Meatballs with Ricotta in Tomato Sauce

Do you like Italian meatballs? I’ve been fishing around for a while for a good meatball recipe and have found it in this one. The basic idea is to take a base of ground pork, mix in other meat such as ground beef, pork fat, pancetta or prosciutto, add herbs, bread cubes, ricotta cheese and eggs, then brown them on high heat in the oven, add some crushed tomatoes and cook on lower heat until they are done. The following is an adaptation from a couple recipes from San Francisco’s A16 restaurant (the book A16: Food + Wine and an A16 recipe in Food and Wine). We used half ground pork and half Italian sweet sausage, with some minced prosciutto for these meatballs. Sausage because of the seasoning and the higher fat content which will help keep the meatballs from drying out. The ricotta helps as a binder and also helps smooth out the texture and enrich the flavor.

We’re meatball lovers here, so if you have a favorite meatball recipe to share, please let us know about it in the comments.

Meatballs with Ricotta in Tomato Sauce Recipe

  • Yield: Serves 5-6.

If fresh basil is not available, add a tablespoon of dried basil to the tomatoes before adding to the meatballs. Alternatively, Muir Glen makes a canned tomato with basil in it which would also work.

Ingredients

  • 10 ounces ground pork shoulder
  • 10 ounces sweet Italian sausage, removed from casing
  • 2 ounces prosciutto or pancetta, minced (helps to put in freezer for 15 min first, before mincing, will make it easier to cut)
  • 4 cups cubed white bread, crusts removed first.
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon fennel seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons Kosher salt
  • 2/3 cup ricotta cheese
  • 3 eggs, lightly beaten
  • Olive oil
  • 1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes (high quality, either San Marzano or Muir Glen)
  • 1/4 cup chiffonaded* fresh basil leaves
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese


* to chiffonade basil leaves, stack leaves on top of each other, then roll up leaves lengthwise like a cigar, slice thinly starting at the end.

Method

1 In a large bowl, add the pork, Italian sausage, prosciutto or pancetta, bread cubes, parsley, oregano, fennel, red pepper flakes, and salt. Use your hands to mix until the ingredients are evenly distributed. Do not over-work.

2 Whisk the beaten eggs and ricotta together in a separate bowl until there are no more large clumps of ricotta. Pour into the bowl of the meat mixture. Mix with your hands until just incorporated. Again, do not over-mix.

If you want, to test seasoning, you can take a small bit of the mix, form into a patty, and heat in a small skillet on the stovetop until cooked through. Depending on how this test patty tastes to you, add more herbs, chili, or salt to taste to the meat mixture. Keep meat mixture in refrigerator while doing this.

3 Preheat oven to 425°F. Coat the bottom of a large roasting pan with olive oil. Form meatballs in your hand, about 1 1/2-inches in diameter, using about 3 Tbsp of the mixture to form each meatball. Arrange in pan so there is some space between them. If too crowded they will steam and not brown.

4 Roast meatballs in the oven for about 30 minutes, turning the meatballs after about 20 minutes, until the meatballs are beginning to brown.

5 Remove pan from oven. Use a metal spatula to dislodge meatballs from being stuck to the bottom of the pan. Add the crushed tomatoes to the pan. Carefully cover the pan with aluminum foil (carefully because the pan is still hot!) Return the pan to the oven. Lower the heat to 300°F. Cook for an additional hour to 1 1/2 hours.

Sprinkle basil into sauce before serving.

Makes about 24 meatballs. Top with grated Parmesan.

45 Comments

  1. mary

    I LOVE meatballs. I grew up on meatball subs from the corner sub shop. These look delicious. My mom makes meatballs (I need to get her recipe), but I’ve always been intrigued by adding pork (instead of just all beef).

