How to Make Meatball Pizza

The Food Lab

Unraveling the mysteries of home cooking through science.

A hand removing a slice of meatball-topped pizza from a pie, with a pizza wheel nearby

The best meatball pizza. [Photographs: J. Kenji López-Alt]

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Growing up in New York, I never ate a meatball pizza. Strike that: Until I was an adult, I'd never even heard of a meatball pizza. Actually, let's go one step further: It had never once entered my mind that a meatball pizza was even within the realm of possibility. To me, pizza was the thing you got by the slice after school, and meatballs were what you'd eat at home on a weekend night if you were really lucky. Pizza was for eating out; meatballs were home cooking.

It wasn't until I tasted the meatball pizza at Motorino, and then at Best Pizza in Williamsburg, that I discovered how great the idea is. It's two Italian-American favorites, all rolled into one spectacularly comforting dish. But, as with all mashups, there's a bit of finesse to getting it right. Here's how I make mine.

Getting Sauced

The best part of meatball pizza is the meatballs themselves, and luckily Daniel has already put in the legwork for the juiciest, most tender meatballs you'll ever taste. But the sauce comes in a close second.

As much as I love my all-day Italian-American red sauce, it's a sauce that tastes predominantly of tomatoes. The sauce you get with meatballs, on the other hand, should taste like meat.

One way to do it is to simmer the meatballs in the sauce all day. This works—if you're okay with eating tough meatballs, really late in the day.

My quick-and-dirty trick? I save some of the meatball mixture, and instead of forming it into a ball, I brown it in a bit of olive oil.

Browning meatball mixture in olive oil in a saucier

From there, I add my basic sauce ingredients: minced garlic, oregano, a pinch of pepper flakes, and some whole San Marzano tomatoes that I crush by hand.

A pot of canned tomatoes and basil sprigs cooking on the stovetop, with a wooden spoon in the sauce

With a sprig of basil thrown in, the sauce cooks down at a simmer in just about half an hour. Does it taste like it was cooked all day? No, because it wasn't. But it sure does taste meaty and comforting, and that's all I ask of my sauce at this stage.

Meatball-laced tomato sauce spread over an unbaked pizza crust

It's especially nice for pizza, as it adds bits of meat that can be spread over the entire surface of the dough, making every bite taste hearty, instead of only the bites where you happen to get a meatball.

Speaking of which, it's time to address another question: When it comes to balls, is bigger always better?

Size Matters

As Adam Kuban so eloquently pointed out in his article "Hey, Pizza Joints, Why You Gotta Bust My Meatballs?", a meatball that's been sliced or quartered or otherwise adulterated is no longer a meatball—it's a sliced-meat topping.

Uncooked meatballs on a white plate, next to a metal scoop

Still, I figured it was worth trying out a few different sizes and methods of ball application to see which tasted best. I made up a batch of meatballs in two different sizes: two inches (a little bigger than a golf ball) and three-quarters of an inch. I cooked both batches of meatballs by simmering them in a pot of my sauce on the stovetop. Even though I typically like to brown my meatballs in oil before simmering them in sauce, with the pizza it made less of a difference—there are plenty of browned flavors going on in a cooked pizza even without the extra step of browning the balls.

A hand picking up one of several very small uncooked meatballs

I tried applying the large meatballs in two ways: quartered and scattered, and sliced into quarter-inch-thick slices after simmering. Of those two methods, people liked the quarters more. But folks overwhelmingly preferred whole, small balls in place of large, split balls.

A small pizza topped with quartered large meatballs, on a wooden surface

I was afraid that small balls might end up drying out, or taste too much like sausage chunks. While it's true that the large balls did offer more of the traditional tender interior that you get with a plain meatball, the little balls were still surprisingly moist and tender, even after simmering in sauce and baking on pizza.

Constructing a Meatball Pizza

Unbaked pizza dough spread out on a wooden pizza peel

There's really not much more to say. Once you've made your sauce and simmered your balls, stretch out a ball of dough—I used my New York–Style Pizza Dough, though even store-bought will work fine—and top it with a layer of sauce.

Spooning small meatballs over a tomato sauce– and cheese-topped unbaked pizza

I like to go a little heavier on the sauce than with a typical pizza, because to me those Sunday meatballs are nothing without their sauce. A layer of shredded mozzarella goes on top of the sauce, then on go the little meatballs, scattered evenly around.

A fully topped meatball pizza with scattered basil leaves, on a wooden pizza peel

Then it gets a drizzle of olive oil, a sprinkle of salt, and a few torn basil leaves before getting parked on top of a preheated Baking Steel (the only surface you should be baking your pizzas on these days!) underneath a high broiler.

The pizza cooks in a matter of minutes, the balls sinking slightly into the layer of sauce and cheese as the edges puff and the underbelly gets charred.

Sprinkling grated Pecorino Romano on a cooked meatball pizza

As with plain meatballs, I like to give the whole pie a sprinkle of cheese as it comes out of the oven. Either a sharp Pecorino Romano (which is what I used) or a good aged Parmesan will work.

Pulling a slice of meatball pizza from a fully cooked pie

And there you go—pizza that eats by the slice, but tastes like it came out of your grandma's kitchen. If your grandma happens to be an Italian-American immigrant from Jersey. Mine isn't, but a boy can dream.