There is no more iconic Italian-American dish than spaghetti with meatballs. It's also arguably the Italian-American dish that's most often described as not being "real Italian food." How many times have we heard someone declare that while spaghetti and meatballs both exist separately in Italy, spaghetti with meatballs does not? How often have so many of us repeated it? How many times have I said it? But it's a claim that's unsupported by the evidence.
What is true is that combining pasta with meatballs isn't anywhere near as common in Italy as it is here in the States; the practice has remained a hyperlocal specialty in one form or another, and never became well-known throughout all of Italy. Its relative obscurity has led many people—Italians included—to assume it's a purely American invention by Italian immigrants. Dig just a little deeper, though, and examples to the contrary abound.
There are many possible ancestors of the spaghetti with meatballs we eat in the United States today. One of the most compelling candidates comes from Abruzzo, where tiny marble-size meatballs called pallottine (bullets) are cooked in tomato sauce and tossed with spaghetti alla chitarra—fresh noodles cut on wire strings that resemble those of a guitar. The similarities are striking, and it's probably not insignificant circumstantial evidence that half a million Italians emigrated from that region to the States around the turn of the century.
Whether spaghetti with meatballs really does descend from spaghetti alla chitarra con le pallottine or from another regional Italian dish of pasta with meatballs (recipes are hard to find, but others have flagged Puglia's pasta seduta, orecchiete al forno con polpette, and Sicily's maccheroni alla sposa as ancestral candidates), what seems clear is that spaghetti with meatballs wasn't just a flight of fancy produced by an Italian immigrant looking to change things up in the New World.
Solving Spaghetti With Meatballs' Biggest Problem
One of the main criticisms made about modern spaghetti with meatballs is that it fails to achieve an essential quality of any good pasta dish: the seamless marriage of pasta and sauce. The problem, more specifically, are those hulking fist-sized meatballs plopped on a pile of noodles. Like a baby elephant as a house pet, bouldery meatballs are out of place on thin strands of spaghetti. There's some charm to the mismatch, but it's also objectively not a good fit—while they share the same plate, taking a bite usually means alternating between one or the other, and never eating both together.
This is what I wanted to address with my recipe, and the solution is simple: First, make enough meatball mixture to not only form balls but also to have some extra on hand to break down into the sauce, forming a hybrid, meatball-flavored ragù as the base. Second, form smaller balls closer in size to a golf ball, so they can better nest into the tangle of pasta; comically large meatballs are better left to a pasta-free version. I could have gone even smaller, down to the marble size of Abruzzo's pallottine, but I wanted to honor the Italian-American spirit of the dish by keeping them just a tad oversized.
What's funny is that I knew from the start that breaking some of the meatball mixture into the sauce was going to be a part of this recipe, but only learned later, while doing research into the dish's origins, that that's similar to what they do in Abruzzo, simmering the meatballs in an already meaty tomato sugo. (Just to give credit where it's due, the idea of a meaty tomato sauce with meatballs is also known to Italian-Americans in the form of Sunday gravy, so my "innovation" here is hardly a new idea.)
The Keys to Meatball Success
This recipe isn't my first foray into Italian-American meatball-making. I spent a lot of time perfecting my "ultimate" recipe years ago, and have refined it in the years since. My mission here was to adapt the basics of that recipe to this version—streamlining a few of the more ambitious steps, like adding gelatinized stock and using buttermilk to soak the bread—to make it a little less of a project. In the context of a big plate of pasta, those small improvements get lost in the shuffle and aren't as important for meatball success (they are, frankly, optional in the original recipe as well).
Otherwise, the bones of that recipe stand:
- Incorporating a panade made from fresh, milk-soaked bread, not dry breadcrumbs, makes a lighter and more tender final meatball.
- A mixture of ground beef and pork offers the best of both worlds: more robust flavor from the beef, tempered by pork's relative mildness, and a good combination of meaty textures that produces a meatball that's hefty without being heavy. Pancetta adds even more porky fat to the party, for added flavor and juiciness.
- A stand mixer fully mixes the panade, flavorings, and egg yolks with some of the meat, and then the rest of the meat is incorporated by hand to prevent over-mixing the meatballs, which can result in a bouncy, rubbery texture.
Meatballs Serving Sizes and Cooking Process
The meatball mixture here is sufficient to make 32 golf ball-size balls, with enough extra to cook down into the sauce like a ragù. The total batch size and meatball count is enough for eight servings with four meatballs each, or six servings with five meatballs each and two leftover, which, let's be honest, is probably a good thing since it's hard to resist popping a meatball in your mouth in the kitchen.
It's admittedly a lot of meatball sauce. But my feeling is if you're going to go to the effort of making this, it's nice to be able to either feed a large crowd or have plenty of leftovers—the meatballs in their sauce freeze nicely anyway.
Here are tips for portioning the sauce and pasta as needed:
- For every one serving: Use 1/4 pound (115g) dried spaghetti, about 1 cup sauce, 4 or 5 meatballs, and 1/2 ounce grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.
