Musings on macaroni and Sunday gravy

Explain to me what Italian-American culture is. We’ve been here 100 years. Isn’t Italian-American culture American culture?   -Al Pacino

This past weekend, my on-call rotation was in place. I was tethered by needing a mobile signal and a WiFi connection.

The weather was cool and misty. A true Fall weekend has finally made it to the elevation where I live.

I used this weekend to make something from an earlier time in my family history and upbringing. Something better suited to a slower and more relaxing pace. Where the weekends were not a chance to run around and catch up on chores, but another chance to reenact an old and comforting ritual: The leisurely Sunday dinner.

I made Italian-American “gravy”.

The thick, red sauce with chunks of meat simmering in it all day. The bedrock of what most people think of as “Italian” food.

I use quotes, because truly there is no such thing as definitive Italian food.

For a country roughly the size of California, there is much culinary diversity. The red sauce most Americans know as Italian cuisine derives from the Naples and southern Italian areas (including Sicily) in general.

And what was called “gravy” by a certain generation and/or population  derives from the Neapolitan Ragu found throughout southern Italy.

The Italian-American version is just as hearty, but with more variety of meats.  The Italian immigrant story in one pot…

The people from Napoli, Calabria, Sicilia and other places found abbondanza in America.  More and cheaper meat. Produce sold in the local neighborhoods without eking out a meager portion on some hillside.  And plentiful, if difficult,  work to buy it all with at the local stores and businesses.

And slowly people who would never describe themselves as Italian formed a  Italian culture in their new home.

The food reflected this new culture forming.

Different regions added their accent to this new culture. Lamb dishes flavored with garlic and rosemary derived from traditions found  in the Appenines.  Delectable pastries from Sicily showing the Arabic roots of this land. Seafood dishes using locally adopted ingredients. And the ragu derived from Naples.

Red sauce is only a part of southern Italian cooking, but perhaps it is the most recognized as “Italian” throughout the world.

In 2005, I went to visit Italy and meet my grandfather’s cousins. The meal was remarkably similar. Less sauce and more subtle. But much like myself, I could see the similarities despite the 100 year divide between the Magnanti in America and the Magnanti in Italy. Of course, my Grandma’s family came from there was those differences, too.

And it conjures up a certain mythology that is very much rooted in fact: Slowly simmered and slowly eaten. A meal that would last for a few hours and eaten with many courses. A Sunday ritual done around Grandma’s kitchen table.  Abbondanza as tradition.

Over time, the Italian immigrants became Italian-American.  The various dialects spoken in the home merged together among the children and the language picked up American loan words and formed Itaglish. 

The children of immigrants make have been called Antonio, Giuseppe or  Assunta at home, but went by Tony, Joey or Sue outside of the home.

But there was always the food and family ties.

And the ragu. Always the ragu.  A word that was now translated to “sauce” or “gravy” for the ‘Merigans. 

The Second World War came. The children of the immigrants fought for their country. Italy was their parents’ homeland.  America was their country.

Providence, RI – 1945. The dapper gentleman on the right is my paternal grandfather. The other dapper gentleman on the left is my great-uncle. Both fought in WW2 for the American army. In an odd twist, my grandfather fought in Italy and could not see *his* grandparents even after Rome was liberated. The photo was taken shortly after they were discharged. Also pictured are their sister and youngest brother and my great-grandmother. My great-grandmother’s smile says it all: Her boys survived the war.


They moved out of the city proper and to the outskirts or even the new suburbs.  Trips were made to the old neighborhood to see their parents. To bring their children to where these sons and daughters of the immigrants grew up.

The grandchildren of the immigrants became Anthony or Joseph or Michael.

The Magnanti brothers with Grandma Magnanti. Circa 1980.

But the Sunday ritual was still intact. A large pot simmering on the stove. Going -PLOP- throughout the morning.  Rich and thick and delicious.  And eaten over the course of the day with other dishes. And it was served with macaroni. Not pasta. Not noodles. But macaroni.

Macaroni was the first course. Meat and greens the second. But a little more macaroni was always welcome…

A meal would start at noon and continue over five or six courses to four o’clock or so.

Conversation. A little wine.  More food. Fruits and nuts and maybe cheese for dessert. Coffee.

Years went by. The grandchildren of the immigrants had children of their own.

The immigrants were often able to see their great-grandchildren. The great-grandchildren may have not spoken any Italian.  But these children would carry on the family name and traditions.

Family traditions would continue to be passed down every Sunday.

Years went by. Generations passed.  “Macaroni and gravy” became “pasta and sauce“.

The great-grandchildren had children of their own. The Italian part of the identity had faded in many ways..but it became part of the greater American culture.

Pizza is now as American as apple pie. “Spaghetti and meatball” dinners are done for more than a few fundraisers.  And the original peasant food is now haute cuisine in expensive restaurants.

Whether its called “macaroni and gravy” or “pasta and sauce“, it’s still delicious. And evokes memories far into the family past.

And sometimes on a cold and drizzly day, a pot of “gravy” will be made. Cooked slowly and leisurely over a weekend. A little of family  culture, tradition, and history that can be shared and passed on to others.


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Nick Gatel
8 years ago

Paul, Great post. It is too bad most Americans don’t have time to spend a day making gravy and sit around the kitchen table. This has happened to me, especially over the past 6 months. After almost 18 years my job ceased to be fun and starting sucking up my leisure time. So tomorrow is my last day. Gravy is more important than a job that isn’t fun. And this weekend I will engage and renew the lost tradition of Sunday gravy. My grandfather, Giuseppe Gattellaro, first came to America in 1905 from Bianco, Italy. His name was Americanized to… Read more »