Rethinking Sunday Gravy, the American Frankensauce

With fall around the corner, it’s time to start talking about warming sauces. And no sauce is as warming as the Italian-American classic of Sunday gravy, a sauce with deep roots in big city American culture, where Italian-American immigrants tended to settle. Although Sunday gravy didn’t originate in America, all Americans have heard of it by one name or another (which include tomato gravy, meat sauce or the star of the much maligned spaghetti and meatballs). The proper Italian name for this sauce is ragù and in general there are two great Italian traditions for it, one hailing from Campania and the other from Emilia-Romagna.

The sauce from Campania, thought to have originated in Naples, uses white wine, no herbs or spices, more onions, less garlic, butter and minced beef. The sauce from Emilia-Romagna, developed in Bologna, uses red wine, copious amounts of basil and sometimes oregano, spices like cinnamon and black pepper, less onions, more garlic, olive oil or lard in place of butter and a variety of meat on the bone, usually beef and pork. Whereas both traditions have brilliant standout features, neither, by my view is entirely without flaw. It’s kind of like you wish you could mix them together, taking the best of each sauce and combining them.

This is where America’s Italian-American legacy comes in, ranging from my hometown of Chicago and up and down the Eastern Coast of the United States. To be sure, true Sunday gravy is nothing like the thin, watered down cafeteria or jar sauces Americans have come to hate. This latter sauce was an innovation of the 1950s and has nothing to do with Italian or Italian-American tradition, both of which produced proud, delicious sauces.

What made America unique, however, was the phenomenon of various Old World traditions being co-mingled–and Nonna’s recipe modified–to adapt to the more integrated pan-Italian culture and differing ingredients of the New World. Every Italian-American family has a recipe that they’ll tell you is made scrupulously in the same way it was back home over 100 years ago. The truth is, however, the recipes have been heavily modified and adapted over the years. Because, how could it not?

What ultimately developed was a Frankensauce, a veritable culinary Quentin Tarantino film of muddled influences and references. What’s important to note, however, is that Tarantino films are really fucking good and such is the case with Sunday gravy, done right. So, in the tradition of my native city (and that of my own whims), I’ve developed a modified ragù which not only draws on the Napolitana and Bolognese styles, but also the Italian-American tradition of great immigrant cities like my home, Chicago. Basically, the New World revisiting the Old World for inspiration and a sanity check, the prodigal son returning home.

My version uses dry vermouth for its stronger acid structure which assists the tomatoes to provide more of a counter point to the richness from the meat. Additionally, I prefer no spices, the sweet and rounded balance that comes from fresh basil and oregano, a more or less averaged and also balanced amount of onions and garlic, mild and buttery California olive oil, ham hocks for barnyardy flavor and velvety sauce texture along with fatty ground chuck for its renderable lard content and deep beefy flavor. I also include nontraditional items like fresh Thai chilis and dried and crushed red cayenne peppers for balanced heat, along with a little Vietnamese extra virgin anchovy sauce for an extra umami backbone. This is an immaculate yet balanced Sunday gravy that respects the traditions of both sides of the pond. Although it takes a solid two hours to make a large batch of just the sauce, all of which is active time, it’s definitely worth it.


Have a question? Ask me anything!

The Recipe

Large Batch Frankensauce – Makes 12 Servings


For Ham Hock Base
2 medium (about 500 g or 18 oz) ham hocks, halved at the bone
800 g (28 oz) can of diced plum tomatoes
250 g (about 225 ml or 8 fl oz) dry vermouth
50 g (about 60 mL or 2 oz) California extra virgin olive oil

For Sauce
500 g (about 18 oz) 60 to 70 percent lean ground beef chuck
800 g (28 oz) can of diced plum tomatoes
50 g (about 60 mL or 2 oz) California extra virgin olive oil
5 medium red Thai bird chili peppers, sliced into wide rings
500 g (about 1 large) Spanish onion, diced
120 g (about 15 to 20 cloves) garlic, thinly slivered width-wise
5 g (about 1.5 tbsp) crushed red pepper
4 medium sprigs fresh oregano, with stems
6 medium sprigs fresh basil, with stems
40 g (about 1 oz) Vietnamese extra virgin anchovy fish sauce
30 g (about 1 tbsp kosher salt)

