Meatballs + Tomato Basil Sauce

When I was little, I assumed that everyone went to their grandparents’ house on Sundays to have lunch. And by lunch, I mean a meal that began around 12:30 with an antipasto (prosciutto and melon and fried zucchini flowers, for example) a dish of pasta, at least three contorni (side dishes) and a secondo (second course of meat or fish), all finishing around 3:00 with fresh fruit, dessert, and coffee. I remember feeling confused and then slightly smug when my classmates told me that they ate “meatloaf” or “peanut butter sandwiches” at their grandmothers’ houses for lunch. Poor things. 

Lunches at my paternal grandparents’ house – Nonna Ada and Nonno Jim, as we call them — consist of some of the best food I’ve ever come across. Both of my nonni are from Calabria, from the tiny town of Grotteria to be exact. They came to the U.S in 1934 (him) and 1953 (her). Though I know their stories well by now, I am always fascinated to hear about my grandfather’s decision to move to the U.S at age 14, what Ellis Island was like, and how he eventually turned a tiny store he ran with his father into his own successful business.

Equally fascinating -- and perhaps less recounted -- is my grandmother’s story. She left her family, friends, country and all she knew when she married my grandfather and moved to the U.S. She spoke no English at all, but eventually learned by watching American TV. She kept in touch with her family at home by writing letters -- this was an era with no Skype, no email, and no Smartphone, of course -- and figured out how to raise her two children in a country that was not her own. I imagine it all must have been a bit lonely, and I know it must have taken a tremendous amount of courage. In all of this, cooking was a source of comfort, a way for her to bring a bit of what she had left behind in Italy to her new home in Providence, Rhode Island. To this day, she makes excellent crocchette di patate, homemade ravioli and bread, and still, at 89, turns out huge seafood feasts on Christmas Eve -- but my favorite dish has always been been her homemade polpette (meatballs) in tomato sauce. They are flavorful and fork-tender, simmered and cooked in one of the simplest but most delicious tomato sauces I've ever eaten (I'm usually guilty of hogging the extra sauce on the table -- whoops).

Since I live in Rome now and am not always around for Sunday lunches, I have learned to make this dish with Nonna Ada, who, not surprisingly, eyeballs all her ingredients (she's been making these for years and rarely if ever uses a measuring cup). I measured the ingredients out as she made them, and got the quantities below. I am happy to say this is now a recipe I can make for myself in Italy, a way to bring home to Rome much as my grandmother did when she moved. Full circle, no?  

A couple of notes:  If you don't have an Romano cheese you can use Parmesan cheese. Like I said above, the quantities here are what measured out, but are flexible -- feel free to use more or less garlic or parsley, and up the cheese if you want. I have always eaten these meatballs on their own as a secondo,  but if you'd like you could also serve them Italian-American style over pasta (note however that in Italy, you will never find meatballs served over spaghetti). Be sure to have lots of bread on hand to make sure that none of the sauce goes to waste. Finally, I've always cooked these meatballs in the sauce directly, but if you prefer you could probably also brown them briefly first in a pan and then finishing cooking them in the sauce.

To read about my other wonderful grandparents, there is this post on Ricotta Pie, this one on Lasagna, and this one for Mozzarella in Carrozza. 


Ingredients for Tomato Basil Sauce:
Olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
2 (32-ounce) cans crushed tomatoes
A good handful of fresh basil leaves
2 dried bay leaves 

Ingredients for Meatballs:
1 pound ground beef
2 eggs, beaten
1 garlic clove, very finely chopped
1/4 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1 cup stale white bread, torn in to pieces
1/4 cup milk or water
3/4 tsp salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper 

To make the sauce: In a large pot, heat some oil over medium high heat (it should be enough to coat the bottom of the pan and sauté the vegetables). Add the onion cook until soft and translucent, about 2 minutes. Add the celery and carrots and season with salt and pepper. Sauté until all the vegetables are soft, about 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes, basil, and bay leaves and simmer covered on low heat until thick (about 30-35 minutes, but every stove is different) stirring every now and again to make sure the sauce doesn’t stick to the bottom. Remove the bay leaves from the sauce and taste to see if you need to add more salt or pepper.

To make the meatballs: Moisten the stale bread in a bowl with the milk or water, and then use your hands to tear the bread in to even smaller pieces. Combine all the meatball ingredients in a large bowl, mixing well with your hands. 

Begin to shape the meatballs, rolling them in to pieces that are all roughly the same size (you can use a large spoon to make sure you use about the same amount of meat for each meatball). Place the meatballs into the sauce, reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer for 20-25 minutes until the meatballs are cooked through. Using a slotted spoon, take out the meatballs and place them in a serving bowl or platter, and set aside. Eat the meatballs as a secondo with some good Italian bread to make sure you enjoy every bit of the sauce, or serve the sauce over pasta as your first course and then bring out the meatballs later. Makes 15 large meatballs (you can also make them smaller).


  1. Replies
    1. Grazieeee! E' una vita che non ci vediamo, fateci sapere se vi va di vederci per un aperitivo!!!