sunday gravy

We take gravy seriously in my family.

There is an on-going battle among the cousins (all 12 of us) that we each make the best gravy, meaning our own personal recipe is better than everyone else’s gravy in the family. The funny thing is, we all make a variation of the exact same gravy, which is our Grandma Caruso’s gravy that she made for years.

My Grandma, Donatella Pacelli Caruso, had 5 kids who she taught how to make the family recipe for gravy, and we (grandkids) all learned to make that gravy from our parents. So, depending on which of those 5 siblings was your parent, you learned to make it their way.  Meaning, maybe Aunt Lu liked hers with more basil, maybe Uncle Frankie (my Dad) liked his with lots of garlic, or maybe Uncle Billy added a special something-or-other to his gravy, and so on.

Basically there are a few key ingredients and methods that we all follow, and then alter it to what we like. The same goes for our meatballs, but I will get to those later this summer. I can’t tell you about gravy and meatballs in the same post. There is just too much to say.

And because whenever the cousins get together, we all brag about our own gravy so much (because we can’t help talking about food) that we’re thinking about having a gravy/meatball cook-off.  We’d form a panel of unbiased judges (people who know a-thing-or-two about eating), we’d each make our own gravy and meatballs and a winner would be declared.

You’re getting to know the family a little better, aren’t you? We’re a bunch of hard heads as my Grandma would say, and we like to be right.

Speaking of hard heads, my family is not willing to give up their secrets, either. Be it an ingredient, a cooking method, anything.  Their gravy and meatball recipes are under lock and key and nobody will ever know exactly what makes them so good.

When asked to give me a list of family favorites and recipes for my blog, what I heard from most of them was, “I’ll never tell!” My brother makes one of the best gravies I have ever had in my entire life and the little brat won’t give up the goods on his “secret ingredient”. (Actually I have an idea of what it is because I’m pretty sure I tickled it out of my little niece the other day.)

OK, chefs.  I love you. And I respect your feelings. But, I JUST. DON’T. GET IT.

The only one who gives up her secrets is my mother. Thank you, Mom. I don’t know where I would be without you.

Recently my cousin Mark asked me to do a blog post on gravy. Mark is not part of the gravy-battle because he is actually my first cousin Diane’s son. Mark said that he wanted to learn our true family recipe for gravy, because he’s heard different things along the way, but then he pointed out that the family might not be very happy about me revealing any of our family secrets and may even cast the Evil Eye on me.   Yikes!

Yes, we do have Sicilian blood.  Even I have been known to throw a plate or two in the heat of the moment. OK, not really, but there are a lot of hot heads in my family, as we like to call ourselves, and did I mention stubborn? Oh, we’re stubborn. Especially when it comes to giving up recipes.

I really do love my family and this is all said with love. We like to laugh and joke and tease each other, which is another good thing Grandma Caruso passed along. She was one-of-a-kind, that one. Sarcastic and funny.

And she had her own language. If you didn’t hear what she said you were a “tin ears”, if you didn’t think before you acted you were an “empty head”, if you were being stubborn you were a “hard head”. There are so many more, but I’ll stop with those, before I “give you a head like a floor lamp.” (if you talked so much that you bored her, she’d start crossing herself behind your back!)

My Grandma died when I was 17 and I was not-as-much-into-cooking back then, so I can’t tell you exactly how she made her gravy, but it was delicious and I remember one thing for sure.  She always said that neck bones make the best gravy. Yes, neck bones.


Not really so bad when you consider my grandfather’s family in Sicily ate sparrow gravy. Not even kidding.  Sparrows?!  How do you even catch those things?

Although I’ve never cooked neck bones myself, I grew up eating them every Sunday. The meat was so sweet and delicious and would just fall off those funny-looking bones. They were covered in gravy and we’d pick them up with our hands and slurp and suck the meat out of all of the little crevices until the bones were clean. Did you ever eat something so tasty that you just got lost in it?  Neck bones will do that to you.

And there isn’t much meat on them, so we’d eat at least 3 or 4 each, (along with a meatball or two) and end up with a big pile of bones on our plate. And things got really messy with all that slurping going on, but we loved it. My Dad used to wear a napkin bib when he sat down to a bowl of neck bones.

At some point along the way, my mom started making gravy with pork ribs instead of neck bones, which also make a delicious gravy. She did this because there is more meat on ribs so you get some big meaty bites. And also, they are not as off-putting to dinner guests.  I mean, not everyone is going to be open to eating a neck bone. That’s too bad because they really don’t know what they are missing.

So of course, now I make my gravy with pork ribs and that’s what I’m sharing with you. If you want to be adventurous and find some neck bones for your gravy, please by all means, DO IT!  You will be so happy that you did.

