Meatballs were always a staple food in the house I grew up in. My grandmother is 100 percent Italian, so it was common for our home to constantly smell like rich tomato sauce as meatballs simmered slowly on the stove all day long. Her parents (my great-grandparents) immigrated over from Italy to the United States in 1906 and opened up an Italian deli and grocery store in Pennsauken, New Jersey. My great-grandmother was a self-taught butcher, and my grandma claims she learned everything she knows about meatballs from her. So it only seems fitting that the person I turn to when looking for how to make meatballs would be my Italian grandmother. Because she of all people would truly know the single greatest way to make them.
This recipe comes from the depths of my childhood basement, where my grandmother stores all of my great-grandmother’s secret recipes. Unfortunately, my great-grandmother wasn’t one to write out measurements on her recipe cards. “She never did anything with amounts,” says Arleen Small, my grandmother and meatball connoisseur. “It usually was a ‘pinch of this’ or a ‘pinch of that.'”
Thankfully, with the help of my grandma, we were able to replicate a majority of my great-grandmother’s Italian meatball recipe in order to show how to make classic Italian meatballs.
Makes 8 servings
1/2 pound ground beef
1/2 pound ground pork
1/2 pound ground veal
2 slices bread
1/2 cup milk
2 tbsp grated parmesan cheese
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp dried basil
1 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
Italian Tomato Sauce
4 28 oz. cans tomato sauce
1 10 oz. can tomato paste
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp dried basil
3 hot Italian sausages
Rip up two slices of bread into smaller breadcrumbs. Soak the breadcrumbs in a bowl with 1/2 cup of milk for about 3 minutes.
Add the rest of the Italian meatball ingredients to the bowl. Mix together with clean hands.
Using your hands, shape 2-inch-wide meatballs. Place them on a plate or sheet pan as you continue to shape the others.
“I like them when they’re a little bit larger—large enough so one could fit perfectly in a small roll,” says Arleen. “When they’re really small, they can’t absorb as much of the juices.”
Pan sear the meatballs on a skillet. When they are brown on both sides, place them on a clean plate. Continue to do this until all of the meatballs are cooked. Cooking the meatballs before putting them in the sauce ensures that the meatballs will hold their shape when cooking in the sauce.
In a large pot, whisk together all of the tomato sauce, tomato paste, dried oregano, and dried basil. Continue to cook on low until the sauce is hot and bubbling.
Place the meatballs carefully inside the pot of sauce. Do not plop them in—the sauce will go everywhere!
“If you add some sweet sausage or hot Italian sausage, and you put them in with the meatballs, it just gives the sauce a really good flavor,” says Arleen. Brown them in the pan first (similar to how the meatballs were browned). Poke a small hole in each Italian sausage so the casing is pierced and the juices start to flow into the sauce.
Instead of pouring the grease into a can, use it in the sauce! Pour the extra grease from the pan from browning your meat into the sauce.
For incredibly juicy meatballs, cook the meatballs and sausages on a simmer for 3 to 4 hours. (If you cook on a higher heat, the sauce will likely burn on the bottom.) Stir occasionally. To avoid sauce bubbling all over your stove, place a lid on top of the pot, but leave it slightly ajar. This allows for some of the moisture to release while the meatballs are cooking.
As grandma said, these meatballs are great both on a bed of pasta and an Italian roll! Serve sprinkled with some parmesan cheese. If you don’t have enough people to eat all of these meatballs, keep the pot in the fridge for a few days for easy lunches or dinners on busy weeknights.
Hot tip: Use those hot Italian sausages for another meal! Sautee up some peppers and onions and serve the sausages on a hot dog bun for another delicious dinner.
Full Italian Meatball Recipe
- Rip up two slices of bread into smaller bread crumbs. Soak the breadcrumbs in a bowl with 1/2 cup of milk for about 3 minutes.
- Add the rest of the Italian meatball ingredients to the bowl. Mix together with clean hands.
- Using your hands, shape 2-inch-wide meatballs. Place the meatballs on a plate or sheet pan as you continue to shape the others.
- Pan sear the meatballs on a skillet. When the meatballs are brown on both sides, place them on a clean plate. Continue to do this until all of the meatballs are cooked.
- Brown the hot Italian sausages as well. Poke a small hole in each Italian sausage so the casing is pierced and the juices start to flow into the sauce.
- In a large pot, whisk together all of the tomato sauce, tomato paste, dried oregano, and dried basil. Continue to cook on low until the sauce is hot and bubbling.
- Place the meatballs and sausages carefully inside the pot of sauce. Pour the extra grease from the pan from browning your meat into the sauce.
- Cook the meatballs and sausages on a simmer (very low heat) for 3 to 4 hours, stirring occasionally. Place a lid on top, but leave it slightly ajar for moisture to escape.
- Serve on a bed of spaghetti, or on toasted Italian rolls!
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