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"Red sauce" Italian restaurants - what does it mean

I often see this description of Italian restaurants on the boards I've been searching. It's usually being used in a derogatory way (for instance I was warned against NYC's Little Italy as the restaurants are all "red sauce".)

But can you explain to this Brit what it refers to; what it means and how a "red sauce" place is different from other types.

It's not a term we have the UK. For us an Italian is an Italian is an Italian (although we might distinuish between northern and southern cuisine).

TIA

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  1. IMO, It's meant to describe the style of Italian cuisine and in my area, that would be more Italian-American with a variety of simple pasta or meat dishes involving a tomato based, usually long cooked, aka "gravy".

    1 Reply
    1. re: Den

      I think that's accurate. You're likely to see mostly pasta dishes with various versions of tomato based sauces (marinara, meat sauces, mushroom sauces, etc but all with tomato) and most likely the occasional linguini with clam sauce and appetizers like fried mushrooms or cheese bread. As opposed to "high end" Italian where you'd see more seafood preparations and other regional dishes.

      Personally, I like both and just because something is a "red sauce" restaurant doesn't mean I won't happily eat there. Most do mean it as a derogatory term.

    2. In the town where I grew up in California, all the Italian restaurants are "red sauce" places, meaning:

      The pasta is uniformly overcooked
      The quality of ingredients is sub-par
      There are often plastic grapes hanging from the ceiling, or a chianti bottle in a basket used as a candle for decorations
      The tablecloth is red and white checkered
      The "red sauce" is incredibly reduced and usually sweet. It is often poured over the pasta which wasn't drained properly, so the edges of the sauce become watery.
      The selections generally consist of spagetti, or penne, or linguine with a choice of red sauce, meat sauce, white sauce, or with meatballs or sausage
      Serves garlic bread that isn't rubbed with butter, but rather spread with a rather insipid mixture of butter and old pureed garlic
      Are generally "Famous for their lasagna"
      Generally serve meat or cheese ravioli that are commercially bought, not homemade
      Generally have a horrible wine selection
      Serve the salad with a selection of Ranch, Bleu Cheese, Thousand Island, or Vinaigrette

      In other words, in this day and age there is still remarkably some absolutely awful Italian food to be had. I'm not saying Italian needs to be fancy, but it's almost impossible to find a decent pasta pomodoro or pasta aglio olio, with 99% of "red sauce" restaurants browning the garlic.

      1 Reply
      1. re: fooddude37

        Why is being famous for lasagna a bad thing? It's probably my favorite dish (as well as my own specialty), and I've never heard of lasagna being dismissed as something low-end like tuna noodle casserole.

      2. "Red Sauce" can have good or bad connotations:

        Good -- familiar, comforting foods that perhaps arose more in Italian-American communities than in Italy itself. Obviously, this category would include a lot of tomato sauces, but would also feature baked and/or stuffed pasta dishes and dishes such as eggplant parmigiana. Done right, "red sauce" Italian can be wonderful, hearty, comforting food.

        Bad -- All of the issues identified by fooddude37. I recently endured a dreadful meal at a popular restaurant in Baltimore's Little Italy. My main course was a huge plate of mush that may have originated as pasta but had been transmogrified into something scary.

        One clue: If you ask for your pasta al dente, and the server doesn't know what you're talking about, it's not a good sign. Sadly, in many of the neighborhoods in major American cities known for Italian food, restaurants tend to veer toward the bad type of red sauce in an effort to pander to touristy tastes. I've found this to be true during recent visits to Little Italy in Baltimore and the Hill in St. Louis. On the other hand, I've often found the best red sauce Italian to be located in small neighborhood restaurants in suburban strip malls. Not all of these places are good, but there's an occasional gem out there.

        3 Replies
        1. re: silverbear

          "Transmogrified"...isn't that word coined by Calvin?? Excellent etymological reference...

          1. re: fooddude37

            Actually, transmogrify means to change in appearance or form, especially grotesquely or strangely...first coined mid-17th century. But certainly popularized by Calvin...usually involving a cardboard box.

          2. re: silverbear

            Silverbear says, "One clue: If you ask for your pasta al dente, and the server doesn't know what you're talking about, it's not a good sign"

            Huh. I have to say, most of the servers I've encountered would be not so much uncomprehending of the term "al dente," as stunned at what that request *implies*.

          3. "Red sauce" Italian doesn't really distinguish a good vs. bad restaurant but describes a type of food that is considered Italian-American food. I've been to plenty of "red sauce" italian restaurants that executes their classics very well. They typically have dishes like baked ziti, chicken/veal/eggplant parmesan, linguini with white or red clam sauce, spaghetti with meatballs, etc.

            If you are looking for regional italian food (or even "authentic" Italian) then you should most definitely avoid places categorized as red sauce.

            4 Replies
            1. re: ESNY

              Thanks, folks. I think I begin to understand now. Not always bad - but not great. And I'm certainly familiar with neighbourhood restaurants with at least some of fooddude37's markers

              I adore baked ziti, though . It's not a dish that regularly appears on restaurant menus in the UK - and I'd never heard of it until I watched an episode of the Sopranos. Have now discovered a nearby place that serves it - I'd describe it as "red sauce - with pretensions" (?)

              John

              1. re: Brit on a Trip

                it can be great - but for people who have a fetish for "authentic" italian food it is a deragatory term - as they don;t recognize italian-american cuisine as its own entity with a history of over a century

                1. re: thew

                  Fascinating how threads can resurrect themselves after several years gap.

                  I barely remember my original alter ego of "Brit on a Trip" - a name I coined prior ot our last visit to America.

                  1. re: Harters

                    That was you? Heh.

                    Sooo......do you enjoy distinctly 'full-throated' Eye-talian-'Murcan stuff nowadays on your visits? :-)

            2. I always used the term to refer to the little restaurants in Brooklyn neighborhoods patronized by people whose ancestors came from little villages in the region around Naples (e.g. Teggiano) and serving dishes which represent the fruit of seeds (recipes) brought from Italy and then grown for a hundred years on American soil. Many dishes are served with red sauces, but there are many many different red sauces. Whenever I come here, I told one restaurant-owner, I wear a red shirt so the spots are less noticeable.