What Is Sunday Gravy?

Updated: May 09, 2024

An invitation to come over for Sunday gravy is simply an offer you can't refuse.

As seen in iconic films such as The Godfather and Goodfellas, Sunday gravy is a cornerstone in Italian-American cooking, just like homemade pasta. It is, first and foremost, about family and the memories and traditions it creates.

While “revenge is a dish that is best served cold,” Sunday gravy is one best served piping hot over pasta (like these other homemade sauces), surrounded by those you love the most.

Therefore, call your friends, call your neighbors, and you better ring your entire extended family, too, because this classic Italian-style recipe yields a generous batch of some serious sauce gravy meant for sharing.

What Is Sunday Gravy?

You see, you start out with a little bit of oil. Then you fry some garlic. Then you throw in some tomatoes, tomato paste, you fry it; ya make sure it doesn’t stick. You get it to a boil; you shove in all your sausage and your meatballs; heh…? And a little bit o’ wine. An’ a little bit o’ sugar, and that’s my trick.” —Peter Clamenza in The Godfather

Passed down from generation to generation, every family does Sunday gravy a little differently and with a lot of pride. At its core, however, Sunday gravy is a rich, tomato-based sauce cooked slowly with herbs and a combination of assorted pieces of meat, sausages and meatballs.

Adapted from a traditional Neapolitan ragù, Sunday gravy became part of many Italian-American families’ Sunday-morning tradition in the mid-twentieth century (although variations certainly existed prior to this). The gravy would typically be prepped early in the morning and left to simmer while families would attend mass. After the service, everyone would congregate back in the kitchen to enjoy Sunday dinner around 1 or 2 p.m. Today, Sunday gravy remains a fixture in many Italian-American kitchens and is enjoyed at gatherings with extended family.

The meat in Sunday gravy can vary greatly between family recipes and the region of Italy their ancestors hail from. Choose what your family enjoys most and has access to. Aim for 4-5 pounds of meat total for this recipe using any combination of meatballs, sausages, bone-in beef, pork or veal. Sausages and meatballs are great for serving a crowd, while the bone-in meats add tons of flavor, richness and body to the gravy.

How to Make Sunday Gravy

Sunday Gravy 010523 Toh 01 Lauren Habermehl For Toh JveditLauren Habermehl for Taste of Home

This recipe makes 10-12 servings.


  • 1 batch Sunday gravy meatballs, partially cooked (recipe below)
  • 1 pound Italian sausage links (mild, spicy, sweet or a combination)
  • 1-1/2 pounds oxtails or bone-in short ribs
  • 1-1/2 pounds pork neck bones, bone-in pork chops, or spare ribs
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 large yellow onion, finely chopped
  • 4 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 2 (6-ounce) cans tomato paste
  • 1 cup red wine (choose a full-bodied Italian wine, such as Chianti or Brunello)
  • 3 (28-ounce) cans whole peeled tomatoes with their juices (choose San Marzano tomatoes from Italy, if possible)
  • 3 medium carrots, finely grated
  • 1/4 cup fresh basil, finely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons fresh parsley, finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 small Parmesan or Parmigiano Reggiano cheese rind (optional)
  • For Serving: Favorite cooked pasta, grated parmesan and additional fresh basil

For the Meatballs

  • 3/4 pound ground beef
  • 1/4 pound ground pork
  • 1/2 cup plain breadcrumbs
  • 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, finely grated
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1 tablespoon fresh basil, finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon fresh parsley, finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoons black pepper

Editor’s Tip: If you do not wish to make the meatballs from scratch, you may opt for fully thawed, uncooked meatballs from your grocer’s meat section. Do not use pre-cooked or frozen meatballs for this dish.

Step 1: Mix and shape

Sunday Gravy 010523 Toh 02 Lauren Habermehl For Toh JveditLauren Habermehl for Taste of Home

If you’re making meatballs from scratch, preheat oven to 400°F. In a large bowl, combine the meatball ingredients. Using clean hands, mix together until evenly combined. Then shape them into 1-inch meatballs. The recipe should yield roughly 20-24 meatballs.

Step 2: Partially cook

Sunday Gravy 010523 Toh 03 Lauren Habermehl For Toh JveditLauren Habermehl for Taste of Home

Arrange on a sheet pan with a wire rack about 1/2 inch apart. Bake for 12-15 minutes or until the meatballs begin to brown. Remove and set aside.

Step 3: Season and sear the meat

Sunday Gravy 010523 Toh 04 Lauren Habermehl For Toh JveditLauren Habermehl for Taste of Home

Meanwhile, place a large stock pot over medium-high heat. Generously season the pork and beef with salt and pepper, then, working in batches, sear the meat until nicely browned on all sides. (The process is just like searing a steak.) Remove the meat to a plate, then sear the sausages to brown them on all sides as well.

Step 4: Crush the tomatoes

Sunday Gravy 010523 Toh 05 Lauren Habermehl For Toh JveditLauren Habermehl for Taste of Home

Add all the canned tomatoes to a large bowl. Then, using clean hands, squeeze the tomatoes to crush them into small pieces, leaving larger chunks as desired.

Editor’s Tip: If you prefer a smoother sauce, you may also puree the tomatoes using an immersion blender or food processor until the tomatoes reach the desired consistency. You could also opt for canned crushed tomatoes.

Step 5: Saute the onions and garlic

Sunday Gravy 010523 Toh 06 Lauren Habermehl For Toh JveditLauren Habermehl for Taste of Home

Reduce the heat to medium and add the onions. Cook for 4-5 minutes until softened, then add the garlic and tomato paste and cook until fragrant, about 2 minutes more.

Step 6: Deglaze

Sunday Gravy 010523 Toh 07 Lauren Habermehl For Toh JveditLauren Habermehl for Taste of Home

Slowly pour in the wine to deglaze the pot, scraping the bottom of the pot to loosen any bits of flavor stuck to the bottom. Then, add the tomatoes, carrots, basil, parsley and oregano.

Step 7: Combine

Sunday Gravy 010523 Toh 08 Lauren Habermehl For Toh JveditLauren Habermehl for Taste of Home

Stir to combine, then layer in the seared meats, sausages and partially cooked meatballs. Nestle the Parmesan rind (if using) in the sauce, then bring the mixture to a low boil.

Step 8: Cook

Sunday Gravy 010523 Toh 09 Lauren Habermehl For Toh JveditLauren Habermehl for Taste of Home

Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 2-3 hours until the sauce has reduced, the meatballs and sausages are fully cooked, and the boned meats easily remove from the bone. Remove the Parmesan rind and discard. Then, transfer the sausages, meatballs and boned meats to a platter before serving.

Editor’s Tip: Some families prefer to leave the boned pieces of meat whole for serving, while others will shred the meat and stir it back into the gravy to bring this dish back to its Neapolitan ragù roots.

How to Serve Sunday Gravy

Traditionally, Italian-Americans will serve the gravy over al dente pasta as a first course. Top the pasta and gravy with plenty of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and additional fresh basil. The meats cooked in the gravy then work as a hearty second course. The best pasta shapes for Sunday gravy are tubular pasta, such as penne or rigatoni, or long ribbon-like pasta, such as tagliatelle or pappardelle. Of course, you can never go wrong with classic spaghetti, either.

Need Dessert? Serve your Sunday gravy with one of Nonna’s best Italian desserts!

How to Watch The Godfather

The Godfather can be streamed through Amazon Prime Video, Peacock or rented through AppleTV+.