River City Grille's Sunday Gravy With a Side of Nostalgia

It’s hard to describe Sunday Gravy to someone who’s never had it. I could explain that “gravy” is actually just another name for a rich Italian tomato sauce, traditionally served on Sunday afternoons. I could tell you that, at River City Grille in Irvington, it’s a bowl of rigatoni smothered in slow-simmered tomato sauce. That chunks of browned pork shoulder, pork ribs, and meatballs give the sauce an unctuous, meaty quality. I could describe the way the meat is nestled atop the pasta alongside a spoonful of creamy, smooth ricotta and a sprinkling of pecorino, but that description falls woefully short.

“It’s like the lost art of what you remember as a child,” explains owner Bobby Manzi, and that may just be the best way to describe it. If you grew up on Sunday Gravy, then eating it is all about memory. “I remember waking up on Sunday to the smell of the meat frying sauce frying,” says Manzi. “You’d steal a meatball before it went into the gravy, and, a few hours later, all of us would eat together.”

The quest for the perfect meatball was what led Manzi to add Sunday Gravy to the menu (only from October to May). “When we opened, I was intent on being eclectic American,” he says. “I told my chefs they could cook whatever they wanted as long as it wasn’t Southern Italian food.” As meatballs became standard fare even at non-Italian restaurants, Manzi decided it was time to introduce Sunday Gravy to the menu. “We don’t take shortcuts,” he adds. Meatballs are hand-formed; all the meats are fried so they leave flavorful browned bits in the bottom of the pan; and the rest of the ingredients – garlic, onion, basil, and a little red wine – are kept simple.

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In keeping with tradition, Manzi’s father, who came from “Mulberry Street to Harlem to the Bronx to Westchester,” would come into the restaurant twice a week and spend more than five hours on the labor-intensive process. Since he passed away, Manzi himself has gotten into the kitchen to keep the family recipe going. “A lot of people are doing meatballs these days, but I can’t think of many other places that are doing a real Sunday Gravy,” he says.

So how are the meatballs? Simple, soul-satisfying, and probably just like what your grandparents used to make. In other words, exactly what you want them to be.

Try it: River City Grille, 6 S Broadway, Irvington, 914.591.2033; www.rivercitygrille.com

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