- For four servings: Follow the instructions in the recipe below.
- To serve all the pasta and sauce at once: It will be difficult to fit all of the sauce and a full 2 pounds of spaghetti into the same pot, so we recommend either following the recipe instructions below for 4 servings, but using two pots to make double the amount, or, if you don't have the confidence to juggle two pots of spaghetti at once, simply toss fully cooked al dente spaghetti with the sauce and cheese in a large, heatproof serving platter, adding pasta cooking water as needed to loosen.
Why It Works
- A panade made from fresh bread makes lighter, more tender meatballs than one made with dry breadcrumbs.
- Cooking some of the meatball mixture into the sauce infuses meatball flavor into every bite.
- Using a stand mixer to incorporate a portion of the meat with the seasonings and then mixing the rest in by hand produces a cohesive, but not rubbery, meatball texture.
- Yield:Makes 6 to 8 servings of meatballs and sauce
- Active time: 1 hour 30 minutes
- Total time:1 hour 30 minutes
- For the Meatballs and Sauce:
- 2 1/2 ounces (75g) fresh, crustless white bread, cut into 1/2-inch cubes (about 2 unpacked cups)
- 1/2 cup (120ml) whole milk
- 1 medium (8-ounce; 225g) yellow onion, minced
- 6 medium cloves garlic (about 1 ounce; 30g), finely minced
- 1 1/2 ounces (45g) Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated
- 3 ounces (85g) pancetta, finely minced
- 3 large egg yolks
- 1/3 cup loosely packed fresh parsley leaves and tender stems (3/4 ounce; 20g), minced
- 2 teaspoons Diamond Crystal kosher salt (8g); for table salt use half as much by volume or the same weight
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 3/4 teaspoon dried oregano
- 3/4 teaspoon ground fennel seed
- 1 pound (450g) ground beef (at least 25% fat; see note)
- 1/2 pound (225g) ground pork (at least 25% fat; see note)
- 3 tablespoons (45ml) extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 quarts (2L) tomato sauce, such as Quick and Easy Italian-American Red Sauce
- To Finish 4 Servings of Spaghetti and Meatballs:
- 1 pound (450g) spaghetti
- Kosher salt
- 2 ounces (55g) finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, plus more for sprinkling
For the Meatballs and Sauce: In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine bread with milk, tossing to coat. Let stand, tossing occasionally, until bread is completely moist, about 10 minutes. Squeeze bread between your fingers or mash with a spoon to make sure there are no dry spots.
Add onion, garlic, Parmigiano-Reggiano, pancetta, egg yolks, parsley, salt, pepper, oregano, and fennel to bread mixture.
Set mixer bowl in stand mixer and fit with paddle attachment. Starting at low speed and gradually increasing to medium-high, beat bread mixture until thoroughly blended, stopping to scrape down sides as necessary. Add 1/3 each of the beef and pork and beat at medium-high speed until thoroughly blended with bread mixture.
Remove bowl from stand mixer and add remaining beef and pork. Using a clean hand, gently mix meatball mixture, teasing apart ground meat with your fingers, just until ground beef and pork are thoroughly mixed in and no pockets of unincorporated meat remain; avoid mixing any more than is necessary for even distribution.
Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Using clean hands, roll meatball mixture into 32 golf ball-sized balls (1 ounce/30g each); there will be some meatball mixture left over.
In a large enameled Dutch oven, heat olive oil over medium heat until shimmering. Working in 2 batches, add meatballs and cook, turning occasionally with a thin metal spatula, until browned on several sides, about 2 minutes per side. Transfer browned meatballs back to parchment-lined baking sheet and repeat with remaining meatballs.
Add reserved meatball mixture to Dutch oven and cook, stirring and breaking up large chunks with a wooden spoon, until cooked through and beginning to brown, about 5 minutes.
Add tomato sauce, stirring and scraping up any browned bits. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Add seared meatballs back to Dutch oven, return sauce to a simmer, then lower heat to maintain a gentle simmer. Cook until meatballs are fully cooked through, about 10 minutes.
To Finish 4 Servings of Spaghetti and Meatballs: [Note: The following instructions are for 4 servings; see serving tips above for other ways to portion and serve the pasta and sauce]: Spoon half the sauce and meatballs into a large skillet or sauté pan; set remaining sauce and meatballs aside to cool to room temperature, then refrigerate or freeze in an airtight container.
In a pot of salted, boiling water, cook spaghetti, stirring frequently to prevent sticking, until just shy of al dente, about 2 minutes less than package recommends.
Using tongs, transfer spaghetti directly into simmering sauce along with 1/4 cup (60ml) pasta cooking water, and stir to combine. Cook, stirring constantly, until pasta is al dente and sauce has thickened so it coats noodles and isn't watery, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from heat.
Add Parmigiano-Reggiano, stirring well to emulsify into sauce. If tomato sauce is too thick, adjust consistency as needed with additional pasta water.
Divide spaghetti and meatballs between individual serving bowls, and serve, passing more grated cheese at the table.