Sunday Gravy: This Classic Italian-American Dish Is the Perfect Antidote for a Chill Winter's Day

By Freedman, Dan | The Saturday Evening Post, January-February 2012 | Go to article overview
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Sunday Gravy: This Classic Italian-American Dish Is the Perfect Antidote for a Chill Winter's Day


Freedman, Dan, The Saturday Evening Post


THE AROMA OF A GARLIC-LADEN tomato sauce spiked with sausage, meatballs, and rolled-up meat braciola can bring tears to the eyes of many Italian-Americans.

Sunday gravy, also known as Sunday sauce, evokes memories of weekend family gatherings in which morn or grandma presided over the constantly stirred pot of sauce and meat, and various relatives were tasked with procuring the essential provisions--the cannoli and sesame bread from the bakery or the wine from the cellar.

Sunday gravy was more than just a big, belt-loosening meal. In close-knit Italian-American homes, it was a virtual religion. "Each Sunday, we were constantly traveling to homes of different relatives," says John Mariani, a New York food author whose books include How Italian Food Conquered the World. "It truly was a moveable feast."

The proprietors of Frankies Spuntino restaurant in Brooklyn, Frank Falcinelli and Frank Castronovo, write that "Sunday sauce--the meal, the menu, the way of life-is the source and summation" of their restaurant business.

They recall how on Sundays their family kitchens would "start to fill with that hunger-inducing humidity, the tomato and pork simmering away in the pot."

Castronovo remembered that Sundays "even when I was a teenager and wanted to be a punk ... I'd still stop and eat at my grandma's house before the rest of the day went down."

The best Sunday gravy simmers on the stove for hours, permitting the ingredients (the meat choices are seemingly limitless) to infuse the sauce with an unparalleled meatiness that no quickie marinara could ever hope to replicate. The long, slow cooking time was also time for families to spend with each other, reinforcing ties that could withstand the harsh realities of the outside world.

In a way, the history of Sunday gravy encapsulates the story of Italian immigration to the U.S. and the prosperity succeeding generations found in America. "Very, very impoverished Southern Italian women, whose only reason for living was giving birth to children and feeding them, suddenly found an abundance of cheap food in the U.S.," Mariani says. "It radically changed their self image."

The meats in the sauce became a symbol of plenty. Meat had been a rarity in the old country, and if there was any of it at all in a meal, it was usually pork. But in the U.S., immigrant women bought beef "because they could," Mariani said. Mariani, whose Virtual Gourmet newsletter is available at johnmariani.com, describes his father as coming from a traditional Italian-American family while his mother, though of Italian descent, grew up in more Americanized surroundings.

Before his father's parents would bless the marriage, Mariani's grandmother "demanded that my morn must learn how to make Sunday gravy."

Along with the other staples of Italian-American cuisine, Sunday gravy has vaulted from family food to the culinary mainstream, even as a once-in-a-while treat for today's health-conscious eaters. TV food stars Rachael Ray and Giada De Laurentiis regularly feature touched-up variations on the classic Italian-American repertoire. And, although The Sopranos is widely despised by Italian-American for its twisted depiction of their cherished family values, the show often featured sumptuous Sunday meals with pots and pots of sauce, meat, and pasta-and the cookbook spawned by the show features a Sunday gravy recipe.

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