  2. Cecelia

    I have found that my ideal meatballs involve half ground veal and half sirloin, and absolutely require stale bread soaked in milk. The recipe I use is an adaptation of one found on Epicurious (here: http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/Classic-Spaghetti-and-Meatballs-105546)

    Soak 3 1x3x5″ slices stale bread in milk for ~10 minutes. Meanwhile, combine 1 egg, 2 tbsp grated Parmesan, 1 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp pepper, 1 minced garlic clove, few dashes red pepper flakes, 1/2 tbsp Italian seasoning, and 1 tbsp minced fresh parsley in food processor. Pulse few times to combine. Squeeze bread pieces until almost dry and add to food processor in large chunks (discard rest of milk). Pulse until incorporated (about 20 seconds). Mix in 0.5 lb ground veal and 0.5 lb ground sirloin and mix on medium about 30 seconds or until just combined. Shape into ~1 tbsp rounded meatballs (makes about 24-30). Either fry on stovetop or bake at 350 degrees for 20-25 minutes.

    I often make a double batch and freeze the remainder for quick, luxurious post-work meals.

    Thanks for the recipe! ~Elise

  3. FSK

    I LOVE meatballs! I also sneak in some veggies into like grated zucchini or carrots. Nice healthy kick and also helps to retain the moisture in the meatballs… I am already salivating..haha!

  4. Michael

    You have all the bases covered, and I’m certain they will be great. I have two suggestions: Drain the ricotta, and use a lower heat to cook the meatballs, else they dry out.

    Also, I’d use a French or Italian bread instead of the (ugh) American loaf. What’s wrong with crust? it’s good for you. Bon Appetit!
    Michael

    Hi Michael, we do use French or Italian loaf, the crust on those tends to be a little hard, so it makes it easier to combine with the meat if the crust is removed (saved for making bread crumbs). The meatballs are cooked after browning at 300°F, covered, in the sauce, and they do not dry out. ~Elise

  5. Giff

    re: your question: I am a fan of Jamie Oliver’s approach of stewing meatballs with tomato sauce, mozzarella, and basil. I love flavoring the meatballs with cumin and some red pepper flakes, and I’ll often add in things to the stew like mature arugula leaves or brussel sprouts. I have switched over to using much more pork than beef in my meatballs, especially if it is good pork shoulder meat.

  6. Amy

    I have to say, I am rather partial to BBQ meatballs on garlic bread with melty brie, but these sound so tempting! Maybe my husband can forgo the BBQ sauce just once…

    BBQ meatballs on garlic bread with melted brie? Wow. I could so go there. ~Elise

  7. Dominique (de vous à moi...)

    I’ll try yours: at home eveyone love meatballs. Mine are flavoured with cumin (Jamie Oliver’s recipe too)and sometimes I use fresh mint, when I don’t find good fresh basil!

    Mmm. We use fresh mint in our meatballs for albondigas soup. So good! ~Elise

  8. ciaochowlinda

    We love meatballs too and my recipe is posted on my blog along with sauce in the spaghetti and meatballs post. We use the bread soaked in milk method, three kinds of meat and parmesan cheese. The ricotta meatballs sound great too.

  9. KimDeC

    Mmm. I use ricotta as my binding agent too, and it makes for such a lovely meatball!

  10. Allegra

    One way to make them particularly moist is to soften and mash the bread with a bit of milk or buttermilk before mixing in the meats…

  11. Sandy

    I have to say that I am a huge fan of Tyler’s Ultimate meatball. You can get the recipe from the Food Network site. He stuffs the meatballs with pieces of cheese that just ooze out when you cut them. I haven’t made another meatball since, but I think I am going to try this recipe. Looks great!

  12. Cary

    Throw some parmesan into the meatball mix, and that is my basic recipe and method (seasonings change from time to time). Absolutely love them, and they make the best meatball sandwiches ever!

  13. Mely

    Meatballs, such a great combination of meats and the ricotta in this recipe. My kind of comfort food! Sometimes I make a recipe that I saw on TV called “Polpette meatballs” which got my attention because the cook added anise and black raisins. My family love them. I also bake the meatballs and freeze some for later use as in meatballs sandwich.

    Thanks Elise for this new recipe.

  14. Mary

    My operation (3 sons and a husband) love the spaghetti and meatballs recipe from the OCD folks of The New Best Recipe Cookbook. Theirs are made with beef and pork and have buttermilk and parmesan cheese in them. The meatballs also freeze very well. (I just yanked a few out of the freezer this morning…)

  15. Sara

    I’ve tried making some of the A16′s meatball recipes and this sounds like a great variation.

