Sunday Gravy – The Classic Italian Marinara Sauce

Italian sunday gravy - the classic marinara sauce.
Sunday gravy ingredients.
Sunday gravy ingredients.

There are few sensory pleasures in life that can compare to the wonderful aroma of a simmering marinara sauce. Early every Sunday morning, my Parents (both of full Italian descent), would attend church, and then my mother would start making her Sunday Gravy while us kids suffered through attending the late-morning mass (if we made it to the church at all, but that’s another story). Upon returning home, I could smell the sautéed garlic when we pulled back into the driveway, and as I got closer to the back door of the house, I could often detect the sweet fragrance of fresh basil.

Upon entering the house, the scent blossomed into a warm, inviting aroma that drew you into the kitchen and enticed you to “sample” the gravy by dipping a chunk of Italian bread into it. This usually invited a stern glare from my mother, and the possibility of getting smacked with a wooden cooking spoon. Despite my mother’s lightning fast reflexes, it was always worth the risk. This scene played itself out almost every Sunday for most of my early life. I would often hang around the kitchen to watch Mom cook. From this tradition, my love for preparing Italian food was born.

Mom and Dad are long gone now, but I think about them often, especially when I brown garlic or make a dish that they used to make. By the way, some of you may have noticed that I use sauce and gravy interchangeably. I’ve heard countless silly arguments over which is correct, so I’ll point out now that the disagreement is actually moot – both are correct… it’s all in the context. For instance, making a Sunday Gravy is just a less specific way of saying you’re cooking a marinara sauce. Seriously, call it what you’d like and offer no apologies about it.

This brings me to my Mother’s Sunday Gravy recipe. This basic recipe was passed to her by her Mom, my amazing grandmother Mary Esposito. Grandma was an artist in the kitchen, which was reflected by the tens of thousands of happy, well-fed customers who frequented her Italian restaurant, the Casa Maria, from the War Years through to the 1960’s. Growing up, we were spoiled by her extravagant cooking, which was passed down to my Mother and Aunts. Every Sunday was a culinary delight, and I hope that by sharing this simple but great recipe with you all, it adds something special to your dinner table. This is a variation of the classic Tomato Sauce found on pge 221 of The Talisman Italian Cook Book.

Ingredients (Enough for 6 people)

  • 1 Can of Crushed Tomatoes (28 oz.)
  • 1 Can of Whole Peeled Tomatoes (28 oz.)
  • 8 to 12 Basil Leaves
  • 1 Whole Head of Garlic
  • A Handful of Fresh Oregano Leaves
  • Olive Oil (A good brand)
  • 1 to 1.5 Pounds of Your Favorite Pasta

How to make Sunday Gravy (at least 1 hour simmering time)

  1. Saute a Full Head Of Peeled Garlic In A Quality Olive Oil
    Sunday gravy simmering on the stove-top.
    Sunday gravy simmering on the stove-top.
  2. Peel the entire head of garlic (or use pre-peeled garlic if you’re as lazy as I am), and cut the cloves into slices a good ¼ inch thick.
    Place garlic into a sizeable sauce pot, and pour in just enough olive oil to sauté it (1/8 to ¼ inch deep).
  3. Sauté, or “Brown” the garlic until it’s a light golden brown… this releases the garlic’s juice into the oil, but leaves it almost raw on the inside of each slice – this will impart a lovely garlic aroma and taste. You might ask: Isn’t that a lot of garlic? Yes.
  4. Once the garlic has achieved that nice golden brown color, lower the gas until the sizzling stops, wait a minute, and then add both cans of tomatoes. Cover quickly to avoid any residual spattering. Wait a few minutes. Note: Many remove the actual cloves after browning – this is a personal preference).
  5. Uncover & stir to mix the oil, garlic and tomatoes evenly. Use a wooden cooking spoon or a handy potato masher to break up the whole peeled tomatoes a little bit. Lastly, tear the basil and oregano leaves into smaller pieces, and add to the gravy.
  6. Over a low heat, simmer the gravy. A good way to judge the right temperature to simmer at is to adjust the heat until there is just a slight hint of bubbling or boiling. Stir regularly with a wooden cooking spoon; and occasionally “feel” the bottom of the pot. If it feels smooth, then nothing is burning and you’re at the right temperature. If it feels rough, you should lower the heat a bit further. Let it simmer uncovered – this slowly boils away water and thickens the gravy.
  7. Serve over Al Dente pasta.

Author: Robert Lanni