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Authentic Italian Gravy

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My next door neighbor is a 70-something Italian lady with an accent so thick that most of the time I have no idea what she is saying. Periodically she brings us a bowl of "gravy" - the most delicious tomato sauce I have ever had (with meatballs and sausage in it). Short of standing over her while she makes it (and I'm not sure she'd go for that), I'm at a loss as how to replicate it. I know how to make the kind of homemade sauce my mom always made - but this stuff is much more flavorful and subtle. Can anyone help?

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  1. Having tried, for years, to make a good "gravy" or fine fine tomato-meat sauce like this Italian granny can do, I can tell you you have to go to the source for it.

    There was, long ago, a fantastic Italian restaurant my family used to frequent. The owner/chef, made the finest, smoothest, most flavorful sauce I've ever tasted, before or since. He wouldn't share exactly what it was, but there were a couple of surprising things in it that he did tell us about.

    The sauce was simmered, for a long long time, with lots of chicken backs. A good bony cut of meat, whether it's beef, or chicken, or even pork, will impart a great amount of flavor, if cooked properly over a long period of time.

    White pepper was another secret ingredient.

    If the sauce was served with a meat (a meatball, sausage, etc), the meat that went with it was not cooked with the sauce until 20-30 minutes before serving. The meat that was long simmered in the sauce was removed and discarded.

    If you're wondering, I've never even been close at replicating the original. I don't have the Italian granny/grandpa/chef to tell me how, and I guess I don't have the genes for it, either! I never got the recipe (it was proprietary, which I understand), and sadly the chef has passed away. My advice to you is to flatter this fine Italian lady as much as possible, and ask her if, sometime (when she chooses) you may watch her make it and take notes. She may well say no, so be prepared. This chef/owner was a longtime close friend of our family, and he never shared his secret, so you may not get hers. :) Good luck to you.

    20 Replies
    1. re: Mrs. Smith

      Are you asking for a recipe? I am from upstate N.Y. where practically everyone's sauce tastes similar and my sauce comes from my ex's grandmother with my own subtle variations of course. I don't use any garlic and the onion is taken out after being sauteed in olive oil. The majority of flavor comes from the tomatoes and the meat, a high quality superior sausage is a must. I have searched all over the N. Shore of Boston where I now live and have finally found two sources of great sausage. Adding pork bones or a rib or two also adds a great flavor and of course so do meatballs however I tend to put in only a few as they absorb a lot of the sauce and you won't have such a great pot! I get rave reviews about my sauce, I think because it is very very traditional. (My own grandmother 100% Sicilian, never even put garlic or onion or any spices in her sauce, just the flavor of the meat and freshly grated cheese over homemade macaroni and her stuff would make you swoon!)

      1. re: 4chowpups

        I agree that the best way to replicate the sauce would be to watch and take notes. Italian mammas can never tell you how they make something - it's always "a bit of this, a bit of that"! EVERYONE has their own way of making tomato sauce and no two people will make it the same way. Every single one of my aunts' sauces taste different which is interesting when you consider they were raised by one person who taught them. My sister and I also make our sauce the exact same way but there is always a subtle difference in the taste. Good luck!

        1. re: 4chowpups

          Would love a recipe. I know I'm going to have to fiddle with it to get it to my taste - but the recipes I have started with have been way off the mark.

          We're in Somerville, so I would also be interested in your sausage supplier, if you're inclined to share the info?

          1. re: Weiszguy

            Hi. I posted the supplier which I think is now on the Boston board however I would think there would be great sausage in/around Boston?? I would be happy to share my recipe,just email me directly. FYI my meatballs have raisins (1 per meatball) in them (optional, it's a regional thing, my grandmother put pignolia nuts and raisins in hers, my exs grandmother, just raisins!).

          2. re: 4chowpups

            4chowpups, please follow the link below to the Boston board, I'd love to know where you get your sausage!

            Link: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...

          3. re: Mrs. Smith

            I know this thread is old - but I just made some delicious sunday gravy yesterday so I thought I'd chip in.

            Disclaimer: I am neither Italian or a grandma...actually I'm an asian dude, so you should probably take my method with a grain of salt.