  16. Jade

    These look fantastico! Any suggestions as to what to serve them with, other than pasta? I’ll obviously try the traditional spag. with meatballs, but wouldn’t mind switching it up, too.

    We just ate these with some pieces of Italian loaf bread on the side. ~Elise

  17. Matt

    Just curious, does anyone out there NOT brown the meatball’s and just drop them into the pot to cook? Was the way my mother had always done it…sauce helps flavor the meatball better I suppose as there’s no crust to penetrate. Most recipies I’ve seen though have you browning the meatballs first though.

    Anyway, just curious. Prefer them just cooked in the sauce but maybe that’s just what I was brought up with. Sounds like a great recipe though, may try it over the summer while the veggie wife’s away.

  18. nia

    I make mine with ground turkey (I don’t eat red meat) bread soaked in milk, parmesan cheese, soy sauce, and herbs. The bread and milk act like the binder and keep them nice and moist. I brown them on the stove top then finish in the over covered. Sometimes with tomato sauce and sometimes not, depending on the mood of the day.

  19. Annie

    I’m sure those are really delicious, but perhaps a little (unnecessarily?) complicated. I find that people often hit the spice rack WAY too hard when they’re making Italian food – I can only think of one time when my Italian grandmother even touched dried oregano, and it was only for dramatic effect during a rant about those darn Sicilians.

    Also, for my part:

    meat (beef, w/pork if you like) + lots of chopped onion + lots of chopped garlic + chopped parsley + egg + breadcrumbs + a generous amount of romano cheese + salt + pepper = meatballs

    Pan fry those little balls of heaven with a little olive oil and then add enough plain, canned tomato sauce to barely cover them (I’ve been looking for a more hip, more upscale brand to use for years, but nothing has beaten Hunt’s yet — at least in this recipe — all other canned tomato needs demand Pastene). Throw in a splash from that half empty bottle of red wine on your kitchen counter, some salt and pepper, and that’s about it. Simmer until delicious and be warned that people WILL try to steal your meatballs as they cook.

  20. Rita

    YUM! A16 is one of my favorite restaurants and they definitely make some amazing meatballs! Thanks for the recipe!

  21. Christina

    I’ve actually tried the A16 meatball recipe as well, when Food & Wine published it a few months ago. It was great–I like how the meatballs are baked, not fried–but I think my favorite meatball recipe is from the America’s Test Kitchen Cookbook. It uses both ground beef and pork, with yogurt as a binder. Yum!

  22. Amanda

    I love meatballs too. There’s just something so comforting about such a manageably small amount of meat. :)

    My favorite (and super easy) go to meatball recipe was given to me by my mom. I blogged about it here: http://testone2three.blogspot.com/2009/03/mamas-meatballs.html

  23. unconfidentialcook

    I bet these are great meatballs. I make my meatloaf with whipped cream cheese and it’s just heavenly. I bet the ricotta does the same trick.

  24. Naomi

    I like to make big meatballs, stuffed with mini bocconcini cheese balls or a cherry tomato, and then add some home-made pesto to the tomatoes to make a delicious sauce. I’m sure your meatball recipe can be used for these giant stuffed meatballs!

  25. ash

    I got this recipe from Gwenyth Paltrow’s site, Goop. I’ve made them for several occassions, oftentimes freezing half the batch to eat at home later. SO GOOD!!

    JULIA’S TURKEY MEATBALLS

    SERVES: 4 (makes about 2 dozen small meatballs)
    TIME: an hour, plus at least 20 minutes of simmering

    2 tablespoons olive oil plus 2 additional tablespoons
    1 large yellow onion, very finely diced
    3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
    2 teaspoons fennel seeds
    coarse sea salt
    freshly ground pepper
    1 28 oz. can whole tomatoes, pulsed in a food processor with their juice or crushed by hand
    1/2 cup panko breadcrumbs
    zest of 1/2 lemon
    1/4 cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
    1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh thyme
    1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh rosemary
    1 pound ground turkey (preferably dark meat)
    1 egg
    1 pound spaghetti, cooked just before serving
    1/4 cup basil leaves, roughly torn

