Ultimate Meatballs with Tomato Sauce

This is the ultimate Meatballs with Tomato Sauce recipe. If you want to serve a dish that is hearty and full of deep, satisfying flavor, this meal easily surpasses those requirements. If you’re looking for a quick and easy meatball recipe, move on my friend. This is an event. But ULTIMATE meatballs don’t just happen in a flash. You should plan a day ahead because this recipe improves ten-fold overnight. The first couple of times I prepared this, I served it to my guests and family the day it was made. It was certainly good but nothing spectacular. The next day, leftovers of this dish were over-the-moon the best meatballs we’d ever had and one of the best Italian dishes I’ve ever made. So now, making this to completion and refrigerating overnight is just as important as the list of ingredients that make this one satisfying, unforgettable meal. Plus if you’re serving this for a dinner party, just bring it back to a gentle simmer the day of the party and let the meatballs and tomato sauce infuse your kitchen with the fragrant enticement that promises one special homemade dish. And now you have extra time to prepare for your guests and your party-day-prep-time is less hectic.

The tomato sauce is not fussy but that is what makes it quite simply, perfect for this recipe. This is a classic recipe from Marcella Hazan, a culinary icon of Italian cooking. Keep the sauce recipe handy to use for a multitude of Italian specialties.

The meatballs combine beef and pork with rustic herbs of fresh sage and Italian parsley. Smoked paprika and cayenne deepen the dish while minced onion and garlic add flavorful texture.

Once you’ve formed the meatballs, there are a few ways you could cook them. They would certainly do fine in just sautéing into the sauce and you can bake them, if you like. I always broil them because this option increases the flavor by adding a touch of crispy caramelization to the outside of the meatballs. (Broiling the meatballs is the method I have given you in the recipe below.)

After broiling or baking the meatballs, introduce them to the sauce so all the flavors can get acquainted and marry before the cool-down and refrigeration.

best meatballs
After the meatballs with tomato sauce works its magic overnight in the refrigerator, simmer a bit longer to heat all the way through. Serve on top of your favorite spaghetti (in this case perciatelli or bucatini, which is a fat hollow centered spaghetti noodle). We love them even without noodles or why not use them for the world’s best meatball sandwich!

I did not include prep-time or cooking time in this recipe as it will vary greatly depending on which method you use to cook the meatballs and alternately, if you choose to freeze the meatballs before cooking for use at a later time. But this is one of those recipes that requires a nice afternoon (or morning) in the kitchen. Just take your time and enjoy the process because the outcome is going to be more than worth it!

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Ultimate Meatballs with Tomato Sauce
These really will be the best meatballs you have ever had. But remember to plan ahead and make them the day before serving. Also, if you don't have a small cookie scoop for making the meatballs, I highly recommend you get one since this recipe makes between 50-60 meatballs. The cookie scoop will speed up the process a lot!
Recipe type: Main dish
Cuisine: Italian
Serves: 10-12
  • For the Meatballs
  • 1¼ cup whole milk
  • ¾ cup stale bread, regular or gluten-free, processed to a fine consistency
  • 1½ pound ground pork
  • 1½ pound ground beef, such as ground chuck
  • 2½ teaspoons chunky kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
  • ½ teaspoon cayenne
  • ¾ cup finely chopped fresh Italian parsley
  • ¼ cup finely chopped fresh sage
  • 1½ cups finely diced yellow onion, from about 2 small yellow onions
  • 4 large garlic cloves, finely minced
  • ⅔ cup grated Parmesan cheese plus extra for serving
  • 4 large eggs, beaten
  • Olive oil
  • For the Tomato Sauce
  • Two 28-ounce can whole plum tomatoes, roughly chopped with their juices
  • 5 tablespoons salted butter
  • 1 large white onion, peeled and halved
  • 2 teaspoons dried oregano
  • 2 teaspoons dried basil
  • 1 large garlic clove, minced
  • 1 bay leaf, optional
  • Special equipment: Small sized cookie scooper
  • Cook's note: I usually double the sauce recipe to have a lot for the pasta, but that is just my preference. I also save the drippings from cooking the meatballs to add back into the sauce.
  1. First start the sauce:
  2. Heat a heavy, large saucepan or stock pot over medium heat. Add all of the ingredients and bring to a simmer. Turn the heat to low to keep a steady simmer. Cook for 40 minutes, or until droplets of fat float free from the tomatoes. Stir occasionally. Discard the onion (or sprinkle with salt and pepper and serve on the side for a tasty treat. If making meatball sandwiches, slice the onion after removing and serve it on the sandwich!)
  3. Remove the bayleaf.
  4. Make the Meatballs while the sauce simmers.
  5. Pour the milk over the breadcrumbs in a small bowl. Stir together and set them aside for at least 10 minutes so the crumbs can soften.
  6. Mix the pork and beef together thoroughly in a large mixing bowl. Stir in the salt and a generous amount of black pepper, then add the cayenne and smoked paprika.
  7. Stir in the chopped parsley, sage, onion, garlic and Parmesan. Mix with your hands until these are very thoroughly distributed through the meat.
  8. Stir in the breadcrumbs and milk, as well as the eggs, and mix thoroughly.
  9. Shape the meatballs immediately. Use that cookie scoop I talked about!
  10. Note: You can also freeze the meat (in one large lump or as shaped meatballs) in a sealed container for up to 3 months.
  11. Broil the meatballs: After shaping the meat and placing them very close together on a baking sheet, position an oven rack on the center position in your oven. Broil (high) for 15 to 18 minutes, turning halfway through only if you care whether the meatballs are kind of flat on the bottom. I don't turn mine.
  12. Add the meatballs to the sauce and continue to simmer another 15 minutes.
  13. Let meatballs with tomato sauce come to room temperature, then place in a container and refrigerate overnight or up to 2 days. The day of serving, return the meatballs and sauce to the pan and slowly heat to simmer, stirring occasionally. Let low simmer for about 15 minutes before serving.
  14. Serve with extra grated or shaved Parmesan cheese.
  15. Cook's note: If you're tempted to just cook the meatballs and sauce for a longer time the day you first make it and serve it later that same day, don't! I have tried that too, and it really is important to let this sit in your refrigerator overnight. Have I said this enough?

Meatballs adapted from A Cup of Jo. Sauce adapted from Marzella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.

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