Not Your Mama’s Meatballs

I wanted something simple. Specifically, I wanted spaghetti and meatballs. I’d never made spaghetti and meatballs before and last night was going to be the night.

But then I opened Lydia Bastianich’s book, “Lydia’s Family Table,” and after looking up meatballs in the index I found her recipe for “Long-Cooked Sugo and Meatballs.” Lydia explains, “Sugo, or gravy, is a long-cooking sauce that has a big component of meat in it, which releases its flavors as it cooks and transforms the sauce into a more complex and flavorful gravy.”

After doing more research, I discovered that spaghetti and meatballs is not an authentic Italian dish but an American Italian concession to America’s love for meat. So if I wanted to have street cred among Italian chefs I’d have to swap spaghetti for sugo. And that’s just what I did.

To make sugo you must first make a soffrito: “that essential Italian technique of cooking vegetables and aromatics in fat or olive oil slowly over low heat.”

What’s nice about Lydia’s recipe is that instead of chopping the two onions, the shallots, the carrots and celery she has you mince them in the food processor:



So here’s my soffrito cooking over medium heat:


I’m still wary of the produce I buy at Key Foods (the carrots always taste suspiciously of chemicals) but when you start cooking at 7 PM on a Monday night it’s difficult to get to the farmer’s market. I do think, however, that those small factors do add up at the end and if I had to do it again I’d buy really good carrots, onions, etc.

Soon you add bay leaves, tomato paste, and a 35-oz can of San Marzano plum tomatoes:


Then, because I was making her sausage meatballs, I added 2 Tbs orange zest, 1 Tbs thyme leaves and 1/4 tsp pepperoncino.

After that you add two quarts of piping hot vegetable stock (or turkey stock but my store doesn’t have turkey stock. Does yours?) My dutch oven was filled to the brim at this point so I was nervous about adding the meatballs later. But I just stirred it all together, put the lid on and let it simmer for an hour.

Meanwhile, I set to making the meatballs. First you saute 1 minced onion, 1/3 of a fennel minced and 2 cloves of minced garlic in 2 Tbs extra-virgin olive oil, just until it wilts but not til it’s brown. You let that cool and then place, in a bowl: 3 lbs of Italian sausage out of the casing, 3 large eggs well beaten, 3 Tbs chopped Italian parsley, 1/2 tsp pepper, 2 Tbs orange zest, 1 tsp thyme leaves and 1 heaping cup of dry bread crumbs:


Top with the cooled onion/fennel/garlic mixture and then squeeze it all together, gently (you don’t want tough meatballs) using your hands:


After that it’s a cinch. Get a baking sheet, put a cup of flour on it, and roll the balls slightly bigger than golf balls and coat in the flower:


Fill a saute pan 1/3rd of the way with vegetable oil and heat on high heat. (I was nervous after my frying disaster the other day, but I pressed on.) Once hot, I added the meatballs:


You roll them around for a few minutes until they’re golden brown all around:


Remove them to a cookie sheet (that’s the lead picture you see at the top) and then finish the rest.

After they’re all fried, you sprinkle salt on top and then you add the meatballs to the sugo. That’s where they’ll finish cooking. I had to drain out some sugo to add all the meatballs, but all the meatballs ultimately went in. You raise to a gentle simmer, half cover and leave for 45 minutes.

45 minutes later you have your meat, you have your sauce and all you need is something to contain the two. I decided to make instant polenta which I made in an instant!

I poured the polenta on three plates and then topped with meatballs:


On top of the meatballs went sauce:


Dinner was served!

The verdict?

Well Diana and Craig really liked them. I thought the sausage texture was a little too un-meatball-like for my taste. Too many little lumps and bumps in each bite. The sugo, also, had a disconcerting texture: all those minced vegetables never really morphed together into a sauce. Instead they remained tiny, gristly vegetable bits in an orange-scented tomato broth. Not my favorite.

But then again, it made a lot and we had it again for dinner tonight. This time I served it with rigatoni and in the fridge, over night, I think the flavors developed nicely. I’m not sure I love the orange but I did like the way the meatballs thickened the sauce and the way the sauce flavored the meatballs.

Am I a sugo/meatball convert? Or will I revert to spaghetti and more traditional meatballs next time around?

Don’t tell Lydia, but I think I see an Olive Garden in my future.*

[*Ok, I was being dramatic. No Olive Garden for me, but I’m not sure I’d make this again. If I did make it again I’d make it with the turkey meatballs. Or regular meat meatballs. And regular tomato sauce. Hmmm, maybe the Olive Garden isn’t such a bad idea after all…]

24 thoughts on “Not Your Mama’s Meatballs”

  1. I would try meatballs made with part beef, part pork and part veal if I were you.

    The orange in the pasta sauce is odd to me, sounds like it ended up odd to you, too.

