Does it come from Beefsteak Tomatoes?

Why do some Italian-Americans say "gravy" when they mean "tomato sauce?" By Talia Felix, Assistant Editor.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

The answer to the title is, most probably, no, or at least not because of the reasons listed by the author. There is a reason why people, like the author dutifully writes, have spent their whole careers trying to find an answer to why some Italian-Americans use “gravy” for “sauce”, and failed to do so: because it’s not clear why they do! Watching a YouTube video on someone from Calabria talking about “sugo” is not enough, and it’s not enough because the distinction between “salsa” and “sugo” is spread all over Italy. It’s not just Calabrian people who say “sugo” to indicate a (most often cooked) sauce that you put on pasta, as opposed to “salsa” which is the uncooked tomato sauce; every Italian uses this. I was born and raised in Milan, which means I was geographically, linguistically and culturally very far from Calabria, and yet I would never confuse “sugo” and “salsa”, nor use them interchangeably. Friends from other parts of Italy (Veneto, Piedmont, Tuscany) confirmed as much. So if this was the reason, it should apply to all Italian-Americans, not just those from Calabria.

The issue with this article is that the author seems to rejoice way, way, way too soon of her successes, basing her conclusions on half-baked research that doesn’t even scratch the surface. We’re in 2023, and it is very easy to contact people from other countries no matter what distance is between us; and yet, the author contents herself with watching a YouTube video done by Americans instead of contacting someone who is actually in and from Italy and who surely could shed a much better light on the matter, if only by virtue of being immersed in the culture and language from which the linguistic phenomenon at hand arose.

It would have been far more interesting if the author had explored the possibility that a word similar to “gravy” exists in the Calabrian languages, given how distinct they are from Italian and how the population there was at a time under French domination. I have no answers on this myself, not knowing a single word in Calabrian outside of “'nduja” and “'ndrangheta” (with the first being a good export of that region, and the latter a very very sad one). But the thing is that, in order to understand that this could be a possibility, you would have to know that Calabrian languages (yes, plural!) are not akin to Italian and are not mutually intelligible with it, and you would also have to know the peculiarities of Calabrian culture and of its American diaspora; given the fundamentally flawed assumptions and methods employed by the author, and given the ignorance she displays (which would be excusable in other contexts, but is much less so once she declared arrogantly “I often feel weird when I solve in 2 days some linguistic mystery that people have devoted their whole academic career to solving”), it was maybe too much to expect her to entertain such possibilities.

It is also extremely funny that the author berates other people’s methods in the conclusions of the article, saying “interviewing Italian families and asking them about it […] isn’t a very reliable way to get information about a word”. I guess that she thinks watching YouTube videos is, then? It should also be noted that “Italian” isn’t synonymous with “Italian-American” and, given the context, the latter should have been used here, instead of the American way of using a nationality to really indicate American descendents.

Linguistic research can and should be done by exploring the actual origins of phenomenons. Using documented material is indeed the way to go (and YouTube isn’t documented material), but you also need to have at least a modicum of understanding of the history and culture of the language(s) you are studying. This strikes me, as a European, as incredibly American: if you don’t have the first clue about Italian language and culture, maybe you should study some of it to at least have a little understanding of its peculiarities, instead of only referencing American stuff. The result, otherwise, is things like this article: you get it wrong.

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