            For me the key to a great Sunday gravy is in the selection of meats. I want a combination of ground and whole pork and beef products in my gravy., along with some bones. I don't have a set recipe but I use one or more of the following:

            Pork neck bones
            Pork ribs
            Hot/Sweet sausage
            Some form of stew beef
            Meatballs
            Braciola (I usually omit because it's the hardest ingredient to prep)

            Yesterday I used the following combination of meats:
            Spicy Italian Sausage
            Baby back ribs cut into single pieces
            Meatball: (beef+pork), parmesan, pecorino, basil, crushed red peppers, finely chopped salami, panade, garlic, stuffed with a cube of mozz
            1 lb piece of brisket

            A rough recipe goes like this:

            1. Brown the meats. I try to get as much deep browning on the meats as possible. The browning is more for flavor development of the sauce than the meat itself (the 'brown' bits will sort of wash off the meat during the simmering) So I brown the meats as much as possible until I feel the fond on the pan is dark enough.

            2. Throw in a couple diced onions and pick up the fond. Saute for a few minutes.

            3. Throw in as much chopped garlic as you'd like (half a head or so for me), some tomato paste, oregano, and crushed red pepper. Cook until tomato paste is dark brown and fond develops on the bottom of the pan again.

            4. Deglaze with some combination of water, beef stock, chicken stock, red wine. Yesterday I went with red wine and beef stock.

            5. Add a bunch of canned tomato (I'm not too picky on the type - yesterday I went with 1 can of crushed and 1 whole), and throw in a big sprig of basil and some bay leaves. I leave the basil whole and fish out the whole stem later.

            6. Check for seasoning, return all meats (except meatball - I usually start making the meatballs after this step) to the pot, and throw the whole thing into a 300 degree oven.

            7. Make meatballs and brown in pan. After the gravy has simmered in the oven for 2+ hours, add meatballs to the pot and let simmer another 30 minutes.

            8. Take out all the meat from the pot. Set aside all meats on a separate tray and skim the fat. There will be a LOT. After skimming, take the stew beef (brisket in this case) and shred the meat using a fork and return the shredded beef to the sauce, along with some fresh chopped basil.

            That's about it! I throw in a scoop of the sauce into the pasta to keep it from sticking and then it's ready to serve. I prefer to serve my sunday gravy build-your-own family style - a pot of pasta, a plate of meats, and a pot of sauce. And maybe some garlic bread. Everyone can go with their preferred meat combo. Not only is sunday gravy delicious, it's really economical also! I think I spent 50$ on everything - we fed nearly 10 people and I still have enough left over to make a whole nother batch!

            1. re: joonjoon

              I eat JoonJoon's gravy everytime he makes it and I LOVE IT! This particular recipe he detailed above was especially delicious! I ate till I popped! "Gui!!"

              1. re: joonjoon

                Interesting! My concept of pasta sauce is that it also contains a soffritto. Soffritto of onion, celery, carrot for sweetness to temper the acid of the tomato product, garlic and green bell pepper. My wife is the one with the Italian genes, she calls it 'gravy' because of the meat and sausage that is added to the sauce. I MIEI ANTENATI NON ERANO ITALIANI (my ancestors were not Italian, that's my disclaimer), so after 51+ years of marriage, I still torture my wife by calling 'SAUCE.' Did I miss something when I read your recipe?

                Buon appetito! Vivi, ama, ridi e mangia bene (LIve, love, laugh and eat well)!

                1. re: ChiliDude

                  Hey Chilidude, carrots and celery are always welcome in a pot of anything in my book!

                  As I mentioned, this is just a rough method and not really a recipe. I tried to highlight the things that are absolutely necessary for gravy but if there's anything else you want in there, well that's what makes cooking fun. I think I'll try adding some celery and carrots next time I make my Sunday gravy!

                2. re: joonjoon

                  joonjoon you're good ....I'm a Sicilian American and it sounds real good to me .I am amused at the term authentic and Italian Grandma's .Growing up in an Italian neighborhood in the 1950's the old ladies would argue what should not be put in a dish ,a sauce ,sugo,ragu etc Raisins ?????no never or of course raisins ,cheese in the sauce never what are you ubotza (crazy) ?.They were so serious so passionate .Now when I offer my opinion advising that for an authentic touch add pig skin or fresh pork necks. I hear ewww !!!! what are you crazy???

