Meatballs in tomato sauce.

It’s been a while.

I’d almost forgotten how much I like meatballs cooked in thick, velvety tomato sauce and that when they are good and carefully made, they are surely one of the most gratifying of comfort foods.


Especially, when they are made in the morning from good freshly ground beef and then they have the rest of the day to go cold and hang around, wallowing and mellowing so the flavours settle and deepen before being gently reheated. Especially, when once the meatballs are warmed through you remove them from the sauce and set them aside on a warm plate while you stir some spaghetti into the sauce. Especially, when you serve up steaming bowls of spaghetti and tomato sauce with 3 meatballs balanced on top.

I didn’t grow up eating meatballs. We had savory mince made by my grandma Roddy which we ate in true Lancastrian style with buttery mashed potato on Tuesdays and the Bolognese sauce (we are talking England 1980 here) made by my Mum to top our spaghetti. Both were essentially deconstructed meatballs give or take an ingredient and delicious to boot……but they weren’t meatballs, our friends had fun little balls of mince…….this kind of thing can damage a child.

So deprived as a child and not bothered with much, nevermind meatballs, during in my wasteland years – a long, tedious and unhappy phase which had it spawned a blog, it could have been called ‘Rachel doesn’t eat much and when she does it’s faddy‘ – I came to Meatballs late.

Thankfully, probably because I was a late starter,  I managed to avoid encountering bad dry – mealy or worse greasy – slimy meatballs, thin sauces and general meatpatty nastiness which I have heard is dreadful and can put you off for life…..I do seem to remember something suspicious in the school canteen but I knew better than to look never mind taste – remember we are talking England circa 1980. My meatball initiation was a thankfully a good one, afterall I was in the safe hands of Elizabeth David and her recipe from Italian food.

Because of Elizabeth Davidthe woman who helped establish many of my better kitchen habits – my early meatball education was leaning heavily towards the Italian school of thought, the inclusion of parmesan, the flat leaved parsley. the flick of nutmeg…….. and then I came to live in Italy…..


……and I was given Vincenzo’s nonna Sara’s recipe, polpette al sugo or as she would say in Sicilian Purpette ca sarsa. In theory nonna Sara’s recipe is not actually so very different from the other 3 fine recipes I have come to trust. Her ingredients are almost the same, the ground beef well marbled with fat, the bread soaked in milk, the parmesan, the sauted onion, the parsley, the egg, the flick of nutmeg. Her measurements however, like so many recipes passed by word and observation not pen, are not as reassuring as the books. It’s the fact the recipe is soaked in family history, has been part of so many meals that makes it important. By following her recipe it I too feel part of the story, a story you can taste.

I’d also forgotten how nice they are to make, while the tomato sauce bubbles away on the hob in it’s gently reassuring away you can roll up your sleeves and get on with gentle kneading, mixing and moulding of the soft squishy mince mixture into pleasing little walnut sized balls.


About the sauce.

The tomato sauce for meatballs should be smooth, rich and thick so passata is a good base. You can buy it, you can pass tinned plum tomatoes juice and all through a food mill or kitchen aid to get a fine passata pulp, or best of all you can make your own passata from red, ripe, flavoursome fresh tomatoes.

As we have still got nice September tomatoes around here I made some. I do this by washing and cutting a couple of kilo’s of Roma tomatoes in half and then putting them cut side down in a heavy based pan with 2 teaspoons of salt. I cover the pan and put it over a low flame. After a couple of minutes when the tomatoes are just starting to soften I squash them with a wooden spoon to release some juices so they collapse and cook but don’t burn. I cover the pan again and leave them to cook away for about 20 minutes or until I have a pan of slushy, soft tomatoes.

tomatoes cooked down

Which I then pass through the foodmill which sifts out skins and seeds and other obstructions to a fine smooth passata.

