Tomato Sauce with meatballs

Tomato Sauce with Meatballs
Tomato Sauce with Meatballs

The tomato sauce with meatballs that I make today is much lighter than the one I grew up with which called for browned meats by the wagon load. Now  my tomato sauce with meatballs uses browned meatballs and perhaps Italian sausage, but I eliminate all the rolled up beef rolls and veal rolls and pork rolls that I used to include. Feel free to add them back in if you just have to have a sauce groaning with with meat.

Homemade meatballs from Grandma and Mom
Homemade Meatballs from Grandma and Mom

My meatball mixture never changes. It’s my family recipe handed down from my grandmother to my mom and now to me. They are gone now, but their gorgeous, flavorful sauce lives on.I have a wonderful local butcher who will sell me ground beef, veal and pork in separate packages and I put them together myself, instead of buying a mixture of all three already mixed together. I want to see what I am getting. If I had the time, (when I retire from teaching and grading a zillion papers a day, I plan to buy a meat grinder just for this reason!), I would grind my own, but at least my butcher lets me watch as he cuts the meat and then grinds it for me. I have never asked them where they get their meat, but these people have 20 years of meatball mixing and no one has complained yet. In fact, they line up at the butcher counter waiting 30 min to an hour just to get this meatball mix.

The meat is everything. When I lived in the South and had to buy supermarket meat that tasted horrible, no matter what I added, it never tasted like my mother’s meatballs. Now my meatballs taste heavenly as proven by the children and grandchildren who request them whenever they visit me.

Meatball Ingredients:

2 lbs meatball mixture – 1/3 ground beef, 1/3 ground veal, 1/3 ground pork

1/2 loaf of day-old Italian bread, crust removed and torn in pieces

1/2 cup or so of milk

2 eggs

1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese

1 tbsp fresh Italian parsley, chopped fine

2 peeled cloves of garlic

Salt and pepper

1/2 cup of olive oil for frying

2 quarts of tomato sauce


Remove the crust from the bread. Tear it in pieces, place in a bowl and soak in the milk. Squeeze out the milk, discard it, and leave the bread in the bowl.

Homemade meatballs from Grandma and Mom
Homemade Meatballs from Grandma and Mom

Add the chopped meat, eggs, cheese, garlic cloves, finely chopped parsley, salt and pepper. Remove your rings before you dive in there and mix it all up with your hands. My mother said she used to beat the mixture for several minutes with a heavy fork, but since I don’t know how she did that, I just make sure the mixture is completely mixed together until it is firm enough to shape into a ball the size of a golf ball. Remove the garlic cloves before shaping. I shamelessly save the garlic cloves and use them to make my tomato sauce. No one will know they are “used” garlic cloves and I am sure they are still perfectly fine. Considering what I spend at the grocery store, I have to justify it by saving somewhere.

Meatballs in Tomato Sauce
Meatballs in Tomato Sauce

After shaping all your meatballs, place them on a platter, cover with plastic wrap and chill in the fridge while you make the sauce, or you can put the entire mixture in the fridge and shape the meatballs after you have made the sauce. This is an especially  good idea if the mixture seems too runny to hold a firm shape.

Homemade meatballs frying in olive oil
Homemade meatballs frying olive oil

When you are ready to fry them, get out a large, heavy frying pan and heat it on medium high heat. Add the half cup of olive oil or canola oil, if you prefer, until it is shimmering. Add the meatballs to the hot oil, six or seven at a time. Too many will cause the meatballs to steam instead of brown. Keep the heat on medium high unless the meatballs start to burn. Turn down to medium if that occurs. When one side is brown, flip and brown the other side. (Tip: I use a pancake turner and a wooden spoon together to flip each meatball. This prevents the meatball from losing its round shape.) Remove the meatballs when they are browned on both sides and add another six or seven into the pan to brown. Continue until all are browned. Set them aside until you are ready to add them to the sauce. When your sauce has simmered for an hour, add the meatballs and continue to simmer for 30 minutes.