                  1. re: scunge

                    Thanks scunge! I take compliments on red sauce coming from an actual Italian. :) I've never had the pleasure of being around a serious Italian family but I imagine their conversations about "gravy" being a lot like how Korean moms are with their Kimchi preparation - and of course your mom/grandma's is always the best!

                    Pig skin! That's one I never heard before...but you know what, I bet adding some "undesirable" cuts like skin, foot, or even tripe would make for a delicious gravy! I have some beef cheek in my freezer that I may add to my next batch.

                    1. re: joonjoon

                      The undesirable cuts.are for many old timers the desirable and much wanted items by those who moved away from those neighborhoods they grew up in .A friend of mine who move to a rural upstate N.Y area would ask me to bring him the pork skin and salumi made with out @#@#$%& High Fructose Corn Syrup. Tripe cooked in a red peppered laced red sauce with potato ,onion and peas served with crusty or day old bread. It was glorious PEASANT FARE before high cholesterol , PRIME CUTS ,TV cooks etc

                    2. re: scunge

                      I have to say that the Sicilian dialectic word for crazy is a new one for me. Never heard that one before. I've been told that i Siciliani have a dialect that mainlanders cannot understand. There are two words in 'standard' Italian for crazy that I know...pazzo e matto.

                      1. re: scunge

                        +1 on the pork skin and neck bones while the sauce is cooking down!!!!

                      2. re: joonjoon

                        Excellent! Shredded brisket is brilliant.

                        Don't forget to fry some tomato paste in a little of the grease left in the meatball pan, then deglaze and add to the sauce.

                        1. re: carbonaraboy

                          Thanks carbonaraboy, that was the first time I used brisket in gravy and I gotta say, it just took the sauce to another level. Like meat sauce but WAY better.

                          1. re: carbonaraboy

                            Think I'll sub brisket for braciole next time around, sounds tasty. Bones are key, I prefer lamb or veal shanks if I can find. Whenever I spot some, I buy them and freeze for the future, you only need one at a time. In addtion I've been throwing in 3 or 4 country ribs. Neck bones fall apart on me and someone always gets a little shard in their dish, to my embarrassment.

                            1. re: coll

                              Yes, beef and pork neck bones will splinter a bit. If using them, braise separately in wine and stock (after browning). Then sift. shred, and add.

                              I like the beef/pork rib route best, but neck bones can be had much more cheaply. Beef shank is also excellent, and pork shank if you can find it.

                          2. re: joonjoon

                            I agree with joonjoon that browning the meats well is what gives the gravy its "je ne sais quoi." I also "deglaze" the meatball pan with a little stock and toss it into the sauce with the meatballs. Coating the meatballs with flour aids with browning, so I sometimes do that, too.

                            1. re: zamorski

                              I love flour coated browned meatballs, and I don't enjoy the meatballs half as much if they are uncoated. When my grown with her own kids daughter saw me do it, she said I'd been holding out on her. If she'd asked I'd have told here in a heartbeat!!. I don't know where I picked up that habit, might have been from out neighbors in NJ - the Yulos, Sapagnolos, Falangos, Pomaros.....whaddya think?

                        2. This recipe is paraphrased from one that was published in the Washington Post in 2002:

                          Sunday Gravy with Meatballs

                          FOR THE SAUCE:
                          2 tablespoons olive oil
                          1 pound meaty pork neck bones or spareribs
                          1 pound veal stew meat or 2 veal shoulder chops
                          1 pound Italian plain or fennel pork sausages
                          4 garlic cloves, peeled
                          1/4 cup tomato paste
                          3 cans Italian peeled tomatoes (35-ounce ea)
                          Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
                          6 fresh basil leaves, torn into small pieces
                          FOR THE MEATBALLS:
                          1 pound ground beef or a combination of beef and pork
                          1/2 cup plain dried bread crumbs
                          2 large eggs
                          1 teaspoon very finely minced garlic
                          1/2 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (about 2 ounces)
                          2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh flat-leaf (Italian) parsley
                          Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
                          2 tablespoons olive oil, plus additional for the pan

                          For the sauce: Heat the oil in a large deep pot, a Le Creuset French oven is great for this, pat the pork dry and brown it on all sides over medium heat -- about 15 minutes. Remove the pork from the pot and reserve.