So get some pork ribs (or neck bones),

hot Italian sausage,

and make meatballs if you want to (since I’m saving those for another post, I don’t have a photo). And sometimes we also make braciole (bra’zhul), which is rolled, stuffed steak.

So first you brown the sausage. Or, you can brown the ribs first, doesn’t matter.

And this is really important. Browning is what creates all that yummy flavor.

and then the ribs,

And then you have this nicely browned bottom, which is what you want.

How beautiful is that?

And then you add some tomato paste, and look what happens to all those tasty browned bits,

Yep, right into your gravy it goes, with all of that flavor.  And you really want to cook the tomato paste until it darkens because it sweetens and the acidity breaks down.  Then you add the garlic, the rest of the tomatoes, cheese, and herbs and throw all the meat back into the pot.

Use a Dutch oven, like this one that I adore, because now you put this whole thing into the oven and let is simmer all day. After about 2 ½ hours, you have to remove the ribs because they can get so tender that the meat literally falls off the bone.

Once I forgot about them and when I tried pulling them out of the gravy with tongs, I pulled out clean bones. But I have to say, that gravy turned into a hearty meat sauce that was pretty delicious! But, let’s try for some meat on them.

You can leave the sausage and meatballs in, simmering away and flavoring your gravy. It will be hard from this point on not to dip a piece of crusty bread in to take a taste more than once.

My recipe is for a 5 1/2 quart pot full of gravy. I like to make a big pot of it so I have leftovers that I freeze for later.

Now you can make any type of pasta you’re in the mood for and cover it with your delicious gravy.

Make sure to serve additional gravy on the table and extra grated Romano cheese. I always have hot giardiniera on the table, too because I love it.  My Dad would pile lots of it on top of his pasta and then proceed to tell everyone how hot it was, moping his brow with his napkin (bib), as if he were some kind of hot-pepper-eating-hero for being able to stand it.

I loved that.

Really good gravy is all about the meat and the method. Time = tasty, and of course, fresh ingredients. And if you have a secret ingredient of your own that you would like to add… wine, beef stock, sugar, and maybe even RAISINS (hmm, Phill?!), feel free to experiment and make it your own.

So, at the risk of having the Evil Sicilian Eye cast upon me, I give you my beloved gravy recipe that is very special to me and close to my heart.

And to my family, go ahead and take notes. If you think you can top this, I have two words for you cuties:


Sunday Gravy
Inspired by Grandma Caruso, adapted from Mom

Makes a large 5 1/2-quart pot, enough to freeze for later

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 rack baby back ribs (about 2 1/4 pounds), cut into 2-rib sections
1 pound hot Italian sausage links, cut into 2-3″ chunks
2 medium onions , chopped fine (about 2 cups)
2 tablespoons fresh oregano, plus 2 tbsp dried oregano
6 garlic cloves , minced or pressed through a garlic press
2 (28-ounce) cans crushed tomatoes
2 (28-ounce) cans tomato sauce
1 can tomato paste, 6 oz.
chopped fresh basil leaves, 2 big handfuls
1 ½ cups Pecorino Romano cheese, grated
½ tablespoon kosher salt, plus more for seasoning
freshly ground pepper

Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and heat oven to 325 º. Heat oil in 5 ½ quart Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Pat ribs dry with paper towels and season with salt and pepper. Add half of the ribs to the pot and brown on both sides, 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer ribs to large plate and brown remaining ribs. After transferring second batch of ribs to plate, brown sausages on all sides, 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer sausages to plate with ribs.

Reduce heat to medium, add onions and dried oregano; cook, stirring occasionally, until beginning to brown, about 5 minutes. Add tomato paste and cook, stirring constantly and scraping up the browned bits, until very dark, about 3 minutes. Stir in garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.  Fill up the empty tomato paste can with water and add that while stirring and scraping up any more browned bits.

Add the rest of the tomatoes, cheese, 1 hand full of the chopped basil, ½ tbsp Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper. Return ribs and sausage to pot (and some meatballs if you’ve made them); bring to simmer, cover, and transfer to oven. Cook until ribs are tender, about 2½ hours. Remove ribs with tongs to serving platter and cover.

Turn the oven down to 200º, put the pot of gravy back in and let it simmer until dinner time. You can eat now, but I feel the longer, the better.

When ready, using tongs, transfer sausage and meatballs to serving platter with the ribs. Stir the remaining handful of basil and the fresh oregano into gravy and adjust the seasoning with cheese, salt and pepper.

When your pasta is done, we like to put some gravy into the bottom of the serving bowl first, then mix the pasta with some gravy to coat it. Then you serve a big gravy boat (is that what they are called?) full of gravy for the table so everyone can add as much as they like. Serve the pasta with the meat platter, extra grated cheese, salt & pepper and don’t forget the hot giardiniera.

