Alicia correctly pointed out that if you went into any restaurant in Italy and asked for gravy on your pasta, they'd look at you funny. True Italians call it sauce...marinara sauce, putanesca sauce, Bolognaise sauce, but NEVER gravy. It started me thinking about what we called it growing up Italian in Brooklyn, and I remember my mother and aunts referring to it as gravy. My theory is that the term originated with Italian-Americans whose ancestors came from Southern Italy where cooking is in the peasant-style and more down-to-earth. Subtle and complex tomato sauces came from places like Rome and other cities in Northern Italy who use different ingredients to flavor them. Immigrant Italians from Southern Italy made thick, rich, flavorful Sunday gravy, period.
There are many ways to make gravy, even within our family, where my Mom and her two sisters learned how to cook from their mother, their recipes varied. My Aunt Anna was the purist, often making her own pasta from scratch early on Sunday mornings. We lived across the hall from her, and sometimes I would wander in and see her standing behind a large kitchen table where she had laid out pasta dough cut into shapes like little hats, bows or noodles. She would then dust these with flour before cooking them for Sunday dinner. Her gravy was delicious and was often one of the courses at our holiday dinners. Her husband, my Uncle Jim, came from Italy and, like most Italians, loved his macaroni. He would sit at the table with a small pen knife cutting up yard-grown, red hot peppers onto his pasta. He would wash it all down with harsh homemade red wine sipped from a pint-sized flagon with a metal spout.
My mother made the best meatballs and braccioles. Her secret was fennel seeds in the meatballs, and raisins and pignoli nuts rolled into the braccioles. Her cooking was plain in the Southern Italian style, but hearty and delicious. My Aunt Mary (I hope she will forgive me for saying this) was probably the least gifted of the three sisters in the kitchen. Her gifts lay elsewhere, mainly in starting and operating small businesses in a day when women in business were not all that common. Aunt Mary was the Ralph Kramden of the family, who always had an idea for making money. She also had a patient, understanding husband, my Uncle Nick, who encouraged and helped her. The difference between her and Ralph was that many of her ideas actually worked.
Italians will usually swear that nobody cooked like their mothers. All Italian women had their little tricks for making the best Sunday gravy...some insisted that meatballs only be made from a mixture of ground up beef, veal and pork; others added ingredients like red wine, pork skin, ribs, or even hard-boiled eggs to liven up their gravy. (I love eggs almost any way you can cook them, but I draw the line at putting them in Sunday gravy.) Great scenes on the big screen featuring "gravy tips" include Clemenza in "The Godfather" teaching the "made" guys who were in the middle of a shooting war how to make three-meat meatballs and to always add a little red wine, and Paul Sorvino in "Goodfellas" showing Mafia guys in jail how to use a razor to slice garlic paper-thin so that it dissolved in the gravy.
In our family we are not as unwavering as the old timers who made it a non-negotiable rule that Sundays and Wednesdays were strictly macaroni days. I will say that when we do sit down to an old fashioned, noisy Italian Sunday dinner, with plates flying all over the place and aunts, uncles. cousins and friends talking over each other, it still gives me a feeling I can't quite put into words. It's almost like the spirits of those aunts, uncles, cousins and friends long gone are somehow still with us. I feel blessed having been born and raised Italian, proud to be part of a people who may be imperfect, but who know how to eat, drink. laugh and love with the best of them. A la famiglia!
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