                          Brown the veal in the same way, remove it from the pot and reserve.

                          Place the sausages in the pot and brown on all sides. Remove and reserve.

                          Drain almost all of the fat from the pot. Turn the heat down to medium-low, add the garlic and cook about two minutes or until light brown (be careful not to burn or the gravy will be bitter.) Remove the garlic from the pan. Add the tomato paste and cook, stirring, for one minute.

                          Add the tomatoes (including juice) to the pot and add salt and pepper, to taste. If you want a smoother sauce puree the tomatoes with the juice with a food mill before you add them to the sauce.

                          Add the reserved meats to the pot. Add the basil, turn the heat up to medium-high and bring the sauce to a simmer. Partially cover the pot and simmer, stirring occasionally, for two hours. If the sauce thickens too much, add a little water.

                          While the sauce is cooking, make the meatballs.

                          For the meatballs: Using your hands, mix the ground beef, bread crumbs, eggs, garlic, cheese, parsley, salt and pepper in a large bowl. Rinse your hands with cold water and lightly roll this mixture into little balls (about the size of small grapes.) This makes about 144 tiny meatballs. You may make them larger if you wish.

                          In a large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat, heat the oil. Add the meatballs and cook, turning as necessary, until browned on all sides but not cooked through. (Don't crowd the skillet; you may have to cook these in batches.) Add additional oil, if necessary, to keep the meatballs from sticking. Transfer the meatballs to a plate; they will finish cooking later.

                          After the sauce has simmered for 2 hours, add the meatballs to the sauce and cook, stirring occasionally, until the sauce thickens, the meatballs are cooked through and the larger meats are tender, about 30 minutes.

                          To use in Baked Ziti, remove the meats from the sauce with a slotted spoon. Use the meatballs for the Baked Ziti. Reserve the pork, veal and sausage for a second course or for another meal or dice and add to the Sunday Gravy that remains and reserve both for another meal or just serve all the meats, including the meatballs, with this wonderful gravy.

                          8 cups

                          Paraphrased from: 2002-09-04 "Italian Recipes for the Family That Eats Together"
                          Washington Post 2002

                          1. Maybe her secret is to let it simmer for a long time? Tell her the truth. You want it. Ask her how you can get her sauce for the rest of your life and hold our your arms to offer her a big hug. See if she goes for it. Say "deliciouso" and then "Squisiti" and "Siete salsa siete molto squisiti." And, then maybe "Modo mio." Maybe she'll tell/show you. If she doesn't offer, just enjoy it while you can. Translation at http://world.altavista.com/

                            Short of that, maybe take her something you make or bake or love. Maybe a jar of really yummy commercial jam?

                            Anyway, about a "gravy" - I have found that the simmer time is easier these days in a crock pot and using short ribs brings in much flavor, but I doubt that's what she is doing. Does she use a pressure cooker? Maybe most of the flavor comes from her sausage? Do you know where she gets it? That's probably in the "gravy" the longest and the meatballs stirred in later. And, does she use fresh herbs from her garden? Who does she go grocery shopping with - does she drive herself and can you offer to do that?

                            1. About 3 or so years ago, The NYT published a sunday gravy recipe from a NY City firehouse cook named John Sineno. It contains meatballs but also hot and sweet sausage and spare ribs.

                              Exceedingly tasty. Unfortunately, I'm not up to posting a non-verbatim version but I can send it to you if you like.

                              2 Replies
                              1. re: SandraV

                                Sandra, Could you please send me the recipe you speak about?? Mouth is watering...Thanks, Dave

                                1. re: kesia

                                  This is probably the article Sandra wrote about (recipe is on the last page of the article) -

                                  http://www.nytimes.com/2002/03/13/din...

                              2. the plan: bake something delicious, put it in nice packaging, include the recipe (it must be something delicious or this plan will surely backfire). Happy Easter, signora! keep in mind there is said to be almost no society as tit for tat as italy and go home and cross your fingers.

                                the back up plan: buy the Rao's cookbook, or Lidia Bastianich's italian american cookbook on Amazon.