Is it Sunday yet?

24 comments to sunday gravy

  • avatar Kathe

    Well – I was expecting a dissertation on what I (and most Canadians, I think) call gravy – a thin sauce that starts with the juices that accumulate in the roasting pan, thickened with a flour-and-water mixture and enriched with those lovely brown scraped-up bits from the bottom of the pan. It’s served in something called a gravy boat, which is passed around the table along with slices of the roast.

    What you’re describing I think of as tomato sauce or pasta sauce or meat sauce. A cultural difference, I imagine?!

  • avatar Kathy

    Sounds delicious. Can’t wait to try it.

  • avatar Judi


    I’m so glad you brought this up! I’m so used to calling it “gravy” that I didn’t even think to mention WHY we do that.
    Yes, we Italian-Americans call pasta sauce “gravy”.
    As you described, a typical “gravy” (such as pot roast gravy) is meat based, and it is made from the drippings off of the meat.
    If you think about how I make my gravy, it’s pretty similar. You use the browned bits and the bones and the meat to flavor the “sauce” or “gravy”.

    So, I’m pretty sure the term came about in the early Italian American community because it’s meat based and “gravy” was the word they learned for that, and it stuck. “Sauce” was something you make quickly with tomatoes, roasted peppers, etc.

    But that’s just my guess.

  • avatar Judi

    Thanks! Let me know how you like it!

  • Awesome post. It really brings me back to my youth and all those Sunday’s we spent eating a great dinner.
    Family, friends or just the 4 of us.
    Waking up to the smell of garlic, gravy and meatballs cooking.
    “Testing” things as they cooked. Bread and gravy here, a meatball there….
    Until 3:00 rolled around and it was time to dig in.

    I just had a sampling of this gravy last week and it was delicious! (Not as good as mine, as we all know) but… delicious none the less.)

    With your recipe out in the open, I see what the differences are. Interesting.
    Don’t think you got anything out of my daughter. You think I would trust my most guarded secret to a 7 year old?!?!?!
    Especially that chiacchierone.

  • avatar Judi

    Phill-how about those neck bones? Don’t you miss them now that I brought back all of those memories? I DO.
    When I’m in Florida in a few weeks, I’m going to have Mom make me neckbone gravy. Do you hear that Mom?

    By the way….that GYAK-GYA-DOANE of yours will spill the beans someday…….

  • avatar John LaMacchia

    Oh my gosh, after reading this I feel like I’m hanging out with my own family! Gravy recipe very similar to ours and yes, the neck bones are the best part! My Grandma sounds so similar to your too. She was such a hoot! If we’d ask her a question while she was cooking (“Grandma, no meatballs today?) she’d often answer in Sicilian (which we didn’t know) and then she’s laugh until tears ran down her face. Thanks for the wonderful recipe and for the memories!

  • avatar Judi

    I’m so glad you found my blog! The memories are great, aren’t they? That’s one of the reasons I started this blog, to pass along our family recipes and tell our family stories. My Grandma did the same thing! She and her sister Marie would talk in Italian when they didn’t want us kids to know what they were saying and then they’d laugh so hard because we didn’t know what they were saying! She had such a great personality. That’s what it’s all about…, food and great memories. Hope you stick around!

  • avatar Kay

    Ahhh, spaghetti gravy, as the Italian community in my former home town called it! An older Italian woman (who was 4 when she came to the US with her parents and older sister) taught me to make it, with a recipe that’s very similar to yours. But neck bones never occurred to me, though I grew up eating neck bones and dressing (YUM!). Would it work to do lamb shanks that way, d’you think? Great post. I saved the recipe. Thanks!

  • avatar Judi

    Kay-WOW. I would love your recipe for neck bones and dressing! Do you mean a stuffing-type dressing? I’ve only eaten them our way, but I know how tasty they are.

    I’ve also never had lamb shanks in gravy, but I do really love lamb. Grilled lamb chops are one of my very favorite things. How could they not be delicious in our gravy? :-)

    Let me know how you like the gravy if you give it a try!

  • avatar Me

    Jude – that was the best post……but then I guess I’m partial. Neck bones you want – then neck bones you will have!!! Does rosebud like them too??? Can’t wait to see you both……bring the hot giardinaria (sp)!!

  • avatar Marilyn Bennish

    Have been meaning to let you know how much I’ve enjoyed your blog. I would like to try the gravy recipe but do I really need 5 1/2 qts. for Skip and I? What do you do with the Italian sausage after you brown it?

    I make pea soup often but like your idea of adding the water in stages. Have you ever tried adding a tablespoon of sherry or dry vermouth to a bowl? I like the flavor it adds.