    Heat two tablespoons of olive oil in a large Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onion and cook for about eight minutes, sweating it without giving it too much color. When it’s soft, add the garlic and fennel seeds and season generously with salt and pepper (about a teaspoon of salt and a half teaspoon of pepper should do). Sauté for an additional three or four minutes. Remove and reserve half of this onion mixture in a large mixing bowl. Add the tomatoes and their juice to the remaining mixture in the pot, turn the heat to low and simmer while you make the meatballs. Be sure to put a little water in the tomato can, swish it around and add it to the pot (don’t waste a bit!).

    To make the meatballs, combine the breadcrumbs, lemon zest, parsley, thyme and rosemary with the reserved onion mixture. Add the turkey and egg and mush it all with your hands (the best tool for this job) just until everything is well-combined, don’t over mix. Form the mixture into 1-1/2″ balls with your hands (of course you can make them whatever size you like). Heat the last two tablespoons of olive oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Making sure not to overcrowd the pan, brown the meatballs (should take about five minutes). Put the browned meatballs into the simmering tomato sauce and let them cook, shaking the pot occasionally to roll the meatballs around, for at least 20 minutes and up to an hour and a half. Taste the sauce and season with salt and pepper. Serve with spaghetti and the torn basil.

  26. Tina

    I’ve got a slightly adapted batch of these in the oven right now. I made the mistake of trying to make low fat sausage (before Hank ran his post about making sausage, of course), with pork and veal; that debacle was, shall we say, like seasoned saw dust. Since I froze the remains of that attempt,I mixed in ground beef (not lean), and more or less follows the recipe, increasing the ingredients for the amount of meat I was using. I did substitute breadcrumbs, however, since all I had was whole grain bread, which didn’t sound particularly appealing. The test patty was outstanding, so hopefully the entire batch will make up for the sorry attempt at sausage.

    Yep, the thing with sausage is having enough fat. The good news here is that the ricotta will add fat to the mixture too, helping the result to stay moist. ~Elise

  27. Janet

    I’ve been using Lidia Bastianich’s meatball recipe from her Italian-American cookbook. I think the trick is loosely forming the meatballs and then getting them nice and brown from flouring/frying before they go in the sauce. There’s also a lot of flavor from the parmesan. The meatballs I’ve made have been so tender and full of flavor. My kids LOVE them! But what kid doesn’t like meatballs?! The recipe can be found online if you google it. But here are the basics… (I made the sauce too which is a nice simple compliment to the meatballs.) For the Meatballs:
    1/2 pound ground pork
    1/2 pound ground beef
    1 cup fine, dry bread crumbs
    1/3 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
    1/4 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley
    2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped fine
    1 large egg
    1 teaspoon salt
    1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
    All-purpose flour
    1/4 cup olive oil
    1/4 cup vegetable oil

    Lidia is terrific, isn’t she? We love watching her on TV. ~Elise

  28. Sarah

    These meatballs are delicious! Thank you.

  29. Jen

    Your meatball photo has been prodding me, haunting me so I made them last night. These are THE BEST meatballs I’ve ever made or eaten. Simply wonderful, and easy to make. I added another 2/3 can of crushed tomatoes w/ no harm done.

  30. floyd marks

    I have tried about 20 different meatball recipes and these are by the far the best ever. I added a bit of ground lamb as I like the taste.

  31. Vikki

    Good morning Elise,

    Did you serve these meatballs with pasta or straight up? I’m making this recipe tonight including the sauce.

    Straight up, though you could serve with pasta. If you are looking for a spaghetti dish, you might try our spaghetti and meatballs. ~Elise

  32. Christen L

    I made these last night, and they were BY FAR the most tender, flavorful meatballs I’ve ever had! I followed the recipe very closely, but my tragically limited local supermarket did not have prosciutto or pancetta, so i just skipped it. My meatball mixture came out a little too soft (probably a combination of no prosciutto, and very large eggs) so I added a little more ground pork and a sprinkle of panko bread crumbs, and it came out nicely. I made spaghetti to go with it, but it was really just an afterthought. My family just ate the meatballs in sauce with crusty bread and we were in heaven. We made provolone & meatball sandwiches the next day with the leftovers that were to DIE for! Also, i did splurge and buy the Muir Glenn crushed tomatoes and they were very good, worth the extra price.

