Nonna’s Meatballs In Tomato Sauce Revisted

I am back! For those of you who worried that I seemed to drop off the face of the earth for a few weeks, I apologize, but this move was a lot more work and took a lot more out of me than I expected. This was our fifteenth move, and after getting through the worst of it, I hope it is our last. I cannot believe when I was younger and we were moving every year and a half that I actually thought moving from house to house was fun!

Our earlier moves were also company moves so everything was packed for us which makes a BIG difference! We are mostly settled now with the essential boxes unpacked, and my kitchen is set up and ready. I am trying not to think about the number of boxes piled up in the basement waiting for me to go through them still, but all in good time.

The best part of our move is living close to family again. Having my grandkids stop by for breakfast or even a cappuccino before school, and having Sunday dinners together is priceless. We now have some family just down the street from us, and the majority of our family is less than an hour’s drive away.

I decided to “revisit” or repost this recipe because it is not only one of my most popular recipes over the past sixteen years but also one of my most controversial. My original post for this recipe, was very brief, had only one photo, and I cannot remove that post because it still gets too many hits every day.

I have probably received more negative mail from this one recipe than all the rest of my recipes combined. Who knew that meatballs cooked in sauce could cause such drama! Most of the negative mail I received was because I stated that spaghetti and meatballs are a dish you will not see on a restaurant menu in Italy.

Back in 1987, we moved to Milan, Italy where we lived for eight years, and more recently we have spent half the year in Umbria, Italy for the past ten years. In the fifteen years between these stays, we also traveled to Italy on vacation usually staying for a month or more at a time.

During all the years we ate our way across Italy, never have I seen spaghetti and meatballs served in one dish on any decent restaurant menu or even served in an Italian home. The only place I’ve seen spaghetti and meatballs advertised in Italy is on very bad tourist restaurant menus.

I do not claim to be an expert on Italian cuisine, but I do read everything I can about it, and have spoken to many native-born Italians about this so-called Italian dish. Although meatballs, or polpette, are undoubtedly prepared and enjoyed all across Italy, they are not typically served on a heaping pile of spaghetti swimming in tomato sauce. I still stand by this opinion, and feel that this concoction is one that is more commonly found in North America in Italian restaurants found stateside.

Apparently though, I have since learned from some of the many emails I have received over the years, that pasta served with tomato sauce and meatballs on top is traditional in some areas of southern Italy, especially in Puglia, and Sicily. I do apologize for all those that I have offended over the past sixteen years!

Now that we have discussed why this recipe causes folks to write to me and call me names (happened again last week), let’s move on. I think it is more important to talk about how to make the best meatballs possible. You can serve them however you want to, I won’t tell!

I first tasted my Mother-in-law’s meatballs forty-five years ago, and they remain the best tasting meatballs that I have ever enjoyed. Cooking any type of meat in tomato sauce is what gives tomato sauce its deep, rich flavor so often rhapsodized about in books and movies.

Many families across Italy have their own version of Sunday sauce where tomato sauce is slowly simmered for hours on top of the stove with various cuts of meat added to give the sauce an incredible depth of flavor. In my Mother-in-law’s house, she flavored her sauce with meatballs and often she would add another piece of meat or two such as a small steak or pork chop.

This sauce was served on pasta, often rigatoni or penne, and the meatballs were passed around in a bowl to enjoy alongside the pasta. This recipe I am going to share is for meatballs only, but feel free to add an additional piece of meat if you like. Just cut the meat into large pieces, and brown the meat first in olive oil before adding it to the sauce with the meatballs.

I have tried so many versions of meatballs cooked in sauce throughout the years that I couldn’t even count them if I wanted to. I always come back to my Mother-in-law’s version because they are simply the best. The meatballs are extremely tender and moist, and the sauce is full of flavor. So what makes these meatballs so good and the sauce so full of flavor?

  • These meatballs are prepared with medium fat ground beef. Do not use lean ground beef as the fat is needed to add flavor to the sauce.
  • The meatballs in this recipe are bound together with soft breadcrumbs moistened with milk.
  • The meatballs are not fried before adding them to the sauce but are dropped raw into the simmering hot sauce. This tip keeps the meatballs very tender and prevents them from getting a tough crust.
  • The sauce is sparingly flavored with spices. Keeping the ingredients simple lets the real flavor of the tomatoes to shine through. Do season well with salt and pepper though!

You can prepare this sauce ahead of time, but keep the meatballs in the sauce and rewarm slowly when needed. Although you can serve this serve the meatballs on top of spaghetti if you choose, I prefer to toss the sauce with some rigatoni and serve the meatballs on the side.

I strongly believe that in your own home, you can do whatever you want in your kitchen. Rules are meant to be broken. Heck, if you like grated Parmesan cheese on your seafood pasta, go for it. I just wouldn’t do so at a restaurant in Italy because you might be schooled by your waiter.

Enjoy this recipe created with love by my Mother-in-law for her family for many, many years. My Mother-in-law is now in a nursing home so isn’t cooking anymore, but she would be very proud that so many folks are enjoying her recipe!

If you want to serve your sauce and meatballs on top of spaghetti, go for it! I won’t say a thing!

My favorite way to serve this sauce and meatballs.

Buon Appetito!
Deborah Mele 

Nonna's Meatballs In Tomato Sauce Revisted

Nonna's Meatballs In Tomato Sauce Revisted

Yield: Serves 6
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 1 hour 45 minutes
Total Time: 2 hours

Learn how to make Nonna's tender, moist meatballs.


For The Sauce:

  • 2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
  • 3 Cloves of Garlic, Minced
  • 1/3 Cup Finely Chopped Onion
  • Salt & Pepper
  • 1/4 Cup Chopped Basil
  • 1 Teaspoon Dried Oregano
  • 1/4 Cup Chopped Fresh Parsley
  • Dash of Red Pepper Flakes (Optional)
  • 1 (6oz) Can Tomato Paste
  • 1 Large (28 Ounce) Can Pureed or Crushed Tomatoes 
  • About  11/2 Cups water
  • 3 Tablespoons Grated Parmesan Cheese


  • 1 1/2 lb. Ground Beef
  • Salt & Pepper
  • 2 Tablespoons Fresh Very Finely Chopped Parsley
  • 2 Tablespoons Grated Parmesan Cheese
  • 1 Egg
  • 1 Cup Soft Bread Crumbs (best made from soft bread)
  • 1/2 Cup Milk


  1. Heat the oil over medium heat, then add the garlic, onion, and saute until tender.
  2. Add the paste, tomatoes, water and herbs, and bring to a boil, then season with salt and pepper to your own personal taste.
  3. Turn mixture down to a simmer.
  4. For the meatballs, add the bread crumbs to the milk to moisten.
  5. Mix all the meatball ingredients together with the bread crumb mixture.
  6. Shape into golf ball sized balls, and gently drop into the simmering sauce.
  7. Do not stir for the first 15 minutes or so until the meatballs begin to firm up.
  8. Continue to cook for 1 1/2 to 2 hours over very low heat, stirring occasionally, and adding extra water as needed if the sauce becomes too thick.
  9. This sauce, with or without the meatballs can now be used over your pasta of choice.
  10. Just before serving, stir the 3 tablespoons of grated cheese into the sauce.
Nutrition Information:
Yield: 6 Serving Size: 2 meatballs
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 503Total Fat: 28gSaturated Fat: 10gTrans Fat: 1gUnsaturated Fat: 15gCholesterol: 138mgSodium: 509mgCarbohydrates: 24gFiber: 3gSugar: 6gProtein: 38g

Did you make this recipe?

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