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Whether you call it ragu, sauce, or gravy there is no denying the rich, delicious flavor of Italian Gravy. As a kid, nothing turned around a miserable slog through slush and snow on the way home from school like opening the door and having the unmistakable smells of my mom’s famous spaghetti sauce smack me in the face. It filled the house with its savory aroma. My mother would have to guard it against the intrusion of exploratory spoons from her eager kids. We’d load the plates up with spaghetti to get as much gravy as possible, requiring side plates for the Italian salad that was always served alongside her Italian gravy. As adults, we’d fight over the leftovers. Each offspring smuggling their cherished container home for a highly-anticipated encore with the pasta of our choice.
Bolognese, Ragu, and Gravy – What’s the Difference?
When it comes to pasta sauces, bolognese, ragu, and gravy are all tomato-based and contain meat. There will be many variations of all three and debates on how they are prepared and the true differences. A quick search of the internet will turn up different styles from Naples, Umbria, Tuscany, Romagna, Lazio… just about any region of Italy with a distinct cultural heritage. The descriptions below are only a rough approximation, and of course, recipe variations are unique to each family.
Ragu is a tomato sauce made from sofrito and ground or chopped meat. For the ragu, the sofrito (usually onions, carrots, and celery) is cooked in olive oil before the meat is added. Wine is then added to deglaze the pan followed by tomato paste, stock, and herbs. The sauce simmers for several hours.
Bolognese is a type of ragu that originated from Bolognia and uses finely diced meat and vegetables. The vegetables (typically onion, carrots, and celery) are cooked in butter instead of olive oil until they are soft. The meat along with beef broth, crushed tomatoes, and milk for creaminess is added. The sauce is allowed to simmer for several hours before being served with pasta.
Sunday Gravy or Italian Gravy is also a ragu but instead of ground or chopped meat they tend to use large chunks of red meat, sausages, and meatballs. Technically there is no Italian word for gravy and the origin of gravy came from Italian immigrants trying to assimilate. The meat in Italian gravy is typically neck bones and whole sausages that are browned before the vegetables are cooked and the tomato paste and stock are added. Gravy is best when allowed to simmer all day which allows the meat to release its flavors.
Key Ingredients and Substitutions
This list reflects my family tradition, and a true Sunday gravy can utilize any type of bone in pork you have in the freezer.
In the printable recipe below, you can find a complete list of ingredients and measurements.
- Pork Neck Bones: The use of this unusual part of the pig surely originated with immigrant families only able to afford what the butcher had a hard time selling. This meat definitely benefits from the long braise in the gravy, imparting its own succulence to the mix including the collagen adding the silky texture. I couldn’t locate any neck bones, so I substituted some cross-cut rib tips which have many of the same qualities.
- Hot Italian Sausage: Johnsonville is the brand I grew up with, but any hot Italian-style sausage would work. If you don’t like spicy, using regular Italian sausage is important for those fennel notes, and you can always fine-tune the spice level by adding more or less red pepper flakes. Turkey Italian sausage could work for those who prefer to not eat red meat.
- Tomato Paste: It may be tempting to just add some canned or jarred tomato sauce, but the savoriness of this sauce comes from building up the fond and adding the umami found in tomato paste to enhance the deep, rich flavors. Stock can be used in place of the water for even more flavor, but it really isn’t necessary as the pork and sausage flavor the gravy while they simmer.
- Lawry’s Original Spaghetti Sauce Mix: This is also traditional to my family, and it adds a very specific flavor that isn’t necessarily ‘traditional.’ This is a faithful recreation of my mother’s ‘famous’ spaghetti sauce. It is traditional in the familial sense, which I think is in the spirit of a Sunday Gravy. It’s hard to find, however, and we had to buy online at Amazon. You can use a combination of garlic powder, onion powder, dried parsley flakes, salt, sugar, and Italian seasoning.
- Dried herbs: Usually I would use fresh herbs in a homemade sauce, but they would be overpowered in this setting. The combination of dried oregano, basil, and parsley blends into the overall flavors harmoniously, so it just works. I suggest using ‘freshly dried’ herbs if possible which are usually a deeper green and still have plenty of aromas.
How to Make Italian Gravy (or Sauce)
Here are the quick step-by-step instructions with visuals; you can find the full instructions with the exact ingredients in the recipe card below.
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Pro-tip: The longer this Italian gravy simmers the deeper the flavor.
1. Brown the Sausage: In a Dutch oven heat and add 1 to 2 ounces of olive oil on medium-high heat. Add the sausage uncut and brown on all sides. While the sausage is browning cut the rib tips between the bones creating 1½ to 2-inch cubes.