  33. Vikki

    Hi – made this for dinner the other night. Fantastic taste. Followed the recipe exactly. Only issue was the lack of sauce. In the picture there seems to be a lot of sauce for the meatballs. Mine just kind of had a slight coating of tomato. Was a 28oz can of crushed San Marzano. Besides that the taste was amazing the 6 of us loved it.

  34. Wendy

    I have some fresh oregano that I would like to use instead of dried oregano. How much do I use (or should I stick with the dried?). Thank you.

    Great question. Usually you need at least twice as much fresh as dried, if you are substituting fresh herbs. ~Elise

  35. Anita

    I made this on Saturday night. I had just purchased a meat grinder, so ground my own pork and prosciutto. The meatballs were just awesome – extremely flavorful and moist – I used the bread soaked in milk method that someone else suggested. I will definitely be making this one again. Like another reviewer, I thought there was not enough sauce, will take care of that tiny little problem the next time. Thank you for such great recipes!

  36. Drogum

    Anyone think of soaking the bread in the ricotta instead of using the milk? Why drain the ricotta – make use of it’s flavor instead.

    Great idea. ~Elise

  37. Freckles

    I took this meatball for Mother’s Day brunch yesterday. Everyone loved it!
    I gotta try the Spaghetti Meatball recipe of yours soon.

    Thank you for the great recipe, Elise!

  38. Emily

    This is a delicious easy recipie that makes a lot of meatballs. My husband I have been eating for a week… plain, on a sandwhich, and with pasta. Great recipie!

  39. Gretchen

    I made these meatballs about 2 weeks ago – YUM! The only change was that I used mild Italian sausage instead of sweet (my store didn’t have sweet!) but followed the rest of the recipe exactly. I opted for pancetta – it added just a hint of saltiness! The meatballs were delicious hot out of the pan, but the leftovers were even better – the flavors had blended perfectly! I would recommend this to any meatball lovers out there – with a little whole wheat angel hair, this recipe is an A+.

  40. pam

    I use parchment paper to line the pan and the meatballs do not stick at all! Instead of Ricotta I use pureed firm tofuI also use greated onion…raw not cooked…must be grated or use food processor till its kind of soupy (no chunks)…adds a really deep flavor.

  41. Vic

    I agree with Sandy about TYLER’S ultimate meatballs. The one she describes are phenomenal and are a Neopolitan classic. Tyler’s recipe is flawless and I’ve made it many times. The main thing you will see about the Italians is that they use more eggs and stale bread so they make a softer more moist meatball. When I serve these to guests, I make them fairly large and put a whole bocconcini mozzarella ball in each. Yes the mixture is soft but when rolled in breadcrumbs and fried, they are so superb. An authentic Italian meatball is fried- its the way we all did them back in the day then cooked them in what we called Sunday Gravy.

  42. Rainy

    I made these for a weekly dinner with friends and served them as meatball sandwiches (in rolls with cheese melted on top). They were absolutely awesome. Thank you for recipe!

  43. Freda Pagani

    I make my meatballs adding ground mortadella. It’s two pounds ground beef and 1/3 pound of ground mortadella. Then the usual breadcrumbs, salt, pepper, egg and garlic. I brown them in the oven at 400°F and then add them to my favorite marinara sauce. Hope you enjoy it.

    Thanks for the suggestion! ~Elise

  44. René

    I wonder, if there is a good substitution for the sweet Italian sausage. I live in Germany and we do not get these kind of sausage here.
    And one more thing….I love your page!

  45. Sandy

    re: not browning the meatballs

    I was never happy with the meatballs I made until a colleague shared her grandmother’s recipe–drop the meatballs right into the gently boiling sauce. Pure heaven! Wouldn’t make them any other way. I can’t wait to try this recipe with ricotta.

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