Hungry? Craving Italian food? How about a big bowl of spaghetti and meatballs? Don’t hop the next plane to Rome; head to New York’s Little Italy or that Italian-American place down the road. This classic dish is as American as apple pie.
Yes, the dish itself originated from Italian cooks, but the kitchens where it was created were here in the U.S. of A. At the turn of the 20th century, Italian immigrants arriving in America found themselves earning more money and with that extra change in their pockets came more food on their table. Meat, helped further by low food prices in the US, went from bit player to starring role with larger portions served on the plate.
From new world good fortune came big meatballs, and a classic dish, slowly simmered in a very authentic Italian marinara from Southern Italy, became an Italian-American cuisine favorite.
“Mamma mia,” you might exclaim, as you twist spaghetti around your fork and contemplate all that you thought you knew crumbling around you. Then you take a bite of that tender, golf ball-size round of meat studded with sautéed onions and garlic, finely grated parmesan, and parsley, and decide to not worry so much about how it came to be on your table and just be glad that it did.
The recipe below is my take on the Italian-American classic. While it’s popular to brown the meatballs in oil before adding them to the sauce, I prefer to place the meatballs on a large baking sheet and bake them in the oven. While they may lack a little of the flavor and crunch that comes from browning, clean-up is far easier.
For those curious to learn a little more about the meatball story, check out this fascinating article from the Smithsonian Magazine blog. It’s tasty reading.
Spaghetti and Meatballs – Printer Friendly Recipe
I love the intense flavor of Muir Glen’s organic or Hunt’s fire-roasted diced tomatoes. For the whole, peeled tomatoes I like to use San Marzano tomatoes for their great acidity and consistency of flavor.
If you have a crowd, you won’t have any problem finishing this off in one sitting. If you do have leftovers, rejoice! The meatballs and sauce freeze well and will only improve in flavor over time.
For the sauce:
6 tablespoons butter
1 large yellow onion, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 (14.5 ounce) cans fire-roasted diced tomatoes with their juices
2 (28-ounce) cans whole peeled tomatoes with their juices, pureed in a food processor or blender
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
¼ cup minced parsley
For the meatballs:
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped (about 1 cup)
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 large garlic cloves, minced (about 2 heaping tablespoons)
1 lb each of lean ground beef, pork, & veal (or a combination equaling 3 lbs)
3 large eggs
1 packed cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
1 cup Panko breadcrumbs
¼ cup heavy cream
1/3 cup chopped fresh flat leaf parsley
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
For the pasta:
1 ½ lbs dried spaghetti
Freshly grated parmesan cheese, for garnish
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees and place a rack in the top and bottom third of the oven.
In a large Dutch oven or pot, melt the butter over medium heat. Once the foam has subsided, add the onion and cook until soft, about 8 minutes. Stir in the minced garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the fire-roasted diced tomatoes with their juices and the pureed whole peeled tomatoes. Stir the sauce and bring to a slow boil. Once boiling, reduce the heat to a low simmer and simmer for 45 minutes while you prepare the meatballs.
To prepare the meatballs, heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the olive oil and then add the finely chopped onions and a pinch of salt. Sauté, stirring occasionally, until the onions are soft and golden in color. Add the minced garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Remove the skillet from the heat and scrape the onion and garlic into a large bowl. Allow the onion and garlic to cool.
Once cool, add the 3 lbs of meat, the eggs, parmesan, panko, heavy cream, parsley, and salt and pepper to the large bowl with the onion and garlic. Mix together until combined with your hands and then shape the meat mixture into golf ball-size round balls. You should end up with about 3 ½ dozen meatballs.
Divide the meatballs between two large baking sheets (I like to line the baking sheets with parchment paper for easy clean-up). Place one baking sheet on the top rack and the other on the bottom rack and bake for 20 minutes, switching the baking sheets halfway through.
Remove the meatballs from the oven and allow to cool briefly before transferring the meatballs to the simmering marinara. Simmer the marinara with the meatballs for another 30 minutes. If the sauce is getting too thick, add a little water to thin it. Season as needed with salt and freshly ground black pepper.
While the meatballs and sauce are simmering, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the spaghetti, according to package directions, to al dente perfection.
Right before serving, add the minced parsley to the sauce. Serve the meatballs and sauce atop the spaghetti with grated Parmesan. Enjoy!