the word gravy with my friends at work because they don’t understand what I mean. My mother simmered garlic, onion and celery to start her gravy which I know most people don’t use the celery. She would simmer that for a really long time covered before adding tomato paste and then cook that up a bit before adding in a couple of cans of tomato. I was picky about eating meatballs or anything with ground beef so she would add an inexpensive cut of beef for me to the gravy. “Steak in the gravy” was my favorite and so tender and delicious with the pasta!

    • Ed May 16, 2015 at 9:49 pm - Reply

      Thank you, Linda. You reminded me of something my grandmother once said, “Never eat a meatball outside your home. You never know what went into it.” I guess now that I think about it, she probably meant, “My meatballs are the best. Well, I guess so!”
      And, they go into the gravy, Eh?

  8. George Terrill May 18, 2015 at 1:11 pm - Reply

    @ Steve… I always understood ‘Sugo” to be a juice of something like pear, apple, orange. Much like the Mexican “Jugo de naranja”, etc we are seeing in stores here in Indiana.

    Marin-ara was a “Marine (fish)” type of sauce/gravy either with fish bits in it or served over Mussels, for example. I was so surprised when I came to USA that Marinara was tomato puree here and rarely ever seasoned.

    Ragu was another term used in Italy for what is under discussion here.

    But then recipes and names vary from region to region, family to family. Just make it tasty and call it red stuff!!!. LOL!!

    • Ed May 18, 2015 at 9:41 pm - Reply

      Thanks, George. You are correct, and I agree! Region to region, town to town, family to family.

  9. George Terrill May 18, 2015 at 1:16 pm - Reply

    Oddly, in the US, Marina-ra has absolutely nothing to do with its marine origins. If there’s any meat present its often ground beef. Go figure.

    • Ed May 18, 2015 at 9:41 pm - Reply

      Thank you, George…again. Keep the comments coming. I love them.

  10. Tina Muccillo Rizkallah May 18, 2015 at 4:50 pm - Reply

    I have heard that it depended on what part of Italy your family came from. It my family – it was sauce, never gravy. And we always had lots of meat in it. In fact I had never heard of “gravy” till I dated a fellow Italian from Philly. He asked me if I wanted gravy and I had no idea what he was talking about – as it wasn’t Thanksgiving!!
    I also disagree with the toilet paper – its over the top. In fact I have recently seen a copy of the patent for the toilet paper roll (granted in was an internet thing – so you have to take it with a grain of salt, but the diagram firmly places the paper as going over the top of the roll!

    • Ed May 18, 2015 at 9:43 pm - Reply

      It does depend on the region, Tina. Including regions of the United States.

  11. John May 18, 2015 at 11:13 pm - Reply

    I still treasure the wooden spoon my grandmother used. It does have a small piece missing. It seems one Sunday morning, someone was taking too many meatballs out of the gravy on the stove and Norna cracked the spoon across his hand!

    • Ed May 19, 2015 at 12:51 am - Reply

      I’ll bet the meatballs in the gravy were worth the ‘crack’.

  12. Beverly Romano, Barrington May 25, 2015 at 3:22 pm - Reply

    As a child I grew up calling it gravy – and can clearly remember down our beach house everyone knew when the gravy was being prepared. They began shopping on Thursday afternoon & Friday —then prepped and cooked all day Saturday. Sunday morning my cousin and I knew our job. Sit there and grate the block of cheese ! I also remember my Mom & Aunt making rather large meatballs like mini loaves — browned then & put in the gravy! Very large pot – with rolled & seasoned browned thin steak tied with string cooked in the sauce. Then sliced on a separate platter to serve as side dishes. That was for a crowd. My grandmother would make home made pasta sometimes and always chicken or a roast to follow. Fruit, coffee and pastry came later. The Small round meatballs were made mostly for ourselves and now that’s all I make. As I grew older and married, now everyone calls it “sauce”….guess it sounded more American. ! Either way, still delicious. We had to wait an hour to digest before going swimming! Nice memories.

    • Ed May 25, 2015 at 9:05 pm - Reply

      Yes, Beverly , wonderful memories. I forgot how great the ‘gravy’ was at the beach! Thanks for sharing. Ummm, it might be time for a meatball sandwich… again.

  13. Antonette Ciunci Hudson May 25, 2015 at 7:41 pm - Reply

    Our family (father’s side) was from Teramo and it was gravy and had meat and meatballs. My grandmother was Norna too (not Nonna).

    • Ed May 25, 2015 at 9:08 pm - Reply

      Another ‘gravy’ weighs in. Thanks, Antonette.
      Some called my grandmother Mamma Nonn…fun stuff.

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