Calabrian Style Meatballs Simmered in a Butter-Onion Tomato Sauce

I remember walking into nonna's house at ten in the morning and smelling her Sunday sauce simmering on the stove. Oh, did it smell delicious! I would sit in church, thinking about her sauce. My stomach would growl so loud during mass, that the people who came in late, standing at the back of the church, could hear me. By the time we got back to nonna's, I was starving. We still had to wait another hour before we all sat around the table to eat. That last hour always felt like torture, but one bite of nonna's meatballs and all was forgotten.

It wasn't often that nonna made spaghetti and meatballs, but I remember her mixing the meat thoroughly with her hands, and then taste-testing it to see if it was right. She would then roll them out and plop them into the sauce. There wasn't anything fancy about them, but they were always tender and flavourful. She used the typical Calabrian ingredients of half pork, half beef, eggs, parmesan, bread crumbs, and fresh garlic and parsley. 

Note the word fresh. She never used garlic powder, nor dried parsley in her meatballs. I have tried several times making meatballs with dried herbs and seasonings and it just wasn't the same. I still prefer my meatballs the way my nonna and my mom used to make them - with simple, wholesome, and fresh ingredients.

The meatballs were always simmered in a simple marinara sauce of tomato, garlic, basil and olive oil. As much as I love my family's version, I still enjoy trying different meatball recipes. A few years ago, I came across a recipe where a Calabrian-style meatball was paired with a Marcella Hazan style tomato sauce (the one with butter and onion), and ever since it's discovery, it has it's regular rotation on our dinner table. This simple but ingenious idea came from none other than Molly Wizenberg of Orangette.

It was only recently, though, that I had come across her article that she had written for Bon Appetit, about her long pursuit for the perfect Italian meatball. She found it when she had befriended Jordi Viladas of Cafe Lago in Seattle. He had learned to make meatballs from his aunt, who in turn, had learned them from her Calabrian born mother.

She learned that to get a "fine, smooth texture", you need to mix the meat well with your fingers spread out like a claw, and quickly stir everything together in circular motions. This produces a tight crumb and it doesn't fall apart when you cut into it. This is similiar to how my mom taught me to make meatballs. Always use your hands to mix everything well.

I have made Molly's original recipe (which tastes phenomenal), but I have adapted it to speed up the cooking process a bit, without drastically changing the taste of the original recipe. I use a puréed sauce instead of whole peeled tomatoes; and I don't like wasting milk, so I include the milk into the mixture and reduce the egg to one. I used an ice cream scoop to get even-sized meatballs, and I roll them out as the sauce cooks (about 20-30 minutes). The recipe states to chill the mixture for 15-60 minutes, but I completely skip this step because the meat (and some of other ingredients) are already cold when I mix everything together. Regardless, of the changes that I made, it still tastes the same as Molly's, with the exception of texture of the sauce.

Now, this recipe does call for 1/2 cup (112 grams) of butter. Don't be tempted to add less. I also tried baking the meatballs to get rid of some of the fat, but the end result didn't taste the same. The cheese and fat from the meat, that had melted out, is what gives the sauce most of it's flavour. This recipe is very high in fat per serving (one serving consists of 4 meatballs per person and 36.4 grams of fat), but it is so delicious!

The best way to describe this dish is a southern rustic meatball meets a sassy northern sauce. Who would have ever thought that they would be a perfect match made in heaven? 

Thanks Molly for sharing your recipe! :-)

(From the Kitchen of For the Love of Italian Cooking)

A classic southern meatball gets a new northern twist.

  • 2x 28 oz (800 g) pureed tomato sauce (or pomodoro passato)
  • 1/2 cup (112 g) unsalted butter
  • 2 medium onions (or 1 large), peeled and halved through the root
  • 1/2 tsp salt, or to taste
  • 1/2 tsp sugar for acidity (if necessary)
  • 1 cup (100 g) fresh white bread crumbs
  • 8 tbsp milk
  • 8 oz. (250 g) ground beef
  • 8 oz. (250 g) ground pork
  • 1 cup (100 g) grated parmesan (Grana Padano or Romano Pecorino also work well)
  • 1/3 cup (15 g) finely chopped Italian parsley
  • 1 tsp salt, or to taste
  • 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper, or to taste
  • 1 large egg
  • 2 large garlic cloves, pressed or very finely minced
Pasta and Cheese:
  • 1 lb (500 g) spaghetti
  • Freshly grated Parmesan cheese for serving (Grana Padano or Romano Pecorino can also be used)
  1. Place all the ingredients for the sauce in a dutch oven or heavy-bottomed sauce pan. Swirl about 3/4 cup (200 ml) water in the cans and add to sauce mixture. Simmer over medium heat while preparing the meatballs (about 20-30 minutes, depending on quick you are). 
  2. Mix all the ingredients for the meatballs in a large bowl, mixing well with your hands. Using an ice cream scoop, scoop out all the meat mixture first, and then roll them out (you'll 20-24 pieces). Place them into the sauce, reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer for 15-20 minutes until the meatballs are cooked through. Using a slotted spoon, take out the meatballs and place them in a serving bowl or platter, and set aside. Taste the sauce, if it tastes acidic, then adjust with a bit of sugar.
  3. After sauce is done, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, and cook spaghetti according to package instructions, and drain. Add pasta to sauce in pot and toss to coat. Divide pasta among 6 plates and top each serving with meatballs (about 4 each). Sprinkle with grated Parmesan cheese and serve immediately.

(Recipe Adapted from BonAppetit)


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Rosa G.
Hamburg, Germany
Hi! My name is Rosa and welcome to my blog! I'm a fun loving, most-of-the-time stressed mother of three small boys, and a former cubicle dweller turned pastry chef. I am an amateur blogger and food photographer and lover of good Italian food. My food is simple, fresh, and seasonal (with an occasional frozen pizza).