Sunday Gravy

This classic Italian-American dish is the perfect antidote for a chill winter’s day.

Mom's Sauce
Tomatoes brim with lycopene, an antioxidant that guards against heart disease and cancer.

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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 mom 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, 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 mom 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-Americans 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.

For better or worse, 21st-century America has made celebrating the Sunday tradition much more difficult for families. “Sunday is now a time for attending soccer games, getting in 18 holes of golf … or watching three NFL games without interruption,” Mariani says.

But Mariani and other Italian-American food advocates nevertheless remain intent on keeping tradition alive. “My family still gets together on Sunday afternoons just as it always has, and the food is as good as it ever was,” Falcinelli wrote in The Frankies Spuntino Kitchen Companion & Cooking Manual. “Growing up, I didn’t see it as an amazing culinary tradition, but I did appreciate how good the eating was.”

Mom’s SauceRecipe courtesy John Mariani.

(Makes 10 servings)

    Mom's Sauce
    Before his father’s parents would bless their marriage, food writer John Mariani’s grandmother demanded that his mom learn how to make Sunday gravy.
  • 2/3 cup olive oil
  • 3 large onions, chopped
  • 2 large carrots, chopped
  • 1 celery stick, chopped
  • 6 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 4 teaspoons salt (optional)
  • 1 ½ teaspoons freshly ground pepper
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 2 teaspoons oregano
  • 1 cup water
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 3 28-ounce cans Italian whole tomatoes, crushed or coarsely chopped
  • 1 6-ounce can tomato paste
  • Directions
    1. In large stockpot, heat olive oil. When hot, add onions, carrots, and celery. Sauté on medium heat for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally until lightly browned. Push vegetables to the side and add garlic. Season vegetables with some of the salt (optional) and pepper and cook for another 2 minutes.

    2. Add bay leaves, oregano, water, sugar, tomatoes, and tomato paste to stockpot. Mix well and bring to boil. Season with rest of the salt (optional) and pepper. Reduce heat to low or medium-low and let cook for 45 minutes. Adjust seasonings. Sauce improves if made day before.

    Nutrition Facts
    Per serving of Sauce
    Calories: 241
    Total Fat: 17 g (Sat. Fat: 2 g)
    Sodium: 50 mg*
    Carbohydrates: 22 g
    Fiber: 5 g
    Protein: 4 g
    Diabetic Exchanges: 1.5 carbohydrate

    *If you leave out optional salt and use no-salt-added canned tomatoes.

    Tip: This sauce may be used in making lasagna or served with pasta of your choice. For Sunday gravy, add meats to sauce before serving. The end game is serving a sauce heaped with a variety of meats—take your pick. Meats that need tenderizing benefit from hours cooked in Sunday gravy, and they impart a wonderful meaty flavor. If adding meatballs, however, draw off some sauce and add meat-balls to it. Simmer them in the gravy, then add back to the main sauce.

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