Meatballs with Tomato Sauce

Story by Natalie
Meatballs with Tomato Sauce
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Tender, herby, garlicky Italian meatballs simmered in a simple and rich buttery tomato sauce—just like Grandma used to make.

Italian meatballs with red sauce, served over a big bowl of al dente pasta is an absolute dinnertime classic. If there is any meal that is more comforting, more deeply satisfying, we have yet to taste it. We’ve searched high and low for the best Italian meatball recipe and, after some highly scientific research, we can say with total confidence that this is the best Italian meatball recipe on the planet.

Well, OK. The last thing we want to do, ever, is make the nonnas mad. Maybe we’ll just say that these are the best meatballs with red sauce that anyone who doesn’t happen to be an actual, legit, real-life Italian nonna could ever hope to make. And we really did do our homework. We asked anyone and everyone we knew with Italian heritage how their Grandmas and Great-Grandmas made their meatballs.

This herby, garlicky Italian meatball recipe was born from those hunger-inducing conversations. Of course, everyone claimed that their family’s Italian meatballs were the very best, most authentic Italian meatballs in the world. But (though we’d never tell them this) there wasn’t actually all that much difference between the recipes that our friends shared. Most of all, everyone’s recipes had one major thing in common: a long, slow simmer.

So, after much trial and error, we present to you the very best Italian meatball recipe. Print it, bookmark it, memorize it, love it—your family will thank you.

Meatballs with Tomato Sauce

How to Make Italian Meatballs:

As we mentioned, the key to this whole recipe is a long, slow simmer in simple, homemade tomato sauce (see below for more on that!), but there is a little technique at play, too. Here’s what you need to know: 

  1. Don’t overmix your meatballs. Italian meatballs should be moist, yielding, unbelievably tender, and you can ensure that yours turn out just the way you want them by handling your meat as little as possible. Dump everything into a bowl, and use your hands to carefully and gently mix herbs, cheese and breadcrumbs into the meat. 
  2. Do use fresh herbs, fresh cheese, and fresh garlic cloves! This recipe—like most of Italian cuisine—is really pretty simple. It’s all about taking a few, fresh, high-quality ingredients, and treating them with care. Fresh Italian parsley, freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano, fragrant cloves of fresh garlic—this trio of flavor-enhancers will make your meatballs beyond succulent. Avoid the temptation to swap dried herbs or jarred garlic—this is the moment for fresh fresh fresh. 
  3. Let those meatballs simmer in the red sauce for the full eight hours. If you’re anything like us, we actually love the idea that making Italian meatballs requires us to stay home all day long. Curl up with a big pile of books, grab a stack of board games, have a movie marathon—settle in for a lazy day in your increasingly delicious-smelling house.      

Let’s Talk Tomato Sauce: 

Of course, Italian meatballs have to be simmered in tomato sauce—there’s just no other right way to do it. And to make sure that our sauce is one worthy of an Italian Grandma, we’ve turned to the ultimate nonna, Marcella Hazan, for inspiration. Marcella—we’re on a first name basis, at least in our imagination—calls for only three ingredients in her classic, velvety, rich tomato sauce: 

  1. Canned tomatoes. Use the best quality you can—they’re going to be a defining flavor in this dish. Over the course of the meatballs’ eight hour simmer, their sweetness and light acidity will seep into the herby meatballs and make them deeply flavorful and incredibly moist. 
  2. Butter. Butter makes this tomato sauce so silky, and just ever so slightly, ever so gloriously creamy. This is not the time to lighten things up—this meal is a rich, decadent treat. Let your inner nonna guide you—embrace the butter! 
  3. Onion. These will be sliced only in half—don’t dice, or slice them thinly. You want just a gentle infusion of that lovely, sharp, oniony scent to compliment the tomato and cut through a bit of the butters’ richness. Throughout that long, slow simmer, the onions’ natural sweetness is coaxed out, and it marries beautifully with the other flavors of the sauce and meatballs. 
Meatballs with Tomato Sauce

How to Serve Italian Meatballs:

Eight hours have passed. Every window is steamed up and the whole house smells heavenly—like Italy on a Sunday afternoon. Maybe your friends have come over, someone opened a bottle of wine. Maybe there’s a little Dino playing in the background. Stomachs are rumbling and it’s finally (finally!) time to mangia! In our house, Italian meatball night means one thing: generous bowls of perfectly al dente pasta. A simply dressed green salad, and a little crusty bread on the side to sop up every last droplet of red sauce, and we’re just about as blissed out as can be. 

Other Italian Favorites: 

We talk a big game—and we really do try to watch our carbs sometimes—but it always, always, always comes back to generous platters of pasta, doesn’t it? We always feel like we’ve got a little of that Sophia Loren sparkle when we whip up cheesy, creamy baked penne alla vodka. And we love that there are never any complaints when dinner is easy, stuffed pasta shells. We all need an easy win now and again, right? Even when we’re back on that carb-watching bandwagon, we can still indulge in this meat-and-cheese loaded Italian chopped salad—thank goodness for that. 

If you make this Italian meatball recipe with butter tomato sauce, we want to hear about it! Post it to Instagram and tag @themodernproper and #themodernproper. Is it the best Italian meatball recipe? Is it nonna-worthy? Let us know what you think!

Meatballs with Tomato Sauce

Serves 10

Ingredients

2 lbs ground beef
1 lb mild Italian sausage
3/4 cup Italian parsley, finely chopped
6 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 cup Italian style bread crumbs
2 eggs
5 oz parmesan cheese, freshly grated
1 tbsp salt
2 tsp pepper
4 tbsp olive oil
2 28 oz cans of tomato sauce
3 28 oz cans of whole stewed tomatoes
2 sticks butter
4 white onions, cut in half
2 lbs of your favorite pasta

Method

  1. Place the meats, cheese, garlic, Italian parsley, eggs, bread crumbs, salt & pepper in a large bowl. It is important to not over mix the meat, so use your hands to make sure it is just mixed. Once all ingredients are combined, roll into 1 1/2 inch balls (about 36) and set aside on a baking dish.
  2. In a large Dutch oven, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Working in small batches, sautè the meatballs until each side is just browned, then transfer back to the baking sheet.
  3. Without cleaning the Dutch oven, add tomatoes (in their juices), sauce, butter and onions. Once the butter is melted add all the meatballs to the sauce, stirring gently to cover them.
  4. Bring the sauce to a low simmer and allow to cook for 8 hours. After each hour give the sauce a gentle stir and, using the back of a wooden spoon, smash the whole tomatoes up against the side of the pot. This will help them break down in the cooking process.
  5. Before serving, remove onions from the sauce. Serve over a bed of al dente pasta and top with freshly grated parmesan cheese.