    You know if you make salsa di pomodoro and then cook meatballs in it, it becomes sugo. Sugo means it has had meat cooked in it. Rag├╣ is just the most famous sugo.

    I have nothing against turkey, but I wouldn’t expect anything to taste traditionally Italian from it. Somehow goose, duck, veal, pork (or boar) and beef still do it for me.

  2. I agree with Judith. The beef/pork/veal is what makes the best flavor, or wild boar. Nirvana, because it’s so rich. You want the flavor of the meat to migrate into the sauce without the meatball becoming tasteless.

  3. When you make a “mirepoix” of onions,celery and carrots it is hard for a nouveau chef to actually leave it to cook long enough to really soften and let its flavour meld. We too quickly want to add a liquid to it. The next time you cook or braise using a mirepoix, lower the heat if you need to, but let the vegtables cook until soft, easily 10 minutes or more. By the way, Happy Valentine’s Day to You.

  4. I tried making meatballs for the first time not too long ago as well! I used my homemade marinara recipe and used the beef/pork/veal mixture Cat & Judith recommended. In my store its called a “meatloaf mix.” They turned out great! Giada De Laurentiis always uses turkey in her meatballs and they look delicious, so I say go for it! I prefer my meatballs with pasta or on a hoagie roll. Happy Valentine’s Day AG!!!

  5. As an Italian American of Calabrian roots, the use of carrot, orange, and any kind of stock for sauce is strange to me. The meatballs I’ve made for the last 30 years contain beef only (although the addition of veal and pork has always tempted me). I use fresh bread crumbs as opposed to dried to achieve a lighter texture, and raw onion and garlic as opposed to cooked.

    The sauce I make is based on onion, garlic, sausage sans casing, and red wine, and cooks at the lowest possible heat for six hours. I add browned meatballs for the last two hours of cooking.

    It doesn’t sound to me like what you tried would give you any “street cred among Italian chefs”. I’m not sure why you want that. I suggest starting with Italian American and going from there. I also don’t understand “swapping sugo for spagetti”. Isn’t that like swapping dressing for salad?

    By the way, I love Lydia (and Mario for that matter).

  6. My favorite meatballs also are the pork/beef/veal blend. Of all sources, the Sopranos family cookbook has an awesome meatball recipe that uses these elements. I usually put a little pinch of ground fennel in so that they have a hint of sausage flavor w/o the texture issues you mentioned.

  7. Adam, it might be a bit far from you.. but CTown at 5ave and 9th streets has MUCH better produce and meat, and it’s significantly cheaper…. might be worth the hike up to 9th street, at least sometimes :)

  8. I would also recommend trying a mixture of beef, pork, and veal (or turkey; sometimes it’s hard to get ground veal). I use the same mixture (with egg, bread crumbs, etc.) for meatballs or meatloaf.

  9. I Agree with a lot of the preceeding comments, the veal, pork and beef mixture is the one that is constantly touted as being the way to go…but that’s dismissing the idea that there is no tradition in the Italian-American philosoply of using sausage. By the way Adam, what color sofrito did Lydia tell you to make, that could’ve made a big difference in how the finished dish came out. For a more clearly defined idea of sofrito, check out Colicchio’s last book The Craft of Food. I personally believe that the sofrito is key to the whole thing.

  10. If you’re looking for a great meatball recipe, I’d try Ina Garten’s. My 17-year-old sister (who hates to cook) has fallen in love with these meatballs and makes them herself. I think she’s modified the recipe a bit with some of my suggestions such as white bread soaked in milk, so I can get you her recipe if you wish. I also reccommend beef-pork-veal.

    I still don’t have a killer recipe for sauce/gravy/sugo. I always come back to my own creation.

  11. For the best spaghetti & meatballs, I am partial to the Joy Of Cooking recipe for Classic Italian-American Tomato Sauce II, which is tomato sauce with meatballs. Though to echo just about every post above mine, the veal/pork/beef mixture is the best. Plus, don’t use lean beef, use chuck or a mixture of chuck and sirloin. The fat makes all the difference.

  12. I would believe that there are at least hundreds of recipies for meatballs in Italy as well as the US, and that they are regional. I am the only one who uses only beef it seems. On a whim, I did a google search for “Michael Chiarello meatballs”, and he uses only beef as well. He, like me, has a Calabrian background.

    As Mario Batali says, there’s no such thing as Italian cooking, only regional cooking.

