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My friends Mike and Tara and I were parked in front of a big bowl of Beachside Grill's Sunday gravy, each trying to determine how it stacked up against our own version. We worked small bites of the thickly coated rigatoni around our mouths with an almost scientific precision. The hearty, tomato gravy — meaty with sections of slow-stewed Italian sausage and hunks of falling-apart pork — clung to the tubular noodles. I asked if the dish was as good as Mike's aunt's version, his personal bar for gravy greatness.
Mike avoided the direct comparison out of fairness to Beachside Grill's gravy. "This is good," he conceded. "My aunt uses pork too, so it's similar." As if on cue, we each went in for more of the tender, reddened pig. Mike chuckled slightly. "What we're doing actually reminds me of my two aunts. They'd stand around the kitchen and fight over who made the better gravy by dipping pieces of bread into each other's pots." It should come as no surprise that his aunt from New York claimed to have the superior version, thanks to the addition of the state's fabled water.
The truth is, though, there's no one way to make the brick-red stew that Italian-Americans have come to know as Sunday gravy. There's only the way your mother, aunt, grandmother, great-grandmother, or sister made it — the way she stood over the stove, as if by ritual, and slowly gilded the essence of meatballs, pork, or sausage into a bubbling sea of crushed tomatoes. Even the word gravy (never call it sauce) suggests something so deeply soulful that simply repeating it recalls something formative.
This familial model is so strong that it becomes the basis for any comparison. I remember my aunt's gravy fondly: She browned garlicky, bread-crumb-filled meatballs before adding them to the chunky tomato bath, and after hours inside, they fell apart into succulent pieces. My fiancée's mother compliments her meatballs and sausage with bits of diced green pepper. And in lieu of freshly chopped garlic or onion, she uses powdered versions. I love that gravy too.
All this is why a restaurant that labels its own tomato- and meat-covered macaroni as "Sunday gravy" must be fairly confident in its recipe. Beachside Grill has been serving "Angela's Sunday gravy" since it opened in the old Damon's Grill spot next to the Lauderdale Beachside Hotel three months ago. The gravy, named after the restaurant's co-owner and banquet manager, is served daily. It's just one of the Italian-American classics being devoured in the space's renovated bar and dining room, where flat-screen TVs broadcast sports and doo-wop groups filter in at night to serenade the hungry crowd.
We came to test the gravy and found doo-woppers Joey and the Gigolos crooning their way through Elvis' "Don't Be Cruel." As we spied Joey (looking like Sam Kinison in a flat cap) and his Gigolos (each in dapper, red button-downs), Mike and I both agreed that Beachside's slow-cooked gravy, though slightly expensive at $20 a bowl, was legit. Our key gripes: The sweet basil leaves were wilted and unappetizing, and our bowl was missing the dollop of ricotta cheese the menu promised. But it was still thick and meaty, redolent of sun-fresh tomatoes, love, and time.
Tara, a vegetarian, sneaked a few meat-free bites from the bowl but mostly just grazed on a chopped vegetable salad ($8) and bobbed back and forth to the '50s tunes. She didn't really get what the gravy fuss was about. "If we had spaghetti sauce growing up, it came from a jar," she confided. Mike and I mourned her inexperience with the tradition as we shared a plate of chicken scarpariello ($18). The dish had pieces of tasty sausage and chicken breast wading in a very spicy white wine sauce emboldened by cherry and bell peppers. The only issue was some badly overcooked potatoes soaking up the sauce.
Beachside serves double duty as a bar, and the mostly Italian menu concedes some ground there. Each booth on the bar side comes with its own little television tucked into the wall, so sports fans munching on artichoke fritters and fried calamari (each $8) can tune to whatever game they choose. Those fritters, filled with creamy blue cheese and fried until they resemble a hush puppy, are the kind of Italian-themed bar snacks you could happily down with a pint of Blue Moon or Budweiser. A trio of unusual sliders, not so much ($9): The beef and chicken versions were sad Philly knockoffs, and a third filled with a crab cake, mozzarella cheese, and red sauce was near inedible. The place also sports a few steaks, including a Milanese-style veal chop ($28) and a more amicably priced ten-ounce flat-iron steak ($16) that the kitchen was out of on both of my visits. Burgers and sandwiches filled with chicken roulade or fresh-caught grouper are cheap and make for a filling lunch.
And though Beachside Grill's gravy isn't entirely like what Mom used to make, it is a suitable supplement — especially for those of us who don't have weekly access to our family versions. And that's a much-needed service. Life without gravy would be frightening indeed.