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Italian meatballs

Polpette di Carne

Meatballs in tomato sauce
Use plenty of polpa di pomodoro so you'll end up with a sensational leftover sauce for tomorrow's spaghetti dinner

Who doesn’t like meatballs in an Italian tomato sauce? Once meatballs crossed the Atlantic they became as much American food as Italian and every American child grew up loving spaghetti and meatballs.

When you look at the ingredients for polpette di carne you’ll see that they are not so different to ragù bolognese, absent the battuto, so why is it that you can eat polpette in tomato sauce with spaghetti but you will incur the wrath of the mayor of Bologna if you dare to mention the forbidden dish ‘spaghetti bolognese’, even though the entire English speaking world has adopted it as its favorite pasta dish ?

Ingredients for meatballs in tomato sauce
Good quality meat, tinned tomatoes, cheese and herbs make all the difference

The answer is that meatballs in tomato sauce is a southern Italian dish which means that the dried pasta of the south rather than fresh tagliatelle of northern Italy is its natural accompaniment. Furthermore, as the Italian diaspora in the U.S. is overwhelmingly from southern Italy, spaghetti and meatballs quickly became the accepted combination.

meatballs ready to be cooked
The finished meatballs ready for cooking

The recipe I use is not so different from many others but I prefer to use a tender and lean minced beef like razza Piemontese because meatballs are only cooked for a fraction of the time that it takes to make a traditional ragú bolognese. I add a small amount of minced pork to compensate for the leanness of the beef. Also, many Italians tend to make their meatballs quite small, no more than about 20 grams each whereas I prefer slightly bigger ones of about 30 grams each which helps to keep the inside of the meatballs moist through the cooking process.

I also prefer to make plenty of sauce and eat the meatballs with mashed potatoes, leaving the excess sauce for spaghetti the following day. The leftover sauce is really exceptional after having had meatballs cooked in it.

Ingredients for 30 meatballs (enough for a main course for 8 people):

640 g minced beef

160 g minced pork

40 g parmigiano reggiano / pecorino romano

1 medium onion very finely diced

20 g finely chopped fresh parsley

40 g home-made breadcrumbs

2 eggs whisked

sea salt, freshly ground pepper and a little nutmeg


600 g Italian tinned tomatoes or polpa or passata

lots of dried oregano

3 cloves garlic (whole not chopped)

Italian extra virgin olive oil

salt, pepper

browning meatballs
Brown the meatballs in olive oil before adding the pulped tomato


1. To better incorporate the onion into the meatballs I like to first sweat the onion on medium low heat for 10-15 minutes to remove the raw flavor, then let it cool.

2. Gently mix all the meatball ingredients without compacting the mixture too much.

3. Shape the meatballs in the palm of your hand to about 30 grams each and put in fridge for an hour to set.

4. Generously oil a frying pan and add the meatballs on medium heat, turning occasionally until browned on all sides - no more than 6-8 minutes.

5. Meanwhile add 3 cloves of garlic to another lightly oiled frying pan and add the tomato polpa together with a very generous amount of dried oregano and salt and pepper to taste.

6. Transfer the meatballs to the tomato sauce and cook uncovered for another 10 minutes or so on a medium high heat but without boiling.

7. Discard the garlic, check for salt and serve with mashed potatoes, or of course spaghetti if you prefer. Any left over sauce will be fantastic reheated with pasta the next day.

meatballs in tomato sauce
The only thing missing now is the mashed potatoes


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