Grandma’s Italian meatball recipe is the ultimate comfort food to share with the family! Tender and juicy meatballs simmered in a simple yet rich tomato sauce and placed over spaghetti noodles or the pasta of your liking.
On our wedding day, I made a very special vow to my husband… “I promise to nurture, listen, comfort, and feed you, making sure to cook your grandmother’s famous meatballs at least once a month.”
It may seem like a silly promise. However, my husband Jason’s love for his Grandma’s Italian meatball recipe always brings him a sense of comfort and happiness. For me to be able to recreate a dish that he loves is important. His big smile is priceless when he walks through the door at the end of a long day and smells fresh tomato sauce simmering on the stove and meatballs broiling in the oven.
Like most Italian recipes there were no specific measurements. Grandma Rose just had a simple list of ingredients and method for the sauce and meatballs, the rest was intuition. I’ve made beef and pork meatballs many times over the years. Some turned out good, some not so much, I never actually wrote a recipe down myself, so it was different every time. I was on a mission to get as close to Grandma’s Italian meatball recipe with a tough critic to please, the hubby.
The secret to tender meat
For this recipe, a Panade is used to make ground meat extra moist and tender. A panade is a mixture of starch and liquid; any combination of starch (bread, panko, crackers) and liquids (milk, buttermilk, yogurt, stock, water) can be used. Varying the combination of ingredients can add more or less flavor depending on your taste preference.
However, for this meatball recipe, I don’t soak the breadcrumbs in additional liquid before adding it to the meat mixture like I normally would for a panade. That’s because the size of the breadcrumbs are so fine, that the moisture from the eggs and ground beef is enough to be absorbed by the bread and activate the natural starches. During the simmering process, the starches further bind to the liquid and swell to lock in the juices.
Grandma’s Rose advised to always broil the meatballs before simmering them in the sauce. This was an integral step to enhancing the flavor and texture of the meatballs. Grandma sure is a smart woman! Without realizing it, she was telling me to make sure the Maillard reaction is done and executed just right. It’s the process of creating hundreds of new flavors and aromas in the dish.
The texture is the most critical part of nailing the recipe. The right ratio of meat-to-breadcrumb and fat for flavor is crucial. If there are too little or too many breadcrumbs, the texture is off (tough or spongy). On this attempt, my husband told me these were the best meatballs I’ve ever made, not too shabby for ten years of experimenting!
I found that a ratio of 1 pound beef, 1/2 cup breadcrumbs, and 1 large egg is perfect. I prefer using an 80% lean beef to 20% fat for my meat. This ratio gives a nice rich flavor and meaty texture without being too tough. The consistency is easy to cut through and remains fork tender.
The sauce takes time
To enhance the meaty flavor of the sauce, the ingredients are carefully selected. Foods that are rich in glutamates like onions, garlic and tomatoes serve to boost the savory flavors of the meatballs. The minced garlic and onion are sauteed with tomato paste to add a hint of sweetness and depth to the sauce. This builds layers of flavor!
High quality crushed tomatoes are stirred in to create just the right sauce consistency. Slowly simmering the meatballs in the sauce for a long period of time allows the sauce to coax the appetizing browned flavors from the meat. The braising process also helps to soften the tougher connective tissue in the beef, so that each bite breaks down with little resistance. Let’s face it, nobody like tough, chewy, and flavorless meatballs. Good thing we know how to cook them right.
Jason never forgets to remind me that the sauce needs to be thick so that it can cling to the noodles. I like to please, so the sauce gets concentrated over the long cooking period. It’s easy to adjust the consistency with a little water or beef stock to your liking at the end of cooking.
Of course, we can’t forget to boil some pasta to serve with the meatballs. Jason has an uncanny instinct to tell when spaghetti is cooked perfectly and al dente. My husband is a meatball and sauce connoisseur, the supreme judge to ensure anything Italian is prepared just right in our kitchen! Good thing this recipe makes for generous leftovers, and I swear the meatballs taste better the next day!
More meatball recipes
- Chicken Florentine Meatballs
- Slow Cooker Meatballs with Vegetable Noodles
- Coconut Curry Meatballs with Vegetable Noodles
How to prevent meatballs from shrinking
When the muscle fibers of meat proteins are ground into smaller pieces, sticky soluble proteins are released when cut and strongly hold the meat together. After the meat is mixed and then cooked, the proteins tighten and contract which causes large amounts of moisture to be squeezed out. This often results in meatballs reducing in size and becoming dry or tough if breadcrumbs or a panade is not added to the mixture.
Grandma's Italian Meatball Recipe
- ¼ cup (60 ml) olive oil
- ½ cup (66 g) yellow onions, minced
- 4 (6 g) garlic cloves, minced
- 7 cups crushed canned tomatoes, Cento Brand or San Marzano tomatoes
- 6 ounces tomato paste, use less if a thinner consistency is desired
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt, add more to taste
- 2 pounds (908 g) ground beef, 80% lean meat to 20% fat
- 2 large eggs
- 2 cloves (3 g) garlic, finely minced
- ½ cup (72 g) yellow onion, finely minced
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- 2 teaspoons (16 g) kosher salt
- ½ cup (20 g) Parmesan cheese, freshly grated
- 1 cup (127 g) breadcrumbs, Italian style, but plain okay
- fresh basil, for garnish
- Heat olive oil over medium-low heat and sauté onion and garlic until onions are translucent, 3 minutes.
- Add tomato paste and stir well. Add tomatoes and simmer 30 minutes.
- Season tomato sauce with salt to taste.
- Combine all ingredients in a large bowl and mix using your hand.
- Cook a small test piece, taste for the correct seasoning level, correct seasoning if needed.
- Roll meatballs to the size of a large egg, about 3 ounces in weight.
- Line a baking sheet with foil, evenly space the meatballs on the sheet.
- Set the oven rack to the lower-middle position.
- Broil on high and cook the meatballs until browned about 10 minutes.
- Turn over and cook for an additional 2 to 3 minutes.
- Add meatballs to the tomato sauce.
- Cover, with the lid slightly ajar and simmer on low heat for at least 1 ½ hours, checking and stirring every 20 minutes, or as needed.
- Remove the meatballs from the sauce and place into a separate bowl, cover to keep warm.
- Mix the sauce; adjust consistency with small amounts of water if too thick.
- Taste sauce and adjust with salt and pepper as desired.
- Garnish with fresh basil and Parmesan cheese.
- You can adapt this recipe for a 6-quart slow cooker. Add the sauce ingredients to the slow cooker and broiled meatballs. Cook on high 3 hours, or 6 hours on low.
- MAKE IT GLUTEN-FREE: Use a GF-friendly variety bread mix or omit altogether and use almond flour.