Now the passata is going to cook with meatballs for about 30 minutes and some people think that is enough. I like to give it a head start. So once you have passed the tomatoes through the foodmill, back in the heavy pan warm  some olive oil and then add a couple of cloves of garlic you have squashed with the back of a knife. Once the garlic is soft but not brown add the passata, stir and raise the heat so it bubbles at a gentle simmer. Leave the pan for about 20 minutes, the passata reducing gently while you make the meatballs.

Hope that makes sense.

If not maybe the recipe with be clearer.

Anyway sorry I don’t have any photos of the spaghetti, that happened later in the day with Vincenzo’s parents. It was a nice evening, I kept thinking how lovely it is to have done everything in advance, the meatballs were cooked, I made some bread, the salad and grapes washed, all I needed to do was cook the pasta while I warmed the meatballs through and dressed the salad. It nearly wasn’t like that, I nearly panicked and cooked something else at the last minute thinking is wasn’t enough, I nearly launched into something complicated which could well have left me red faced and stressed in front of the cooker rather than enjoying an aperitivo and the fact I had already done the work.

It was a good dinner, a friend of mine once described meatballs as humble and homely which I think is a very good way to put it, it was an honest and humble dinner…. no….. supper sounds more appropriate, more frayed around the edges….. kitchen supper….now, does that sound nice or silly, maybe it’s confusing, suggesting we might have other kinds of supper in other rooms which we don’t.

These meatballs are also nice with rice…..

Meatballs in Tomato sauce

Inspired by Nonna Sara, Marcella Hazan, Nigella Lawson and Elizabeth David

Serves 4 abundantly which is the way I like it

for the meatballs

  • 2 slices of stale good quality white bread with crusts removed.
  • 100ml whole milk
  • 500g ground beef (chuck is very good)
  • 1 small mild white onion chopped very very finely
  • 1 heaped tablespoon of finely chopped parsley
  • 3 heaped teaspoons of finely grated parmesan
  • 1 egg – lightly beaten
  • a pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil for cooking the onions
  • 1 tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil for mixing in the meatballs
  • very fine, dry, plain breadcrumbs on a plate.
  • olive oil or vegetable oil for frying the meatballs

For the sauce

  • 3 tablespoons of olive oil
  • 2 cloves of garlic, peeled and still whole but gently squashed with the back of a knife
  • 2 400g tins of best quality plum tomatoes or a 800g of passata (or 800g of your own homemade passata)

Chop the onion for the meatballs very finely and saute it for about 10 minutes in 1 tbsp of olive oil until it is soft and floppy. Set it aside.

In a small bowl cover the stale bread with milk and leave for 10 minutes so the bread absorbs the milk.

Start with sauce. In a heavy based pan warm the 3 tbsps of olive oil with a couple of cloves of garlic you have squashed with the back of a knife. Once the garlic is soft but not brown add the passata, stir and raise the heat so it bubbles at a gentle simmer. Leave the pan for about 20 minutes, the passata reducing gently

Make the meatballs. Put the minced beef in a large bowl. The bread should have absorbed all the milk by now and seem quite cool so mash it to a pulp using a fork. Add the mushy bread, the sauted onion, the parsley the parmesan, the beaten egg, the tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil, the nutmeg and some salt and pepper to the beef. Gently knead the mixture without squeezing it until all the ingredients are combined.

Gently shape the mixture into walnut sized balls (about 2.5cm/1 in diameter) and then roll each one in the fine breadcrumbs and set aside on some grease proof paper.

Choose a large saute pan which can accomodate all the meatballs in a single layer and warm a good glug of olive or vegetable oil for frying (I reckon my glug was about 3 tbsps.) Raise the flame to medium high and slip in the meatballs. Brown them on all sides, turning them carefully so they don’t break.

Once the meatballs are browned lower the heat slightly and add the tomatoes to the pan, you can pick out the garlic at this point. Turn the meatballs once or twice to coat them with sauce and incorporate the meat juices from the bottom of the pan.

Cover the pan and cook at a gentle and quiet simmer for about 25 minutes.

Taste both meatballs and sauce then adjust the seasoning.

