It never occurred to me that one could simply have meatballs with sauce, until I wandered into a restaurant in San Francisco and ordered some Italian meatballs, as an appetizer, or so I thought.
To me, meatballs were small little things and three of them would have made a lovely starter for the more substantial entrée to follow. Hah!
My eyes practically fell out of their sockets when the meatballs arrived. They were almost the size of baseballs. Holy moly. But they were fabulous, and it just meant I had more food to share with my friends.
The Best Italian Meatballs
These meatballs aren't quite the size of baseballs though they could be if you wanted them to. Actually you could make them any size you wanted.
They're tender, loaded with herbs and cheese, a mixture of ground beef and pork, and covered with a classic tomato sauce.
How to Make Italian Meatballs
To make meatballs start with bread. Soak a few slices of white bread (crusts removed) in hot milk and mash them until the bread breaks down and becomes a paste. Let this cool slightly, then combine with ground pork, ground beef, a mix of ricotta and Parmesan cheeses, spices, and eggs. Mix only until everything is barely combined; over-mix and you're meatballs will be tough.
Form the meatballs with your hands and roll them in flour. Brown them in a skillet, then finish cooking them in tomato sauce. You can make your own tomato sauce, as we do here, or you can use store-bought sauce.
How Long to Cook Meatballs?
Once browned, these large-sized meatballs will need about 15 to 20 minutes to cook in the sauce. Smaller meatballs will take less time.
When done, the meatballs should be cooked all the way through the center. If you want, you can check them with a digital thermometer; the meatballs should register 160°F in the center.
Storing and Freezing Meatballs
Cooked meatballs can be stored with the tomato sauce in the refrigerator for about 5 days. Reheat gently on the stovetop or in the microwave.
The meatballs can also be frozen, either cooked or uncooked:
- If uncooked, freeze the shaped meatballs on a parchment-lined tray until solid, then transfer to a freezer container and store for up to three months. Thaw in the fridge before cooking.
- If cooked, allow the meatballs to cool completely, then transfer to a freezer container and freeze for up to three months. Meatballs can be frozen either on their own or with the tomato sauce. Thaw overnight in the fridge before reheating gently on the stovetop or in the microwave.
Love Meatballs? Try These Recipes
- Turkey Meatballs (that aren't dry!)
- Slow Cooker Meatballs in Tomato Sauce
- Swedish Meatballs
- Mozzarella Stuffed Meatballs in Tomato Sauce
- Pressure Cooker Porcupine Meatballs
Watch This Italian Meatballs Recipe
We've used equal amounts of ground beef and ground pork. You could also use a third each of ground beef, pork and veal.
- For the meatballs:
- 1 pound ground beef (at least 16 percent fat)
- 1 pound ground pork
- 2/3 cup milk (whole or 2 percent)
- 3 slices of white bread, crusts removed (about 3 ounces)
- 1/4 cup ricotta cheese
- 1/4 cup grated Parmesan or Romano cheese
- 2 large eggs
- 1 teaspoon salt (or 2 teaspoons of kosher salt)
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
- 2 teaspoons black pepper
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano or marjoram
- 2-3 garlic cloves, minced
- About 1 cup flour, for dusting
- 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 2 1/2 cups (24 ounces) tomato sauce (recipe follows, or use already prepared)
- Tomato Sauce:
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 3/4 cup finely chopped onions
- 3/4 cup finely chopped carrots
- 3/4 cup finely chopped celery
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1 28-oz can crushed or whole tomatoes, including the juice, or 1 3/4 pound of fresh tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped
- 1/2 teaspoon dried basil or 2 Tbsp chopped fresh basil
- 1 teaspoon tomato paste
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Make the tomato sauce:
Heat olive oil in a large skillet on medium heat. Add the onions, carrots, celery, and parsley. Stir to coat with the oil, reduce the heat to low and cover the pan. Cook for 15 to 20 minutes until the vegetables are soft and cooked through.
Remove the cover, add the garlic, and increase the heat to medium high. Cook the garlic for half a minute, then add the tomatoes (if using whole canned tomatoes, break up with your fingers as you add them to the pan). Add the tomato paste and basil. Season with salt and pepper.
Bring to a low simmer, reduce the heat to low and let cook uncovered until thickened while you prepare the meatballs, 15 to 30 minutes.
Purée in a blender, or push through a food mill for a smooth consistency. Return to pan. Adjust seasonings.
Soak torn bread in hot milk:
Heat the milk in a small pot until steamy. Turn off the heat, tear the bread into little pieces and soak it in the milk until it partially dissolves. Mash it until you get something that resembles a paste. Turn it out onto a plate to let it cool.
Make meatball mixture:
In a large bowl, combine the beef, pork, ricotta cheese, grated Parmesan, eggs, salt, parsley, oregano, black pepper, garlic cloves and the bread-milk mixture. Mix it well with your hands until it barely combines.
Don't overwork the mixture or it will become tough. It is OK to have some discernible bits of bread or meat in the mix; better that than overworked meatballs.
Wet your hands and form the meatballs. A traditional size for this sort of meatball is 2-3 inches across, but you can make them any size you want.
Once you roll the meatball in your hands, roll it in the flour to give it a good coating. Set each one on a baking sheet as you work. You might need to rinse your hands a few times as you make the meatballs.
When all the meatballs are formed, heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Brown the meatballs on at least two sides. Don't worry about the center getting cooked through, as you will finish these in the sauce.
Finish cooking meatballs in tomato sauce:
Once all the meatballs are browned, arrange them in the sauce, turning each one over in the sauce to coat.
Cover the pot and simmer gently for 15-20 minutes. Serve with the sauce and pasta or crusty bread. Sprinkle with a little chopped parsley for garnish if you want.