What is Spaghetti Sauce All About and Where Did it Come From?--Find Out Here

A sauce is a “thickened liquid that is used to moisten and flavor a dish of food” (much like dressing does for a salad). Spaghetti sauce, then, is a sauce used to flavor spaghetti noodles, and keep them moist. Sauces may be either light, medium or heavy depending upon ingredients and cooking. Light sauces are generally matched with the thinner types of spaghetti, and heavy sauces with the thicker and flatter noodles. (See how to match spaghetti and sauce.)

If you think about it, a sauce is not all that different from a gravy, and in fact, in some Italian-American households, spaghetti sauce is still referred to as tomato gravy or Sunday gravy. The technical difference between a sauce and a gravy, is that a gravy is a sauce derived from the juice of meat. And many spaghetti sauces do indeed rely on juice from meat for part of their flavor, especially sauces that might typically be served for Sunday dinner.

Taking the thought of gravy a step further, perhaps you have heard of a “ragu” spaghetti sauce. Ragu is simply Italian for stew---something that has been cooked for a long time at a low temperature. Stewing something generally thickens up the liquid medium and also causes it to absorb the flavors of the ingredients. A stew tends to produce a heartier consistency than a sauce or a gravy, and often contains small pieces of vegetables. (And sometimes meat or fish as well.)

Ragu-type spaghetti sauces are quite popular in the US today, perhaps because Americans tend to treat spaghetti and sauce as a main course (or sometimes entire meal). So we like sauces that have lots of things in them to fill us up. In Italy, however, spaghetti and sauce is typically served as a preliminary course ahead of the main meal. So their ragus will tend to be a little less thick and hearty than Americans are used to. And they also will tend to put less sauce on their pasta.

Spaghetti as we know it today was originally an Italian food. While every little town in Italy would seem to have its own special sauce for use on spaghetti and other pasta, all Italian sauces generally tend to fall into one of three categories: red sauces (tomato-based), white sauces (dairy-based), or clear sauces (oil-based). Some of these sauces have meat and some do not. But nearly all tend to be flavored with one or more of the herbs basil, parsley, oregano and garlic. The most common spices used in Italian sauces are salt and pepper. However, chili powder is used on occasion to liven things up a little. Lastly, a little wine is also sometimes used in Italian spaghetti sauce.

The red (tomato) sauces are most frequently associated with Italian spaghetti. A typical Italian red sauce would contain at least the following: tomatoes, sautéed vegetables, olive oil, herbs and spices, and maybe some meat or seafood.

Italian white sauces are also frequently used on spaghetti and other strand pastas. The most common ingredients for Italian white sauces are cream and/or cheese and/or butter, olive oil, herbs and spices, and sometimes egg, meat or seafood. The most common cheeses used in Italian sauces are parmesan, romano and asiago.

The clear sauces Italians serve on spaghetti almost always start with a base of olive oil, herbs and spices. To this base is added various combinations of things like cheese, nuts, vegetables, and/or meat or seafood. These sauces typically do not take long to prepare (especially compared to the red ones), and in cases where no meat or seafood are involved, they may not even require any cooking at all. The most obvious example of an uncooked clear sauce is the traditional Italian pesto sauce.

While Italian sauces do not tend to be sweet, there are other cultures who do serve sweet sauces with spaghetti, including the Filipinos. And some, such as the Chinese and Japanese use sweet-and-sour sauces. Still others feature sour sauces. But whatever culture, and whatever sauce is used, spaghetti with sauce has become a tradition throughout the world.

Origin and History
Italian spaghetti and sauce have evolved significantly over the many centuries of Italian history. And in fact their history is integrally linked with the history of Italy itself.

I believe it can safely be said, that spaghetti would not be as popular as it is throughout the world today, had it not been for the development and refinement of tasty sauces that have come to so enhance its flavor and also give it variety of taste. And in fact, it would appear that pasta’s rise to a national dish in Italy follows very closely in parallel to the development and refinement of tomato-based spaghetti sauces.

Man has perhaps been making some kind of sauce to flavor and moisten food for however long he has been cooking his meat. In fact the first sauces were probably not much more than a broth or gravy that the meat was cooked in, and relied heavily on the meat itself (and its fat) for flavor. Gradually as various herbs and spices were introduced to the Romans, these sauces came to be more flavorful---at least for those who could afford such things. After all, meat, herbs and spices were generally only on the tables of the rich (at least with any regularity).

The oldest of what we might think of as traditional Italian sauces is the pesto sauce. This is a clear sauce consisting of olive oil, basil, nuts, cheese and more, all ground up finely using a mortar and pestle (thankfully today we use food processors). Pesto was originally a condiment used to flavor simple broths or soups. Oddly enough, while pesto was made long before the year 1000, it wasn’t commonly used on spaghetti until around the 1900’s, long after the advent of red and white sauces.

