I am going to share Nonna’s (my mother, but Nonna, to her grand children) recipe for how to make meatballs and tomato sauce. This is the Sunday meal that I grew up on and love to this day! The sauce is perfectly delicious and the meatballs are flavorful, moist and tender.
When we think about a traditional meal in our house, meatballs and tomato sauce is the first thing that comes to mind. This was almost always present at every occasion while we were growing up. That tradition has not faded. When my bother and sister come to town with their families, the first thing everyone wants is still Nonna’s meatballs and sauce. And there is nothing that Nonna loves more then making her family happy!
I know that this is a meal I can make for even the finickiest eater. This sauce recipe perfectly balances the sweetness and natural acidity of the tomatoes. While the meatballs are so light and tender that you won’t want to stop eating them. I have yet to meet someone that does not love Nonna’s meatballs. My nieces were really hoping that we would keep this recipe a family secret, but so many people have asked it, I felt like I needed share it.
How to make Nonna’s Meatballs and Sauce
Let’s begin by making the meatballs. First, make sure that you are using good quality ingredients. My mother likes to go to the butcher and select the pieces of meat herself and then has them ground just right. She uses a combination of beef and pork. I am not knowledgeable enough about cuts of meat to know what to look for, so I use meatloaf mix in my recipe. I guarantee that this is perfectly fine. Meatloaf mix is equal parts of ground beef, pork and veal. This combination gives the meatballs a lot of flavor and a soft moist texture.
To create amazing meatballs mom adds, whole eggs, milk, bread crumbs, grated pecorino romano cheese (or a combination of pecorino romano and parmesan), finely diced onion, garlic, mint, parsley and of course salt and pepper. As you can see there are a lot of flavor producing ingredients in this recipe. I think two ingredients set this apart from other meatball recipes, mint and milk. The mint adds a wonderful freshness to the meat and the milk provides extra moisture.
I would suggest taking the meatloaf mix and the eggs out of the refrigerator about 20 minutes before you are ready to make the meatballs. This gives them a chance to warm up a bit before you start mixing in your other ingredients.
Add all of the ingredients in a bowl and mix lightly, until everything is evenly blended. You don’t want to be too heavy handed when you are mixing the ingredients into the meat because it creates a tough meatball. We want these to be tender and moist.
Form the mixture into balls about the size of a golf ball. Place them on a rimmed cookie sheet and place in a 375% oven. Allow the meatballs to cook between 10-15 minutes and then turn them over and cook them another 10 minutes. You just need them to start to brown. They are now ready for the sauce. You can also allow them to cool completely, put them in a freezer bag and freeze them for up to 3 months.
A really good meat sauce has depth of flavor from a combination of meats. My mother likes to add pork ribs (cut into individual ribs), sausage and of course meatballs to her sauce. Talk about delicious! This is a meal in itself!
You will need to use a large heavy sauce pan for making this sauce. Heat olive oil in your pan. Salt and pepper the pork ribs and add the to hot oil in the pan. Brown for about 3-4 minutes per side. Remove the ribs from the pan and set aside. Add your diced onion and garlic to the hot pan and cook until they are tender. Then add the tomato paste and stir to combine with the vegetables. You will need to cook the tomato paste for a couple of minutes, stirring it constantly so that it does not burn. You want to cook the tomato paste a bit before you add in the other ingredients.
We use a combination of tomato puree and crushed tomatoes so that the sauce has a bit of texture but you can use just tomato puree. The addition of crushed tomatoes does not make the sauce chunky at all. You won’t even notice the crushed tomatoes. If you like a chunkier sauce, I would suggest swapping out a can of diced tomatoes for a can of crushed tomatoes. You will also want to add water to the sauce. Since you are using tomato paste you will need to add some water or the sauce will be too thick after cooking for a long period of time.
My mom and my grandmother, always added a little sugar and a pinch of baking soda to their sauce. This is how they create a perfectly balanced sauce. The baking soda neutralizes the acidity of the tomatoes and the sugar enhances the tomatoes and makes them taste fresher. The secret is not to use too much of either of these ingredients because a little goes a long way. Add in salt and pepper and a few basil leaves and that’s it.
Now you can add the ribs, sausage and meatballs to the sauce. When the sauce starts to boil, turn the heat down to a simmer and allow it to cook for 2-3 hours. The longer the sauce cooks the more tender the meat will become and the tastier your meal! You will need to stir the sauce often to keep it from sticking to the bottom of the pan. I also taste the sauce often just because I can’t wait! That is it. Pretty simple!
Other Sicilian recipes that you may like:
Nonna’s Meatballs and Meat Sauce
- 1 ½ lbs. meatloaf mix
- 1 egg
- 1/4 onion diced
- 1 clove garlic finely chopped
- 1/3 cup breadcrumbs seasoned
- 1/3 cup Pecorino Romano cheese grated
- ¼ cup milk
- ½ tsp pepper
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tbsp mint fresh, chopped
- 1 tbsp parsley fresh, chopped
Simple Meat Sauce
- 2 tbsp. olive oil
- 2 lbs Pork Ribs Country style
- 15 Meatballs
- 6 links Italian Sausage cut in half
- 1 Onion finely diced
- 2 cloves Garlic minced
- 2 tbsp Tomato Paste
- 90 oz Tomato Puree Or a combination of Puree and crushed Tomatoes
- 1½ TSP Salt
- 1½ Tsp Sugar
- 2 pinches Baking Soda
- ½ tsp Black Pepper ground
- 4 Basil Leaves fresh
- In a large bowl, mix all ingredients together until well incorporated but try not to over work the meat.
- Form into balls slightly larger than a golf ball or any size that you like.
- Place on a cookie sheet and bake in a 375 ° oven for 10-15 mins. or until starting to brown.
- Turn them meatballs over and cook another 10 mins. Or until just cooked through.
- Remove from oven and either add to your sauce or place in plastic bags and freeze for later use.
- Heat olive oil in a saucepan. Brown the pork ribs for 2 mins per side. When they are nicely browned, transfer the ribs to a plate.
- Add the onion and garlic to the pan and sauté until just tender. Stir in the tomato paste and continue stirring for a minute.
- Pour in the puree (and crushed tomatoes if you chose to use them) and bring to a boil. Add salt, sugar, baking soda, pepper, and basil. Bring to a slow boil.
- Add in the meat and bring the sauce back to a slow boil. Cover and cook on a low to simmering heat for one hour stirring often.
- Uncover the sauce and cook for an addition 1-2 hours. Stir the sauce often and adjust the salt and pepper to taste.