HOME > Chowhound > General Topics >


"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).


  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  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" (?)


              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.

              1. You might also hear "red sauce Italian" used in describing a more southern Italian cuisine - one that relies more on tomatoes than northern Italian does. I don't necessarily think of the term as being derogatory.

                1 Reply
                1. re: Deenso

                  Totally agree - it's a homey, rustic style of cooking as opposed to the more "refined" cuisine of the north. Heavy on tomatoes and seafood, it's comfort food when done well. But I do agree with other posters that the term is often used in a derogatory sense.

                2. In Philly we're rather proud of all of the (mostly BYO) red gravy (not red sauce) restaurants we have. Like anywhere, some are better than others and it all depends on if you want a really good lasagne, veal parmagiana, or spaghetti and meatballs and don't feel like making it yourself. Nothing wrong with that. The ones I go to make their own pasta, have access to excellent veal, and serve good antipasta and bread. The best serve food using recipes that are closely guarded family secrets and are nothing to be sneered at. We also have plenty of restaurants that serve excellent regional Italian cuisine that is much less tomato based. It just depends on what you're in the mood for.

                  6 Replies
                  1. re: Ellen

                    Ellen, what do you recommend for good byo;red gravy restaurants in Philly?

                    1. re: fan4food

                      Well the one place I would always go to in philly was Villa Di Roma. I never had a dish with a red gravy on it either.

                      Excellent clams oreganata as an appetizer, chicken neopolitan (chicken in an excellent olive oil and garlic sauce), or chicken livers Romano or Caruso.

                      They have all the traditional stuff too, but a lot of unique dishes as well.

                    2. re: Ellen

                      In the Queens neighborhood of my youth, "gravy" was usually reserved for the Sunday meal when the base sauce included braccioli, sausages, meatballs, etc. A straight tomato/basil/olive oil/garlic rendition - with no meat - was "sauce".

                      And I totally agree: "red sauce" restaurants can be as good or as bad as any other kind of eating establishment - just like pizzerias!

                      1. re: Striver

                        I think "gravy" is a translation in some parts of the US of "sugo" as opposed to salsa - that is a sauce made by braising meats in a tomato sauce. A time-honoured way of cooking in some Italian regions where there were a lot of tomatoes (and cheap red wine) and meat was usually tough as it had been on the hoof in mountainous areas - making it tasty but far too tough to eat as a steak.

                        I have never heard it here in Mtl (despite a lot of strange influences from French and English in Italian terms) - marchéta = marché(market) = mercato), ruella = ruelle (alley or lane) = vicolo, garbage - pronounced in a way that doesn't exist in English, let alone French or Italian = rifiuti... or anywhere in Canada, though perhaps someone has.

                        I think it has become derogatory not only from a certain form of food snobbery but also because it is associated with dreadful chains (here - "East Side Mario's - a fake NYC Italian resto). But at its best it means an unpretentious family restaurant with good homey food.

                        Italian emigrant food has evolved just as much elsewhere - I've been to Argentine barbecues where alll the salads and sides were pure Italian, but the meat/veg ratoio would be utterly unfathomable in Italy! Think something similar has happened in Australia...

                        1. re: lagatta

                          'Gravy' was my family's generic name for red sauce, meat or not. Just as pizza was called a-pizza. Both were delicious in my family.

                          As to 'red sauce/gravy' places, I find most of them homey and unpretentious and perfectly fine in terms of food and prices and servers.

                          I wish I could say the same for most of the snooty 'authentic' Italian places I've been to. Fortunately, there are new ones in lower Westchester that are quite good to outstanding.

                      2. re: Ellen

                        I have to agree with Ellen. I don't think the "red sauce" connotation is a bad thing at all. In Philly, a "red gravy" place serves all kinds on non- sauce dishes, like linguine & clams or veal. Sometimes you're in the mood for an excellent eggplant parmigiana or a veal francaise with local crusty bread.

                        As far as "red gravy" places go in Philly, here's my list:
                        Villa di Roma (my favorite)
                        Bomb Bomb Bar & Grille (their known for their ribs, but they make a great chicken parm)

                      3. Note to the OP: Apparently they also use the same misnomers in the UK as in the US . ""Northern or Southern Italian" cuisine. There is NO such thing! Cuisine in Italy is regional, varies greatly between all 20 regions.