Tomato Sauce:


1/4 cup olive oil (I use a mild olive oil for cooking, like Fillipo Berrio, but if you prefer a stronger olive oil taste, use extra virgin)

4 peeled cloves of garlic, halved or sliced

2 or 3 large cans imported Italian Tomatoes, whole tomatoes in liquid, like Cento San Marzano, or  La Squisita. (Not crushed or pureed)

1 small can imported Italian tomato paste

1 cup red wine (optional)

Meatballs, browned and ready to add

1 lb sweet Italian sausage, beef birds, pork birds ( all optional), browned and ready to add.

1 bunch fresh basil, some chopped and some leaves left whole for the end

1 tsp dried basil (optional)

Salt and pepper to taste

1/2 tsp sugar if tomatoes are very  acid

Ingredients for homemade tomato sauce
Ingredients for homemade tomato sauce

In a large, heavy dutch oven heat the olive oil until shimmering. and saute 2 of the peeled garlic clove halves or slices, stirring them constantly with a wooden spoon until they color and add flavor to the oil. Do not let them brown.Remove the garlic and save. Add the tomato paste and 1/2 can of water. Stir the paste and water until the mixture thins and is bubbling. If you want a more complex taste, add the wine now. Bring to a boil and stir all together.

3 cans of blended san marzano tomatoes
3 cans of blended san marzano tomatoes

Whirl the canned tomatoes in a blender just until smooth. Add all the blended tomatoes to the hot tomato paste mixture. Stir well. Add fresh chopped basil, dried basil (if using), 2 garlic cloves, halved or sliced, cooked garlic cloves sauteed earlier in the olive oil, chopped parsley, salt, pepper and sugar. Stir well and taste. If too acid, add a bit more sugar. Bring the sauce to a boil stirring all the while. Turn heat down to simmer, top with a lid that is left partly open and simmer for one hour. Check to make sure your simmer is low enough not to cause the sauce to boil too fast and cook down too much. Stir occasionally during those 60 minutes.

Cooking the sauce for 2 hours before adding the meatballs
Cooking the sauce for two hours before addin meatballs
Adding the meatballs a few at a time.
Adding the meatballs a few at a time.

After an hour of cooking the sauce, add the meatballs and other meats (if using), a handful of whole basil leaves, and simmer for 30 minutes more, again with the lid partially covering the pot, until the oil comes to the top of the sauce and floats on the top of the sauce. Stir occasionally and make sure the simmer is low enough not to let the sauce cook down too much as it simmers.When the sauce is finished cooking, turn it off and set it aside.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil and throw in a pound of spaghetti or linguini fini. I use Dececco or Barilla or any other imported pasta with a fine reputation for flavor. I cook the pasta from 10 to 12 minutes, and then drain it. After draining it, I put the pasta back in the pot and mix it with several ladels full of hot tomato sauce.

I toss the pasta with the sauce until it is all incorporated throughout the pasta. I then taste for seasoning and add salt and freshly ground pepper as well as 1/2 cup of freshly grated reggiano parmigiana cheese. Toss again. Now the pasta is ready to plate.

Tomato Sauce with Meatballs
Tomato Sauce with Meatballs

Plate in layers. Place about 1/2 cup of pasta in the serving bowl. Ladle on some sauce and sprinkle with cheese. Layer on another 1/2 cup of sauce, ladle on some sauce and sprinkle with cheese. Add a meatball on top, a fresh sprinkle of parsley and serve. 

*To strain out seeds before cooking, put your  tomatoes through a sieve or food mill instead of a blender. This sauce is enough for 2 lbs of pasta and makes two to three quarts.



Tomato Sauce with meatballs
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One Comment

  1. Ellen M Rozsa

    I think if you can make a good meatball, you really don’t have anything left to prove as a cook. I aspire to be hardcore enough to follow this recipe exactly, no shortcuts, because the photos have me salivating and it’s only 9:30 in the morning.