Grandma Rose's Meatballs

Every time I make meatballs I think of my Grandma Rose. She wasn't related by blood, but I will forever remember the fiery Italian-American woman across the street as my grandma. There are a few things that truly stick out in my memory of her - playing Rummikub, the big fig tree in her backyard, selling homemade mini muffins for an exorbitant price ($1.50/ea) to her and her church ladies,  the gray mush of over-cooked broccoli she would force upon me, and most of all, her meatballs. She couldn't cook vegetables to save her life, but man, she knew how to make a mean plate spaghetti and meatballs. 

Though I have made some minor changes to the recipe, they are still hers at heart. I hope these meatballs make you proud, Grandma!

Me, as a wee little one, and Grandma Rose - October 1987

Me, as a wee little one, and Grandma Rose - October 1987

Grandma Rose's Meatballs

The one major change to Grandma Rose's original recipe is that instead of using seasoned breadcrumbs out of a can, I use white bread soaked in a little bit of water. The bread absorbs the liquid and makes for a juicer, more moist meatball.

I usually make a double batch of these and freeze half of them after baking. To cook frozen meatballs, just toss them into a pot of simmering marinara sauce and let them defrost slowing in the hot, bubbling sauce (it takes about 30-45 minutes on low).

Serves 4-5 ( or enough meatballs for about 1 pound of spaghetti)


1 cup white sandwich bread or soft baguette, cut into 1/2-inch cubes (about 1-2 slices depending on the size of the loaf)

2-3 tablespoons water

1 large garlic clove, minced

1/4 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano, finely grated

1/4 teaspoon fennel seed, slightly crushed

1/4 teaspoon hot pepper flakes

2 tablespoons parsley, finely chopped

1 1/2 teaspoons sea salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 large egg

1/2 pound ground beef, preferably ground chuck

1/2 pound ground pork

4 cups homemade marinara sauce (recipe follows - shhhhh...I won't tell Grandma if you use a jar of your favorite store-bought tomato sauce)


Preheat oven to 400°.

For the meatballs - In a large mixing bowl, combine bread and water. Let stand for 10 minutes until water is fully absorbed. Here is where it gets messy - with your hands, crush bread until it resembles a coarse paste. Add garlic, Parmigiano-Reggiano, fennel seed, pepper flakes, parsley, salt, pepper and egg. Stir to combine. Add beef and pork, mix with your hands until the seasoned bread mixture is fully incorporated. Be careful not to over mix - no one likes tough meatballs! 

Using a tablespoon, portion meat and roll into balls. Transfer meatballs onto greased baking sheet (make sure it is a sheet with a lip to catch any juices or grease as the meatballs bake) placing them about 1/2-inch apart. Bake for 15-17 minutes until meatballs are cooked through (at this point, you can cool the meatballs and freeze them for a rainy day).

While the meatballs are baking - Over medium heat, warm marinara sauce in a large saucepan big enough to hold the sauce and the meatballs. When sauce comes to a simmer, reduce heat to low. Add baked meatballs directly to sauce, stirring gently to coat. Let meatballs simmer uncovered in the sauce for about 15 minutes to allow the flavors to meld. 

Serve hot over a big, heaping plate of pasta* and top with a smattering of freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. 


*Let's talk a little bit about pasta. Skip the Barilla or any of the pasta that is made in mass-quantities with teflon dies. Just like teflon non-stick pans, the sauce will slide right off the pasta. I use spaghetti from Italian company, Rustichella d'Abruzzo, which is made with bronze dies. This pasta has a rough surface that sauce will stick to making for an ideal spaghetti and meatball experience. You can find Rustichella d'Abruzzo pasta at your local specialty food store or online


Easy Homemade Marinara Sauce

This sauce comes together in about a half hour. I don't like overly sweet tomato sauces, but a touch of dark brown sugar rounds the sauce out quite nicely. Makes approximately 4 cups.


1 28-ounce jar or can whole tomatoes

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 small onion, finely chopped

2 large garlic cloves, minced

1/2 teaspoon dark brown sugar

1/2 cup water

2 large sprigs fresh basil

1/2 teaspoon hot pepper flakes, optional


Place both the whole tomatoes and the liquid from the jar in a large bowl. Using your hands, lightly crush tomatoes. Set aside.

Heat 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add onions and sauté until translucent but not browned, about 5-7 minutes. Move onions to one side of the pan, add the remaining 1/2 teaspoon of olive oil and garlic to the empty space in the pan. Sauté garlic for 30 seconds until lightly golden. 

Add reserved crushed tomatoes, water, brown sugar and stir to combine. Add basil and pepper flakes (if using) and bring to just below a boil. Turn down heat and let sauce simmer uncovered for 15-20 minutes. Remove basil stems before serving. 


I love you, Grandma Rose.

I love you, Grandma Rose.