Meatballs for Beginners, and the Most Divine Tomato Sauce

IMG_1894My mother is a self-professed klutz in the kitchen. We hold our breath whenever she picks up a knife, and we brace ourselves for the next trip to the emergency room. Meatballs, for some reason, bypass her ineptitude in my favorite room. On this occasion, I waged a small battle when I announced that I wanted to try a different version. Victorious, I took the helm as the meatball maven. I used one of Lidia’s recipes for inspiration, and even my mom, the ultimate critic, raved about the meatballs and the homemade sauce that went along with them.  I skipped the breadcrumbs and did not dredge the meatballs in flour pre-browning, and they turned out filling but not too heavy. The sauce was simple and magnificent: the flavors of the San Marzano tomatoes spoke for themselves, aided only by a few aromatics, salt, and pepper. Torn basil leaves and lots of Parmigiano Reggiano certainly helped my case. Reheat the sauce later in the week and serve over roasted bell peppers and other roasted vegetables. It is so divine, I could eat it da sola as a soup.


For the sauce:

2 35 oz. cans chopped San Marzano tomatoes

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

1 medium yellow onion, chopped (about 1 cup)

1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes

1 bay leaf

Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

Torn basil leaves (for garnish)

For the meatballs:

1/2 lb ground pork

1/2 lb ground beef

1/3 cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano

1/4 cup chopped Italian parsley (optional: I bought cilantro by accident, and so I did not use any parsley for this particular dish)

2 garlic cloves, diced

1 large egg

1 pinch kosher salt and 1 pinch freshly ground black pepper

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

1 lb whole wheat spaghetti

2/3 cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano


Heat 1/4 cup olive oil in a large, heavy bottomed pot over medium-high heat. Add the chopped onion and stir until wilted and translucent, about 4 minutes. Pour in the tomatoes, crushed red pepper, and bay leaf. Season lightly with salt and pepper.

Bring the sauce to a boil, then bring it to a simmer and cook for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, mix the pork and beef with 1/3 cup grated Parmigiano, parsley if using, and garlic in a large bowl. Beat the egg with a pinch of salt and pepper in a small bowl, and then pour the mixture over the meat. Use your (clean) hands to mix the meat mixture. Then shape your meatballs into 1 1/2 inch balls.

Heat just less than 1/2 cup olive oil in another large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Put in as many meatballs as will fit without crowding them too much. Turn them as necessary until they are brown on all sides, just less than 10 minutes. Remove the browned meatballs and add them to the sauce. Cook for about 30 minutes or until the meatballs are fully cooked through (there should be no pink meat in the center if you cut one open).

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Cook the pasta until al dente. Drain and return to the pot. Ladle about 2 cups of the tomato sauce into the pot with the pasta and toss so that the pasta is fully coated and doesn’t stick. Remove from the heat and toss in about 2/3 cup grated Parmigiano. Serve immediately with another ladleful of sauce and the meatballs.

Recipe adapted from Lidia Bastianich’s Lidia’s Favorite Recipes 

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