Now onto the second part of this debate, the difference between Ragu and Salsa, or Sugo. As is the case with Italian-Americans the nation over, gravy was the feature attraction of every Sunday afternoon. Most versions included either braciole, pork ribs or sausages, meatballs, roasts or a combination. The ragu was first served tossed with maccheroni, while the meat, served of course with more of the sauce made the second course. This was to be followed by either a cooked vegetable such as broccoli or spinach aglio e olio or a simple salad, bread, dessert and espresso.
Italians love to argue over whether this should be called gravy or sauce. Most of them know it as gravy, more specifically "Sunday Gravy", an homage to when it was always served. Truth be told, the word ragu originated from the French ragout, which means "to revive the taste" or "restore the appetite". Most early accounts of this dish came during the Renaissance, when the French politicked with Italy. The French were fashionable and well-to-do and thus brought forth many trends in fashion and of course in cuisine. Their ragouts were really nothing more than rich stew-like concoctions and always eaten plain, or were used to fill lavish gilded pies. We are uncertain as to when these stews first became served over maccheroni, though historians agree this was first discovered in the Northern Region of Emilia-Romagna. It is from here that we are given the infamous Ragu Bolognese, made from salt pork, minced beef, carrot, celery, onion, broth, white wine, a little tomato paste and a finishing touch of cream. This is unanimously served over fresh tagliatelle and featured in the classic Lasagna Bolognese, with spinach pasta, bechamel and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. Even Neapolitans will say that the best Lasagna comes from Bologna, given their apparent love of white sauces.
The difference between North and South? Northern ragus tend to incorporate the meat into the ragu, to be served along with the pasta. Southern Italians always use large cuts of meat to be served as a second course, separate form the ragu itself. The meat used is always varied, and can include all beef, pork, veal, lamb or goat, as well as fowl. Usually a combination of meats are used to add depth and character to the ragu. One famous classic is braciole made with fresh pork rind, stuffed with raisins and pine nuts much like the original.
In closing, the term gravy is used to desribe any condiment made from or flavored with meat drippings, thus the example of Sunday Gravy, which is really a meat sauce considering the long, slow cooking time and the flavors extracted from the meat into the tomatoes, making for a thick and rich condiment for pasta. It is through this Neapolitan classic that so many of the dishes we know and love today have become as American as the folks themselves.