Special Italian Meatballs Recipe

Imagine the smell as you walk into your nonna's house; the scent of oregano and slowly stewed tomato sauce wafts through the air, leaving your mouth watering. Plates of pasta, potatoes, fish, and salad fill the kitchen countertops ready to feed a hungry crowd. Just when you think it couldn't get better, the meatballs arrive, still simmering in tomato gravy and so tender they threaten to fall apart. You don't have to stick to imagining it anymore.

Tasting Table recipe developer Michelle McGlinn created a delicious rendition of the classic dish. Her special Italian meatballs recipe below delivers the same mouth-watering meatball and savory sauce combination, perfect for scooping over spaghetti. Make this quickly for a weeknight dinner or let it stew for hours for the ultimate flavorful meal. Either way, this comforting dish is sure to bring you right back to nonna's kitchen — or far off to the culinary mecca itself.

Gather your Italian meatball ingredients

Meatballs can be made in many different ways, with different meats, seasonings, binding agents, and sauces. This meatball is made using a panade of milk and breadcrumbs to moisten the meat and help the egg yolk bind everything together. For the meat, you can use any ratio of beef, pork, and veal, as long as it adds up to 1 pound of meat. We use half beef and half veal here, but pork is a great choice for super moist meatballs.

For both the meatballs and sauce, you'll want plenty of garlic, Parmesan, and onion. The sauce is flavored with a base of salty, savory pancetta and rich Chianti wine. Chianti is earthy, smoky, and rustic, but you can use any dry red wine you love, such as cabernet sauvignon. You'll also need olive oil and a 28-ounce can of crushed San Marzano tomatoes. Finally, salt, pepper, oregano, and fresh parsley add layers of seasoning, and fresh basil at service seals the deal.

Create a panade

Begin by preheating your oven to 400 F. 

Next, prepare a panade, a paste of bread and milk that Cook's Illustrated explains keeps the proteins in meat from drying out, creating a moist, flavorful meatball. You can use a slice of bread or store-bought breadcrumbs and any kind of cow's milk to form the panade. Simply mix everything together until the breadcrumbs moisten into a paste. Once your panade is combined, it's ready to fold into the meatball mixture.

Combine the meatball ingredients and roll

Using your hands, mix the meat, minced garlic, chopped onion, salt, pepper, oregano, finely chopped parsley, grated Parmesan cheese, and egg yolk in a large bowl until just combined. Avoid overmixing your meatball mixture; overworking the meat will cause it to become tough and dry. 

Roll the mixture into golf ball-sized portions and place them on a sheet pan fitted with a wire rack. The wire rack elevates the meatballs off of the sheet pan so that they cook evenly and do not stick. Once the oven has come to temperature, parcook the meatballs for about 15 minutes to eliminate the grease before adding them to the sauce.

Begin simmering the sauce

With the meatballs in the oven, begin making the sauce by first browning the pancetta to release its flavorful fat into the pan. If you're aiming for a smooth sauce, transfer the cooked pancetta to a plate. Then, use the fat to cook the onions and garlic, and further intensify the flavors with red wine. Don't worry about any browned, sticky bits on the bottom of the pot — simply scrape those up when you add the wine for optimal flavor. 

Reduce the wine to half the volume, then empty the can of tomatoes into the pan and bring the contents to a simmer. If you want to have a silky smooth sauce, remove the pan from heat and blend the sauce with an immersion blender before adding the pancetta back. 

Stew the meatballs and serve

Whether you have 20 minutes or 2 hours, add the meatballs back into the sauce and simmer them until they are cooked through and soaked in San Marzano tomatoes. We love using San Marzano tomatoes for their sweeter, smoother taste and consistency. For a deeper flavor and impossibly soft meatballs, keep the sauce on low heat for several hours. Your kitchen will be teeming with the luxurious smell of garlic and the sauce will be infused with delicious flavor. 

Serve the meatballs over pasta or on their own. Alternately, stuff them into hoagie rolls for a classic meatball sandwich. To store leftovers, transfer the meatballs and sauce into an airtight container and keep it in the refrigerator. When you're ready to finish them, simply reheat them in the microwave or on the stove.

Special Italian Meatballs Recipe
4.9 from 79 ratings
This recipe yields a mouth-watering meatball and savory sauce combination, perfect for scooping over spaghetti. Be prepared: Your kitchen will smell heavenly.
Prep Time
Cook Time
Spaghetti and meatballs on plate
Total time: 45 minutes
  • For the meatballs
  • ½ cup plain breadcrumbs
  • 4 tablespoons milk
  • ½ pound ground beef
  • ½ pound veal or pork
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped Vidalia onion
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon pepper
  • 2 teaspoons oregano
  • 3 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
  • ½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1 egg yolk
  • For the sauce
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 4 ounces (about ½ cup) cubed or diced cured pancetta
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • 3 to 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • ½ cup dry red Italian wine, such as Chianti
  • 1 (28-ounce) can crushed San Marzano tomatoes
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  • basil, for serving
  • grated Parmesan, for serving
  1. Preheat the oven to 400 F.
  2. In a small bowl, make a panade by combining the breadcrumbs and milk until a dry paste forms. Set it aside.
  3. Add the meat, garlic, onion, salt, pepper, oregano, parsley, Parmesan, and egg yolk to a large bowl.
  4. Mix the contents with your hands until just combined, then add the panade until the mixture is firm but not dry. Do not overwork.
  5. Prepare a baking sheet fitted with a wire rack.
  6. Roll the meat into 12 2-ounce balls, or about the size of golf balls.
  7. Place the meatballs on the wire rack.
  8. Bake the meatballs for 15 minutes, until browned. (They will not be cooked all the way through.)
  9. While the meatballs are in the oven, heat the oil in a large deep skillet or Dutch oven over medium heat.
  10. Add the pancetta and cook until browned. If blending the sauce, remove it from the skillet.
  11. Add the onions and garlic to the skillet and cook them in the pancetta fat until they soften and begin to stick to the bottom of the pan.
  12. Deglaze with the wine, scraping any browned bits from the bottom of the skillet.
  13. Let the sauce simmer until it is reduced by half.
  14. Add the tomatoes to the skillet and bring everything to a simmer. If desired, remove the pan from the heat and blend the sauce with an immersion blender to make it smooth. If you removed the pancetta, add it back to the sauce.
  15. Once the sauce is simmering, add the parcooked meatballs and turn the heat down to low.
  16. Cover and cook for 10 minutes or 2 hours for best results.
  17. To serve, top the meatballs and sauce with torn basil and extra grated Parmesan.
Rate this recipe