                        1. I see this old thread got bumped. This is a red sauce place in RI (located in a VFW hall!) that most chowhounds would kill to have in their neighborhood. Note: The menu pictured on the wall is only part of the entire menu.


                          1 Reply
                          1. re: Bob W

                            From the article in your link: "I guess there’s a lot of people that are adamant about not eating veals because of the way farmers treat the fish". ???

                          2. I've always took it to denote a casual pizza/pasta joint where there is one master pot of tomato based sauce that is modified to fit any dish on the menu.

                            2 Replies
                            1. re: Duppie

                              FoodDude's got it right! Although sometimes that lasagna is "award winning". I try to avoid places that tout their red sauce. Brown sauce, pink sauce, white sauce. Where am I, in a paint store? Instead of a menu I get handed a color chart? I believe it's simply a pride issue. C'mon chefs and menu writers. Get creative and authentic.

                              1. re: chefdaddyo

                                I foolishly replied to a four-year-old post yesterday, but why is famous or award winning lasagna a bad thing? Lasagna is probably my favorite dish (as well as my own specialty), and I've never heard of it being dismissed as something low-end or crappy.

                            2. wow, so strange how old threads get revived. I find the term "red sauce joint" a little insulting and a bit bigoted. Similar connotations aren't perpetuated or tolerated at jewish delis or chinese takeout places, so why should italians bear the brunt?

                              14 Replies
                              1. re: BiscuitBoy

                                Oh, I think Chinese takeout places also get labeled. Maybe there's no equivalent ubiquitous term like red sauce, but the word gets out regarding whether a place serves authentic Chinese dishes or not, and it has nothing to do with whether the food is actually any good.

                                As for Jewish delis, they are such a miniscule part of the dining scene nowadays I think they are more a curiosity than anything. People just don't eat deli much any more.

                                1. re: Bob W

                                  Really?? I wasn't aware of that but, I can see where that might be true. Deli meats are too expensive to have on a regular basis.

                                2. re: BiscuitBoy

                                  I don't.I still enjoy a good honest spaghetti and meatballs,baked ziti and shrimp scampi sitting at a checked tablecloth table lit by a candle in a straw clad wine bottle. cliche perhaps and even a bit hokey but not bigoted in the least.

                                  1. re: Duppie

                                    I love the food and the atmosphere too, it's the phrase that bothers me...or maybe the jerky snoots who toss it around, and think they're experts on my heritage, culture and traditions. Then again we italians are big of heart and character, and dismiss struns (assholes, stronzi) like that. If not bigoted, then hugely insensitive. We don't refer to old school german cuisine as "beer drenched goose-stepping joints" now do we?

                                    1. re: BiscuitBoy

                                      Back up there BB.. There's a big difference between using a tag to describe a sauce or topping intrinsic to a cuisine or restaurant type and actually spelling out a racial or political stereotype as outrageous as it may be.
                                      I humbly believe you're being rather oversensitive about the term, just for reference, here on the East coast your typical red sauce joint has just as much chance of being owned and operated by Greeks,Latinos and Arabs as a Italian American.

                                      1. re: Duppie

                                        arabs? halal sausage and peppers?!!

                                        1. re: BiscuitBoy

                                          There have been stranger combinations....

                                      2. re: BiscuitBoy

                                        "Red sauce" is two neutral words that are neutral together. "Drenched" is not a neutral term, and "goose-stepping" is completely pejorative and moreover, completely unrelated to food.

                                        I agree that "red sauce" Italian is a perfectly good short-hand description for Italian-American food. I think the problem many chowhounds have with these restaurants is not that they aren't good, but that are billing themselves as "Italian" or even "authentic Italian." That is why the "red sauce" tag has been developed: to serve the useful function of differentiating between two different cuisines. And yes, "red sauce" Italian, or as we often call it on the West Coast "East Coast" Italian, is a distinct cuisine with its own history and traditions that deserves to be recognized and celebrated as such.

                                        1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                          No need to differentiate... There is virtually NO authentic Italian restaurant on this side of the Atlantic...

                                          1. re: menton1

                                            Are you on the East Coast of the United States?

                                    2. re: BiscuitBoy

                                      I'm not sure how you see it as "bigoted"?