  13. what a bastardization of a simple peasant food. Food processor? All that prep? A meatball should have the cheapest, fatty, ground beef, as much breadcrumbs(homemade from decent crusty bread) as meat, a whole lot of parmesan or romano, diced onion, a couple eggs, garlic, s&p, I use parsley…mix it together with your hands, adding warm water until the meat no longer sticks to your hands…roll them into 2-3″ balls, brown them well in a frying pan, add them and the pan scrapings to plain sauce, and let them simmer for an hour or two, serve with a crusty roll or your favorite pasta. The pasta should have a little sauce added to it first, so you never get a bland bite. Grated romano. Now those are my families Sicilian meatballs.

    I’m a retired chef, but I don’t let that mess with my Sicilian recipes…those are from my Mom and Nana.

    Try this recipe and spend the rest of the time you sweated drinking some of your favorite wine.

    mwuh! That’s a kiss.

  14. I agree with Kathleen. Especially about some parmesan or romano in the meatball mixture.

    And a long cooked sauce means: Looooooong coooooked. A few hours ain’t gonna do it. My ex-MIL, rest her soul, used to cook her sugo for 6-8 hours. If she was going to add meat she would often throw a few beef and/or pork bones into the sauce. This gave it great flavor and a thickness that’s hard to describe – but the mouthfeel was fantastic.

  15. I fully support the food processor soffritto, all the chopping every time you want to make a ragu or tomato sauce was driving me mad. My italian boyfriend kind of frowns at it because the end result is not chunky enough though.

    And the grated orange makes sense to me: that’s what they do with osso-buco (milanese dish of veal and marrow bone with tomato sauce) – you usually serve it with grated orange and chopped parsley on top, that’s called a gremolata.

  16. I made a batch of meatballs last night that were quite tasty – thanks for the inspiration AG! I used ground beef (extra lean), ground pork (not so lean), minced red onion, salt, pepper, allspice, garlic powder and an egg. They worked out great…

  17. So far, we have: sofrito, soffrito, soffritto.

    From Wikipedia:

    Sofrito is Spanish, and may differ in the Caribean

    Soffritto is Italian, and may be as simple as oil, onion, and sometimes garlic

    While the French mirepoix is strictly defined, sofrito and soffritto seem more idesa than recipes.

    Let’s not even talk about the trinity.

  18. oh yeah, the pork bones… my Nana used browned neck bones, if you can get them, and a couple Italian sausages will round out the flavor wonderfully.

  19. Best Meatballs EVER! I have made them using beef, pork, turkey, and/or sausage meat. Use whatever you have, in whatever combination you like. To one lb of chopped meat(s), add one egg, half a cup of bread crumbs (fresh OR dried is fine here) dried parsley, several cloves of garlic, chopped fine(you can gently saute them first, if you’d like. This helps prevent ‘garlic burps’ later) and enough water to make it pliable. Add 1/2 cup of grated Locatelli Romano cheese (crucial, this)and add more water if neccesary. Season generously with salt and pepper. Form into meatballs. (I use a large scooper with a built in “lever.” I wipe it with oil first so it releases the meatball without a fuss.) Now you can bake or fry this for a firm texture. If you drop them (raw) gently into tomato sauce, they will become fall apart tender. For the sauce: Saute some garlic on low heat till lightly golden, then add chopped onions, chopped celery, chopped carrots, diced peppers (any color) minced anaheim or jalapeno pepper and mushrooms, if you like. Raise the heat and cook till browned. Add Four whole cans of Del Monte’s Italian style stewed tomatoes (crush with your hands first)and two cans of Progresso’s crushed tomatoes. Season with Lawry’s seasoned salt, coarse grind black pepper, garlic powder, Italian seasonings, basil, oregano, celery leaves and/or parsley. Cook till it begins to turn a rust color (between 8-12 hours) At some point add a leftover heel of Locatelli (adds such great flavor) or just grate some of it right into the pot. Add a dried red hot pepper or two if that’s what you like. Cook for another hour or two. You can start the sauce first and add the meatballs in batches. (shake the pot to prevent it from sticking to the bottom)This makes an awesomely flavorful sauce.You can also brown some chopped meat(s), saute the veggies,then proceed with the tomato sauce recipe. It makes a divine meat sauce to die for. Enjoy!

  20. Adam,

    I recently went to a restaurant, Gusto Ristorante, at 60 Greenwich Avenue, where I ate the best meatballs I have ever had in my life. They were called Sicilian meatballs. They had pine nuts and currants in them, and I was a little apprehensive about how much I would like them, but they were truly wonderful – served in a flat bowl with no pasta, so you could share a pasta starter with someone if you wanted. (I actually had the fried sardine appetizer, which was good too.) This is a place you might want to try sometime. I am going to try and duplicate them at home.

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