Our Favorite Italian Meatballs

On top of spaghetti all covered with cheese
I lost my poor meatball when somebody sneezed.
It rolled off the table, it rolled on the floor.
And then my poor meatball rolled out of the door.


Actually, I’m not a fan of spaghetti and meatballs (though those with whom I reside are).  Eek! What?! Huh?! you say.  Nope.  I do, however, love a tomato sauce-simmered meatball on a crusty roll (highly recommend you make King Arthur Flour’s Crusty European-Style Hard Rolls) with melted provolone and fontina to hold it all together.  [Swoon]  Or a singular beauty right out of the pot with a soopa-big spoon.  [Kerplunk]  To each their own but nobody is every disappointed.

I play with the meatball recipe depending on what flavor I’m going for and what ingredients I have around or am just too busy and/or lazy to shop for.  This recipe, as written below, is my go-to-never-let-me-down-fuss-free Italian meatball.

My preferred meat is a combination of equal parts beef, pork and veal.  I have, on many occasions though, used all beef or half beef and half pork and the meatballs turn out perfectly fine.  The three-meat version, however, has just that little something extra in taste and texture that makes your “yummmmm” turn into a full-on bib-dousing droolfest.

If you don’t like getting your hands messy, you may want to pass on this recipe.  It requires thorough and exuberant two-handed ingredient integration that just can’t be replicated with a spoon or – the gods forbid! – a mixer; the former wouldn’t do a good enough job and the latter would compact the mixture into pre-baked adobe bricks.

There is always the option of using disposable gloves or your kid’s/kids’ assistance, of course; but since I only use the gloves to make blow-up turkeys and my kids are in the kitchen with me as little as possible (I have spatial issues with people in my kitchen), I can vouch for neither.  Proceed at your own risk.  Beyond that, really, go to Costco or Walmart and get yourself a big old bag of meatballs and call it a day. [Ha!] That was an “are you still reading” test.  Apologies if I made you blanch or clutch your pearls.  And if you all of the sudden have just had a light bulb moment, oye, I really can’t help you.

I am notoriously a poor estimator (or poorly patient person) and end up with meatballs that begin the rolling process at a normal size and end with grapefruit-sized bonzos.  Well, I used to be anyway.  I ordered all sizes of food scoops and found that a 1/4 cup meatball is the perfect three bite (one for some … not being judgy, just observant).  This recipe makes 24 at that size.  If you like smaller or bigger, have at it.  They are yours to do with as you will.  Just remember to adjust the cooking time.  Less for smaller, more for larger… in case that needed saying.

Eye candy shot … And may I say a taste tester at this point is a most acceptable cook’s treat.

This recipe makes a gracious plenty so I usually use half and freeze the rest.  For all the work, it’s nice to have a bonus meal for a busy day down the road.  My basic tomato sauce (recipe below) is perfect for half a batch of meatballs and rolls or that same half batch of meatballs and one pound of pasta cooked.


For sandwiches:  Simmer the meatballs in the tomato sauce over very low heat.  Split rolls in half and put cheese on one side (or both … it’s your sandwich).  Broil until the cheese has browned spots (like properly cooked pizza cheese).  Put meatballs on (as many as will fit or as you’d like) and a sprinkle of parsley or grated cheese if you have any leftover from making the meatballs.

For pasta and meatballs: Boil one pound of pasta in salted water until al dente.  Drain, reserving a cup of the cooking water. Put the meatballs aside on a plate for a minute and toss the pasta with the sauce in a shallow wide bowl.  If it seems too thick, add some of the pasta water, a bit at a time. and toss. Put the meatballs on top of the spaghetti if serving family style. To serve, put some of the sauced pasta in a pasta bowl or plate, top with as many meatballs as you fancy (or as is polite to take understanding others may need to eat, ahem) and top with any leftover parsley and/or grated cheese.  Please – for the love of all that is holy and even that which is not – do not put plain pasta into a bowl and “decoratively” plop tomato sauce and meatballs on.  You’ll never get the sauce to coat each bit of pasta evenly.  It will taste a mess.

And finally, not to leave you hanging on my missing meatball …

It rolled in the garden and under a bush
And then my poor meatball was nothing but mush.

The mush was as tasty as tasty could be,
And early next summer it grew to a tree.

The tree was all covered with beautiful moss
It grew great big meatballs and tomato sauce.

So if you eat spaghetti all covered with cheese,
Hold on to your meatball and don’t ever sneeze.

Our Favorite Italian Meatballs

Makes 24 (¼-cup) meatballs


3 TBS extra-virgin olive oil PLUS 2 TBS for the baking sheets
1 large onion, chopped (1 ½ to 2 cups)
4 cloves garlic (approx. 1 TBS) minced
½ tsp. red pepper flakes
1 1/2 cup Panko breadcrumbs
1/2 cup milk
2 large eggs
1 cup grated parmesan or romano cheese
3 tsp. Kosher salt
½ tsp. black pepper
¼ cup finely chopped fresh Italian parsley leaves
1 lb. ground beef
1 lb. ground veal
1 lb. ground pork

MY GO-TO BASIC TOMATO SAUCE (enough for ½ batch of meatballs):

2-4 cloves of garlic, minced
2 TBS extra virgin olive oil
1 – 28 oz. can WHOLE tomatoes (authentic San Marzano if possible)


Pour 3 TBS of olive oil in a large saute pan and put over medium heat.  Add the chopped onions and cook, stirring frequently 7-10 minutes. They should be soft, almost wilted, but not brown (reduce heat if you need to).  Stir in the garlic and the crushed red pepper flakes and saute for another 1 to 2 minutes. Take the pan off the heat and allow the onions and garlic to cool.

Preheat the oven to 375F (or 350F convection which is what I use).  Line a half sheet pan (or two quarter-sheet) with foil and drizzle 1 TBS of olive oil onto each, using your hands or a pastry brush to cover the entire bottom with a thin coat.

In a large bowl combine the Panko, milk, eggs, cheese, salt and pepper, and parsley. Stir until thoroughly combined.  Add the onion mixture from the pan and stir it in.  Using your hands, add the meats and squish it into the other ingredients using loose fingers (don’t compact the meat).  Once all of the ingredients are uniformly mixed, scoop into balls and place on the baking sheet without the meatballs touching.

Bake in the preheated oven until cooked through.  Using a ¼ cup scoop (perfect for subs or spaghetti and meatballs), bake for 25 minutes.  Meatballs the size of a walnut take about 15 minutes.  If you have used two pans on two oven racks, switch them halfway through cooking.

At this point, plop them into your warm tomato sauce, cover and let simmer on lowest heat for about 20 minutes to an hour.  The longer they simmer, the softer they get.

TOMATO SAUCE (Make when the meatballs go into the oven):

Crush the tomatoes, either by hand or in the blender (which is what I do) if you like a smoother sauce.  Set aside.  Into a deep saucepan (4 quart works well), pour the olive oil and put over medium low heat.  Add the garlic and stir for a few minutes until you can smell the garlic but it gets no color.  Pour in the crushed tomatoes and stir.  Cook over medium low heat for approximately 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.  After 20 minutes, if using immediately, reduce the heat to very low and cover the saucepan.  Otherwise, cool to room temperature and then cover and refrigerate.  Before using, reheat over very low heat and proceed with recipe.

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