                                      I don't use the term as a pejorative, but I do use it. The same way I would note an Italian restaurant that specializes in Northern or Southern or Sicilian fare, I'd note whether or not a place was more in the Italian-American genre. "Red sauce" is just a shorthand expression for that.

                                      I do the same with Chinese food: are we talking Cantonese? Szechuan? A noodle house? Or a place to get "Chinese-American stuff like egg rolls and crab rangoon?

                                      1. re: LeoLioness

                                        side note - stuff wrapped in dough and fried are common across asia. egg rolls are not chinese american, per se

                                          1. re: LeoLioness

                                            Misunderstood, VooLou. I was insinuating that the 'red sauce' owners like to add the 'award winning' title knowing fully that there was no such award. Lasagna is my favorite. My suggestion to this type of operator is to maybe spend a few more nickles on buying better tomatoes (and improving the menu item) than making false claims.

                                    3. "Italian-American" red sauce can be OK, and it certainly has a following, it's the most popular style of cuisine in America!

                                      However, these restaurants should stop trying to pretend they are authentic!! It's a different food, and has nothing to do with food in Italy-- stop writing menu entrees in Italian with made-up Italian-dish names, stop with the Italian fountains on the menu and the photos of the Tower of Pisa! This is a DIFFERENT, non-authentic cuisine that Americans love!! RED SAUCE!!!

                                      10 Replies
                                      1. re: menton1

                                        it is a completely authentic cuisine. just like all italian food it is a regional cuisine. it is southern italian food adapted to the ingredients available to, and relatively wealthier habits of,(such as a higher proportion of meat) of italian immigrants to america.

                                        1. re: thew

                                          There is no such thing in Italy as "southern" Italian food!(or "Northern") Food in Italy is regional, it is very different in each of the 20 regions. And Chicken Francese, Veal Parm, and Fried Calamari won't be found in any of them...

                                          1. re: menton1

                                            yes yes. (bullshit that no one fries calamari anywhere in souther italy, but that's hardly the point)

                                            the point is that most of the immigrants at the time were sicilian and from other parts of the south of italy - when they came to america they adapted their various cuisines, to american ingredients and eating habits. and those 20 different cuisines all added to this new authentic cuisine - italian american cuisine.

                                            1. re: thew

                                              In the NY Metro more than 75% of these Italian-American restos are run by non-Italians. But they try to make the menu entrees read in Italian, they put photos of Italy on these menus, it's just..... ridiculous! So apparently the restaurants that you say have this new cuisine's authenticity on their own are obviously trying to prove otherwise...

                                              1. re: menton1

                                                you win. it isnt an actual cuisine. only food as prepared by ancient nonnas is small villages is authenic.

                                                as i've said a million times before on CH - i'll take tasty over authentic any day of the week

                                              2. re: thew

                                                As a Brooklyn Italian who grew up when just about every sauce was red (and thanks God for it), the only fuss ever made about red sauce was/is made by other Italians--those trying to "brand" their new restaurant's style (not being "red sauce") and, in earlier generations, by first waves of Italian American restaurateurs--they actively went beyond their old regional styles to create a pan-Southern cuisine that appealed to "Americans" and did whatever they had to make it successful. That meant cheap, tasty, standardized quasi-Neapolitan pastas based on tomatoes. By the way, calamari fritti are very common throughout Italy, usually mixed with shrimp and sometimes zucchini.

                                                1. re: bob96

                                                  Nah. Fried calamari is a rarity on a menu in Italy. Zucchini? Perhaps you mean zucchini flowers, which are seen often. BTW bob96, could you please explain what you mean by "Southern cuisine" ?

                                                  1. re: menton1

                                                    I don't know what I was eating those times in places like Scilla, Genoa, and Rome, but it sure looked and tasted like calamari fritti (coi gamberetti e zucchini) to me, and the menus said so. But maybe you can tell me. By "Southern cuisine" (pan-Southern) I meant a kind of generic Neapolitan-based menu that took hold in most cities during the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, as interpreted by immigrant chefs and restaurant owners from all over Italy. There were some dishes from elsewhere in the Italian South (the occasional Sicilian touch, say), and even the north (cotoletta a la milanese), but the predominant flavors, ingredients, and techniques were those of Naples--constantly adjusted and tweaked to what Americans liked and wanted

                                              3. re: menton1

                                                I get a chuckle when I see a place bill itself as "Northern Italian", and the menu reads pretty much exactly the same as the place down the street which proudly proclaims that it serves "Southern Italian."

