Classic Meatballs and Tomato Sauce is, by far, among the most-requested dinners by my kids for birthdays, Sundays, game days, and whenever there’s a craving. They ask how many friends they can invite over. They’ll have yogurt for lunch. For my son that’s saying something. I swear teenage boys eat 4,000 calories a day just to maintain.
A Little Background
I grew up watching my mom make delicious meatballs and sauce all the time. And like countless families, with no recipe. Nothing existed on paper. Maybe there’s a tomato-splotched index card somewhere. We don’t know. Her intuition coupled with insight shared by a dear Italian friend, was all Mom needed. So for the past 20+ years, I’ve taken what Mom taught me, tweaked it along the way, and figured it was about time to document this unwritten recipe. Not only to have something tangible to pass along to my daughter (Elise loves to cook, Bryce tbd), but to share with friends who have asked, and to all who may be interested. I hope you enjoy this classic as much as our family has.
For starters, to make dry, tough meatballs a thing of the past, use fresh breadcrumbs moistened with milk. It makes a huge difference. Combining lean beef with fattier pork and/or veal are also a must for soft, pillowy meatballs. Mix the ingredients just until combined with your hands, otherwise they’ll get tough. Give the mixer a day off.
When forming meatballs, remember you’re making a meatball, not packing a snowball. Keep them loose and perfectly imperfect! These are around 2 inches. You should have 16-20. The cooking time reflects this size. Make them whatever size you wish; adjust the cooking time accordingly. But first, partially bake the meatballs prior to nestling them in the pot of sauce. Not to offend those who abide by meatball frying, but by baking they brown without extra fat from the frying oil, don’t get overly crusty, hold their shape better when bathing in the tomatoes and herbs, and create less mess. Hello?!?
When it came to the sauce, Mom’s tutorial sounded like this, “Shake in parsley, oregano, and basil. When it looks like a lot, double it.” Julia Child would’ve been proud, and I’m sure Emeril Lagasse has said something similar. Don’t be scared of what will look like a lot of herbs teamed up with a palm tree-size bay leaf and parmesan rind. Unsurprisingly, the sugar melted into the sauce before I could take the picture. A bit of sugar is a must to soften the tomato’s acidity.
There are different schools of thought when it comes to how long the meatballs and sauce should simmer on the stove. I’ve found as little as 40 minutes does the trick. The meatballs will be cooked through yet soft and tender inside. The house will still smell like they’ve been simmering away all afternoon. I will say if you let the pot cool then refrigerate to have the next day, you’ll be even more rewarded. All of this flavor gets giddy overnight. Just rewarm on low when ready.
Have fun with our Classic Meatballs and Tomato Sauce recipe. Serve over steaming pasta of choice with plenty of parm to go around. Above all, enjoy a full house. Cheers!!
- 1 lb lean ground beef
- ½ lb ground veal
- ½ lb ground pork
- 2 cups white bread crumbs from day-old bread, cube 4 thick slices and spin through processor
- ⅔ cup milk to moisten bread crumbs
- ½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
- ½ cup ricotta cheese
- 1 tablespoon freshly grated garlic, 3-4 cloves
- 1 tablespoon dried parsley
- 1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon fennel seed, crushed in mortar and pestle
- ½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- ¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 1 extra-large egg, beaten
- ¼ cup warm water
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 ½ cup onion, chopped
- 4 large cloves garlic, minced
- ½ cup red wine
- 2 28- ounce cans crushed tomatoes with puree (I prefer San Marzano, but go with your favorite)
- 2 6- ounce cans tomato paste
- 12 ounces water
- 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
- 2 tablespoons dried parsley
- 1 tablespoon dried oregano
- 1 tablespoon dried basil
- 1 large or 2 small bay leaves
- 1 Parmesan cheese rind
- ½ cup grated Parm
- ½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- 8 or so fresh basil leaves, torn
- 1 ½ pounds pasta, cooked according to package instructions
Preheat oven to 375°F. Place ground meats in large mixing bowl. In a medium bowl, combine breadcrumbs with milk to moisten. Add moistened breadcrumbs and all remaining ingredients to large bowl with ground meats. Mix gently with your hands until combined. Form into 16-20, 2 – 2 ¼ inch meatballs, and place on large, rimmed baking sheet lined with parchment or foil. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover and refrigerate. Let sit at room temperature 30 minutes before continuing.) Bake in preheated oven for 10-12 minutes.
Heat olive oil in large Dutch oven or stock pot over medium heat. Add onion and sauté until soft and translucent, 5-7 minutes. Add garlic and cook 1 minute more, stirring frequently. Pour in wine and cook until half the liquid evaporates, 3-5 minutes. Stir in crushed tomatoes, tomato paste, water, sugar, dried herbs, bay leaf, and parmesan rind. Bring to simmer. Nestle partially-baked meatballs into sauce. Cover pot with lid slightly ajar, lower heat to low and simmer 40-45 minutes until meatballs are cooked through, stirring occasionally. Remove bay leaf and Parmesan rind. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Let cool and refrigerate. Rewarm over medium-low heat before continuing.) Add grated Parmesan cheese, nutmeg, and torn basil leaves. Serve meatballs and sauce with pasta of choice. Pass extra parm separately and enjoy!
Meatballs and sauce can be frozen once cooled. Place in freezer-safe bags for up to 3 months.
* This post has been republished with updated photos.