2. Brown the Pork: Turn the sausages onto their curved sides, leaning them against the side of the dutch oven. Then add cut pork tips, meat-side down, covering the bottom of the pot. After the meat has been evenly browned, remove it from the pot and set it aside.
3. Build the Foundations of the Gravy. Add a splash of olive oil to the Dutch oven and heat until shimmering. To the Dutch oven add the diced onions, sweating them until translucent. Move them around and scrape up the fond that formed from browning the sausage and pork tips. Add the minced or pressed garlic and sauté for 1 to 2 minutes stirring frequently to make sure you don’t burn the garlic. Add the tomato paste and work it into the onions and garlic, continuing to scrape the bottom of the Dutch oven to pick up the remaining fond.
4. Add the Herbs and Spices: Once the tomato paste has darkened a bit, usually after 3-5 minutes, add about half the water and mix thoroughly to a smooth consistency. To the tomato paste mixture add the Lawry’s mix and stir thoroughly again. Add the rest of the water and the dried herbs, making sure to scrape the bottom of the Dutch oven to mix everything together and that it has been completely deglazed.
5. Add the Meat to the Gravy: Cut each sausage link into 3-4 pieces. Then add them along with the pork back to the Dutch oven with the tomato paste mixture. Stir the sauce to evenly coat the sausage and pork then turn the heat to low and simmer for 2-4 hours.
6. Serve: Top your favorite pasta with the sauce along with pieces of sausage and pork meat. Sprinkle with grated or shredded cheese.
Make-Ahead and Storage
Make-Ahead: This is the perfect make-ahead sauce. You can put the pot on in the morning and allow it to simmer all day for the perfect pasta dinner. It can also be made days in advance and then reheated.
How to Store: Like most tomato-based sauces this Italian gravy freezes well. Once the sauce has cooled store it in a freezer-safe container or gallons-size freezer bag. Freeze bags are our preference since they can be placed flat in the freezer and stacked. The sauce can be frozen for up to 3 months. Store leftovers can also be refrigerated for 3 to 4 days in an air-tight container.
How to Reheat: Allow frozen sauce to thaw in the refrigerator before reheating. To reheat on the stovetop, transfer it to a pot and heat over medium heat stirring occasionally. The sauce may be thicker so add a splash or two of water to thin it to the desired consistency. To reheat in a microwave, transfer it to a microwave-safe dish and add a tablespoon or two of water. Heat at 15-30 second intervals and stir well.
Recipe Tips and Notes
- Fond is your friend. These brown bits of cooked sausage and pork will add a ton of flavor to the gravy.
- Don’t use canned or diced tomatoes. Canned tomatoes will dilute the rich, deep umami flavor that is produced from cooking the tomato paste in the fond.
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Mom’s Italian Gravy
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- 1½ pounds pork rib tips, cross-cut or pork neck bones if you can find them
- 3 links Johnsonville hot Italian sausage
- 12 ounces tomato paste
- 1 medium yellow onion, diced about 6 ounces
- 3 cloves garlic, pressed
- 3 ounces extra virgin olive oil
- 2 packets Lawry's original spaghetti sauce mix
- ½ tablespoon dried oregano
- ½ tablespoon dried basil
- ½ tablesppon dried parsley
- 4 cups water
- In a Dutch oven heat and add 1 to 2 ounces of olive oil on medium-high heat. Add the sausage uncut and brown on all sides.
- Cut the rib tips between the bones creating 1½ to 2-inch cubes.
- Turn the sausages onto their curved sides, leaning them against the side of the dutch oven, then add the cut pork tips, meat-side down, covering the bottom of the pot.
- Once the meat is evenly browned remove everything from the pot and set aside.
- Add a splash of olive oil and then the diced onions, sweating until translucent, moving them around to scrape up the fond formed from cooking the sausage and pork.
- Add the minced or pressed garlic and sauté for 1 to 2 minutes stirring frequently to make sure the garlic does not burn.
- Add the tomato paste and work it into the onions and garlic, continuing to scrape the bottom of the Dutch oven to pick up the remaining fond.
- Once the tomato paste has darkened a bit, usually after 3-5 minutes, add about half the water and mix thoroughly to a smooth consistency. Add the Lawry's mix and stir thoroughly.
- Add the remaining water and the dried herbs. With the wooden spoon scrape the bottom of the Dutch oven to ensure everything is well combined and that it has been completely deglazed.
- Cut each sausage link into 3-4 pieces and add them along with the pork back into the Dutch oven with the sauce. Stir to coat the meat well.
- Turn the heat to low and simmer for 2-4 hours.
- Serve over your favorite pasta and top with grated cheese.