                                                These phrases are meaningless and have little culinary basis. The terms "red sauce italian" and "Italian-American" pretty much describe what it is without having to incorporate the cuisines of Italy as a frame of reference for absurd claims of the type of food they're serving.

                                                1. re: tommy

                                                  But usually the Northern Italian place throws in a risotto.

                                          2. When I hear the term "red sauce" I think of Sabatino's in Chicago. In fact Sabatino's is the image that jumps into my head when I think of the word, "restaurant". It's a super old-school place that looks like it's been there for a hundred freaking years. You could imagine Frank Sinatra and Humphrey Bogart downing pitchers of martinis at the bar and hassling the waitresses. There is a dimly lit piano lounge, and violin players strolling around the dining room. Olive oil and house red and white are on the table when you sit down if I remember correctly. The menu has all the Italian American classics like veal saltimbocca, chicken parm, lasagna with ricotta and chicken vesuvio, and the portions are larger than any reasonable person should consume at one sitting. Spaghetti with red sauce comes as a free appetizer and is perfectly cooked. You can easily get out of there for less than $15 - $20 including tax and tip.

                                            It's basically one of my favorite places in the entire world.

                                            7 Replies
                                            1. re: RealMenJulienne

                                              For me it would be Luna's in Manhattan's Little Italy, closed now but the lines would be out the door on weekends back in the 80's. You had to pass the kitchen to get to your seat and could peep in at the gaggle of Rubenesque Italian women with head scarfs stirring vats of gravy, folding Ravioli,and deboning Baccala.
                                              The dining room was small and tables, tight, covered with the obligatory table cloth,candle in a bottle and little dishes with dried pepper flakes and grated parmesan,Frank,Tony and Lou on the radio set high on a shelf sharing space with a small "Mary in a half shell"and a dusty bottle of Sambuca that rarely left it's perch.
                                              Menu, what menu?specials on the board and if you have to ask...it's sold out.None of the chipped plates,cloudy with age glasses and dinged tableware matched.Hope that Rocco didn't have some pretty young thing in his section when Tony Bennett came on or you'll be waiting for your order until he's finished serenading her.
                                              You get the picture... But the food was hearty,heavy and so good, my favorites was the clams oreganata,sausage with peppers,baked ziti and if you get there early enough on a Friday,Baccala with tomatoes,and black olives over spaghetti.
                                              It would be difficult to replicate the skill,pride and honesty of that red sauce joint today and I miss it terribly.

                                              1. re: Duppie

                                                AND...not well regarded by Manhattan Chowhounds.. Go figure.


                                                1. re: thegforceny

                                                  i loved luna when i was a college kid in the late 70's early 80's

                                                  1. re: thew

                                                    Yes, a good place for a cheap 2'nd date where you could impress the young lady especially if she didn't get downtown often because they would always remember your name and bust your chops like you ate there every day.

                                                  2. re: thegforceny

                                                    Even back in the day we knew Luna's was by no means the best, but it was good,honest,and comfortable, and as far as I could remember never claimed to be anything other than the neighborhood's red sauce joint .

                                                    1. re: Duppie

                                                      Sure, back in the 70s Luna's was a treat but back then nobody knew any better, and food tastes were a lot less sophisticated than now. Not to mention that Little Italy is shrunk down now to about 2 blocks...(Even Arthur Ave in the Bx is much bigger!)

                                                2. re: RealMenJulienne

                                                  How do I not know about this place? and I live in the Chicago area! It's going on my list for our next place to try!!!

                                                3. When I lived in Rhode Island, red sauce meaned standard tomato sauce based Italian-

                                                  Like many have said, red sauce restaurants I have gone to (mainly in Rhode Island) generally serve Italian-American dishes based on a thick, often sweet, tomato sauce. Eggplant parm, lasagna, ziti and meat balls would be standards on the menu. My main problem with them is that the sauce is usually so heavy with tomato paste (so much cheaper than tomatoes) that it overwhelms all the other flavors. That said, the prices are usually low and the portions huge.