  1. In a large pot, add ham hocks and enough cool tap water to just cover. Over high heat, heat until the water reaches a rolling light simmer, about 15 minutes. Carefully, remove ham hocks and discard the water. Under cool running tap water, rinse the hocks and with a pick, thoroughly remove any loose marrow from within the exposed bone. This marrow will add concentrated barnyard flavor which will throw off the balance of the sauce. Set hocks aside.
  2. In a large pressure cooker, heat 50 g of olive oil to approximately 180 °C (356 °F) over low flame. Add ham hocks and brown on all sides, turning every couple minutes. The hocks should brown slowly and will heat through, beginning the break down of collagen in the meat, tendon and cartilage. When well browned, about 20 minutes, add can of tomatoes and dry vermouth. Make sure to break up any brown bits at the bottom of the cooker. Seal and cook at high pressure (about 15 pounds per square inch) for about 45 minutes. Carefully relieve pressure and unseal. The tomatoes should be fall apart soft and a pool of rendered fat and gelatin from the hocks should have developed. Reintegrate the fat and gelatin liquid into the tomatoes by delicately folding the two together.
  3. While the hock base cooks, you can prepare the soffritto. In a large, cast iron or carbon steel frying pan, heat 50 g of olive oil to approximately 200 °C (392 °F) over medium flame. In three equal batches, form a loose patty from the beef and brown on both sides, about two minutes per side. Break up the patty into small pieces and ensure each piece is just cooked though enough not to show pink, about two additional minutes. When done, remove beef, staining out as much liquid as possible and place in a fresh large bowl.
  4. Reduce the heat to low and add the bird chilis to the oil, simmering until they just begin to darken, about two minute. Add the onions and toss in the oil to coat, increasing flame to medium. Cook onions until translucent, about eight minutes, stirring intermittently to ensure even cooking. The onions should not brown at all, but just begin to lose their opacity. If onions begin to brown, reduce heat. Add dried red chili, oregano and basil, folding to integrate. Cook until just aromatic, about 30 seconds. Add garlic, stirring to integrate.
  5. Remove the hocks from the sauce, removing any tomatoes that may stick to their surface and set aside. Add the cooked soffritto to the pressure cooker, along with half the salt and the remainder of the tomatoes including all juices. Gently fold together with the hock base, integrating them as best you can. You know you’re done when there is not much oil pooling atop the mixture. With a hand immersion blender, or in a separate stand blender, thoroughly puree the sauce until smooth and even. Add the beef and fold to integrate.
  6. Add the hocks back to the sauce, bring to a mild simmer over medium heat and add the fish sauce, stirring to integrate. Add four each of the oregano sprigs and basil sprigs, pushing each down to be suspended within the sauce, fully below its surface and evenly spaced throughout the volume of the sauce. Seal the pressure cooker and cook at high pressure for 30 minutes.
  7. Remove from heat, carefully depressurize and unseal. Remove and discard the herbs. Hocks may be set aside, briefly seared in hot oil to re-crisp and served with a helping of finished sauce, if desired. Alternatively, you may discard as the meat will likely be dense at this point.
  8. Sauce may have separated; if so gently fold back together, reintegrating them as best you can. Add the remaining two sprigs of basil, submerging them as before. Over low heat, bring sauce to a mild simmer and allow basil to extract for 10 minutes. Remove basil and discard. Add the remaining salt, stirring to integrate. Taste the sauce to ensure it is appropriately salted. It should be just salty enough to give a strong savory sense to the sauce and bring out the meat flavor. The sweetness of the herbs should bring out the softer tones from the meat and help balance the harsher barnyard qualities. Add additional salt to taste. May be stored in the refrigerator for up to two weeks. May be canned and stored in the refrigerator for up to three months.

Sunday Gravy or Ragù alla Americano – Serves Four

For Pasta
250 g (about 9 oz) dried Pappardelle pasta
30 g (about 1 tbsp) kosher salt

For Toppings
60 g (about 2 cup, loosely packed) young kale
60 g (about 2 cup, loosely packed) arugula, rough chopped
15 g (about 1 tbsp) California extra virgin olive oil
7 g (about 1-2 cloves) garlic, finely diced
100 g (about 90 ml or 3 fl oz) dry vermouth
Grated grana padano cheese to taste

  1. In a separate large pot, add kosher salt to three quarts of tap water and bring to a rapid boil over high heat. When boil is achieved, add pasta. The rapid boil should momentarily reduce to a simmer and then again build up. Reduce heat to medium when boil reaches a lively simmer. Gently stir about every minute. Cook for two minutes less than the duration indicated on the pasta package for al dente pasta. When cooked for the intended duration, drain over a large metal strainer or colander and rinse with cool running tap water. When the pasta is sufficiently cool, ensure that all residual starch has been removed from the pasta by gently tossing the pasta with your hands under the running tap water. When complete, ensure all water has been thoroughly drained from the strainer and set aside.
  2. Toss greens together in a bowl so that they are equally distributed and randomized. In a large cast iron or carbon steel frying pan, add oil and garlic, stirring to integrate over medium heat. Do not preheat oil. Stir frequently so garlic heats evenly and does not brown. If garlic begins to brown, reduce heat. When garlic comes to a rapid simmer, about two minutes, add kale and arugula, folding to coat with oil. Continue to fold and stir until greens are fully wilted, another minute. Remove greens from pan and set aside.
  3. Add about a half liter (two cups) of sauce to the pan along with the vermouth over medium-high heat. Stir to integrate. When the sauce begins to lightly simmer, add the pasta. Cook on high heat, carefully coating the pasta with the sauce. Once pasta is coated, continue to cook and occasionally lightly toss the pasta until it is fully cooked through, about one minute. Remove from heat and taste. The dish should be just well salted enough to bring out the heavy savory elements from the dish. Add additional kosher salt to taste.
  4. Portion out pasta between four bowls. Top with greens, divided in four equal portions. Add grated grana padano cheese for aesthetics, allowing individuals to add more to taste. Serve immediately.

Have a question? Ask me anything!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s