The Italian spaghetti noodle as we know it today (made with semolina flour), appears to have come into being sometime around the 1100’s (see article on where spaghetti came from). But it was to be another 500 years or so, before Italian spaghetti was popularly matched with an Italian sauce made from tomatoes.

Why did it take so long? Because tomatoes were originally native to South America—not Italy. And it was sometime in the 1500's before the Spanish merchants began to bring them in on their ships and introduce them to European markets. In addition, they were at first thought to be poisonous, and thus they were treated only as an ornamental plant. It was not till even later that they came into popular use as a food.

So just exactly when and where did tomatoes first begin to be used in a sauce, and matched up with Italian spaghetti? It appears to be in Naples, and during the 1600’s—after the Naples region had come under Spanish rule. The first definitive evidence we have of this is a recipe in a 1692 cookbook by Antonio Latini of Naples. It was a recipe for a tomato-based sauce “made in the Spanish way.” Interestingly enough, we also see from other records that it was during the 1600’s and 1700’s that spaghetti came to be a popular household dish and staple in the Naples area. Prior to that time it was not.

The earliest known Italian red sauce was the famous Marinara sauce, and it was from the Naples area. The word marinara is derived from an Italian meaning “of the sea”—suggesting the foreign origins of its key ingredients. But it also apparently alluded to the fact that the early marinara sauces often contained seafood ingredients as well.

So, why was this fateful match of Italian spaghetti with an Italian red sauce into a single dish such a big deal? Well up until that point in time, the main sauces spaghetti were eaten with were meat gravies and white sauces. Most likely the rich ate it with meat gravies, and the poor used some kind of cheese sauce (kind of like macaroni and cheese today).

But these early meat and cheese sauces, that were around for centuries, were obviously not tasty enough to make spaghetti a popular food, even among Italians. It is only after the 1600’s (at which time tomato sauces began to be used), that we begin to see spaghetti become an increalingly popular and commonly eaten dish in Italy--at first among the Neapolitans. And then in the 1800’s all throughout Italy. And from there it spread to the rest of the world. For it was in the late 1800’s that significant numbers of Italians began to emigrate to the US, Australia and other international destinations, taking their now-popular national dish with them, and introducing it to numerous other cultures as they settled in.

So in fact, it was none other than this tasty combination of the semolina spaghetti with the tomato-based red sauce that ultimately made Italian spaghetti a well known and popular dish around the world today.

Kinds of Traditional Sauces
Below are some of the more common and well known traditional Italian sauces by name, with a brief description and some details about each of them.

Alfredo - A rich white sauce traditionally made with heavy cream, butter, freshly grated Parmesan cheese and freshly ground black pepper. It is best known for being served with fettuccine. It was developed and given its name in the early 1900’s by a restaurateur named Alfredo di Lelio, who served it in his restaurant in Rome.

Arrabbiata - The sauce name is Italian for “angry.” It is a zesty tomato-based red sauce that contains chilis, garlic and a spicy pancetta.

Bologne - A red ragu sauce originating from the city of Bologna in northern Italy. It traditionally contains finely chopped pieces of meat, onions, carrots, celery, and a little wine. It also contains a few tomatoes, but not very many, and it often has a little cream added that lightens the reddish color and gives it a delicate flavor. In Italy, the sauce is always served over tagliatelle rather than spaghetti.

Carbonara - A white sauce made with eggs, cream, parmesan cheese and bits of bacon. The word carbonara is derived from the Italian word for charcoal, and its origins are as a sauce served with pasta to the coal miners in Italy in the mid-1900’s.

Genovese - A sauce originating from Genoa, a coastal city in northwestern Italy. Another name for this sauce is pesto. It is a “clear” sauce (with a heavy green tint), made from ground up basil, garlic, parmesan cheese, pine nuts and olive oil. Today you can find a myriad of “pesto” sauces containing anything from cilantro to sun-dried tomato.

Marinara - The classic Italian tomato (red) sauce. It is highly seasoned with lots of onions, garlic and oregano. The sauce dates back to the 1600’s. The word marinara comes from an Italian word meaning “of the sea,” and traditional Italian marinara sauce often has seafood in it.

Neapolitan – A red ragu sauce originating from the city of Naples. It has lots of tomatoes, plus onion, garlic, herbs and spices. Traditional Neapoletan has whole pieces of meat cooked in it. When the sauce is done, the meat is removed and served separately as the main course (after the pasta and sauce course).

Pomodoro - The word means “golden apples,” and originally referred to tomatoes that were still yellow (before turning red). A pomodoro sauce is quick, light, (often clear) sauce that features tomatoes and basil.

Puttanesca - The word can mean “whore” or “garbage.” The origin is uncertain and there are varying legends using both meanings to explain its origin. It is a red sauce that typically includes tomatoes, onions, black olives, anchovies, capers, garlic and oregano, all simmered with olive oil.

Want more information related to "What is spaghetti Sauce?"
See our page on how to make home made spaghetti sauce.

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