To serve with spaghetti.

for 4

Cook 400g of good quality spaghetti in a large pan of well salted, fast boiling water.

While the spaghetti is cooking, gently reheat the meatballs and sauce over a modest flame, nudging them around with a wooden spoon so they don’t burn. Using a slotted spoon remove the meatballs from the sauce and set them onto a warm plate and cover with foil. Drain the spaghetti reserving a little of the cooking water. Stir about 50ml of the pasta cooking water into the sauce to thin it a little and then add the spaghetti to the sauce and toss well.

Devide the spaghetti between 4 bowls and top each with 3 meatballs and a spoonful of the any sauce still clinging to pan.

Serve and bring the rest of the meatballs to the table so people can help them selves.


Filed under food, meat, recipes

18 responses to “Meatballs in tomato sauce.

  1. Roberto’s mother was just saying she needed to make more meatballs. Usually we don’t make them because Annunziata has them so frequently as part of Sunday dinner. When we do make them our recipe is almost exactly the same as yours, sans the nutmeg…oh and we use half beef, half pork.

  2. Rachel

    Again, fabulous! I had put down spaghetti bolognese for dinner tomorrow night, but that has swiftly been crossed out and it’s gonna be homemade meatballs instead! I have made them to a similar recipe apart from the addition of the milk-soaked bread, so I’m looking forward to trying this out! x

  3. oooh that looks delicious ^^!! XOXO

  4. Looks fantastic! Thanks, a must-try…

  5. I don’t know If I said it already but …This blog rocks! I gotta say, that I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say I’m glad I found your blog. Thanks, 🙂

    A definite great read..Jim Bean

  6. i always felt lucky to grow up with good balls (lol) for dinner often. my grandmother made a mean meatball. and you’re right – wait a day and taste them… ohhh baby. always better the next day!

  7. The joy of the made-ahead dinner is just the thing.

    I need a food mill, it seems.

  8. i see Amy’s been here already, bragging her nonna’s meatballs. Well, I like you Rachel, had nothing resembling polpette in my childhood. The best it got, and it wasn’t good, was the spag-bol of Cheshire in the 1980s, or since we’re talking beef mince, cottage pie, which was rather good, but still nothing like a meatball. I, too, love the way a sauce, especially one flavored with meat juices, will continue to improve, I think, almost until it ultimately goes off. Your meatballs are a beautiful thing, and I congratulate you heartily for your courage in preparing Vincenzo’s family recipe for his family. I think I would have bottled it and made a cottage pie instead, to play it safe, but you definitely did the right thing!

  9. I’m just reading this before I go to sleep. Between the delicious recipe and your excellent writing, I think I’ll be having nice meatball dreams…

  10. Oh just beautiful. I love meatballs and we haven’t had them for ages might be dinner tonight.

  11. Jenia

    Hi Rachel!
    You have a wonderful-wonderful blog. I am very glad I found it. So many fabulous recipes to try out. At first I started to add the recipes to favourites and it turned out that I have to add all of them))*
    Thank you!
    Jenia from Minsk, Belarus

  12. Beverly Jane BJ

    I have waited all my life to make/taste a great meatball. I don’t know how many I have tried. The tomato sauces unfortunately, hurt my tummy something awful so, tho’ I do make my own and it is delicious, I can only take a tiny bit on my pasta or my tummy suffers for days. But back to the meatballs. I hope this is THE ONE. Hugs to all.

  13. milton

    driving you crazy with my comments 🙂 love reading your blog and polpette are just heaven i love to add somethings though finely shaven lemon rind of yes you guessed it the amalfi variety lemons bursting with flavorsome lemon oil for the rest briefly browned pine nuts and finely chopped soaked raisins and a sprig of finely chopped rosemary needles (some do bit of basil…) and to keep it moist and juicy ricotta ! (i do not have the luxury of sunny tomatoes so i use best available tinned and add a good few glasses of red wine…)

  14. spagbolblog

    Reblogged this on SPAGBOL.

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