  • avatar Judi

    It makes me really happy to know that you are reading my blog and enjoying it!

    The reason I make so much gravy is because that’s what I learned from my mom and I’ve never made it any other way. I guess we feel that as long as we’re making something that takes all day (and tastes this good), why not make a big pot and then freeze the rest for later? I think it probably goes back to my grandma (Dad’s mom) having 5 kids to feed and making a big enough pot to feed them all. Personally, I love having leftovers to freeze.

    But, I see what you are saying. If you want try the recipe and make one meal for you and Skip, I would suggest cutting the recipe in half. Then if you do have any leftover gravy, you can freeze it and eat it later in the month for a quick meal.

    About the sausage….You brown it for flavor and then you put it into the gravy to cook with the ribs. It flavors the gravy and makes it really delicious! We put all the meat together (sausage, ribs, meatballs) on a big platter or in a big bowl and serve it with the pasta (and extra gravy and cheese of course!).

    I LOVE the thought of adding sherry or dry vermouth to the pea soup. YUM! I never thought of that, but I will try that next time. Thanks! That’s one of my favorite things about having this blog. I want to learn, too, and I love the tips people give me.

    Take care. I hope you’ll check back often!

  • avatar Judi

    Mom (Me)-
    Are you really going to make me neck bone gravy when we come down?
    I’m already very excited about that! Not sure if “Hadley” (you’re the only who can call her rosebud now) likes them or not. I’ve never made them and I guess she has never had yours. How could that kid not like them though.
    Yes, I’ll bring more giardiniera. Did you guys finish what you brought back already?!?

  • avatar Liz

    I made the Sunday gravy yesterday (on Sunday, of course), and it was delicious. I used red wine in place of the tomato paste can of water, which really added a nice flavor. Thank you so much for the recipe–I have always wanted to cook gravy, but never had a walk-through on it. I love your site!

  • avatar Judi

    So happy to hear that you made one of our family recipes! It makes me SO HAPPY to be passing along food that is so special to me. I love the red wine instead of water! I never thought of that, but will definitely try it next time.
    Thanks for sticking around, Liz. :-)

  • avatar Mark

    Hey Jude! I finally got around to catching up on littleclove, and I loved this post! The whole neck bones/ribs thing is new to me. The Giusto Clan, as far as I can tell, stuck with just sausages and meatballs. I am going to try this recipe on CJ this Sunday and see how it goes. I am excited! I have been lazy and haven’t made gravy in a long time, which I am guessing is a sin. I’ll have to do some Hail Marys or something to avoid the curse. Anyway, I’ll let you know how it goes! Love ya! -Markus

  • avatar Judi

    Mark-So how did your gravy come out? Did you use ribs? Let us know!

  • avatar Angie

    Hi Judi,
    You probably don’t remember me, but I went to school with Phill. We lived over on Madison next to the Brileys. Anyway, I’m going to try making your gravy next weekend. I’ll let you know how it turns out. I’ve had Phill’s cavatelli and they are incredible, although I don’t think I’m up for making my own pasta just yet! I’ll let you know how the gravy turns out!
    Angie (Kavalin) Pape

  • avatar Judi

    Hi Angie,
    I’m so happy that you’re going to make the gravy! One thing: don’t worry if the meat that you brown in the pan looks black and sticks to the bottom. It will all come off when you add the water to the tomato paste and it will be delicious! Let us know how it turns out! Glad you found us.

  • avatar Kathy Ratcliff

    Hi Judi, I finally made this gravy yesterday and it was superb. It was actually even better today. My husband loved eating the cooked ribs as much as the pasta. Thanks, I will be trying those meatballs with the rest of the sauce. And thanks to Phill for sending me here!

  • avatar Judi

    I’m so glad you made the gravy and liked it. A big reason I’m writing this blog is to keep our family recipes alive, and it makes me happy to know that one of them made its way into your family. :-)
    Thank you so much for the feedback! I hope you stick around!

  • I’m getting ready to try making Sunday Gravy for the first time for a Halloween party. A price friendly way to feed a lot of people. I decided to look up some recipes online. I”m so glad I came across yours it’s funny and the pictures are really helpful. Can’t wait to taste it. I’m putting a pork shoulder in there, but I think I’ll run out and get some neck bones too. I have used them before in stews and soups but I think it’ll be delicious in the gravy. I won’t take them to the party. I’ll eat them in the privacy of my own home where no one can see me and hear me slurp.

  • avatar Becky

    This looks absolutely delicious! I have family coming over soon and I have been meaning to make a Sunday gravy for them. The only issue is that I would also like to spend time with them too! I love the idea of putting the sauce into the oven (that saves me the trouble of watching it all day). I have just one question, though: When you remove the ribs and serve the dish hours later, how do you recommend heating them back up?