Spaghetti Sauce with Meatballs

Spaghetti Sauce with Meatballs

This represents the beloved "Italian" dish from my childhood. It turns out, of course, that it was not really Italian and not served in Italy. Rather, it was developed in the early 20th century within the Italian-American community, probably in New York or New Jersey. Regardless, it is beloved family food, even for totally non-Italians.

I have taken many turns from the way my mother made the dish, which was very good and which she did about once a week. I make the sauce  much fresher, using canned crushed tomatoes (definitely not “puree”) rather than whole canned tomatoes broken up by crushing them through your clenched fingers then adding tomato paste, as she did. And the sauce is not simmered for hours until the surface oil caramelizes. And of more simplicity, I cook the meatballs directly in the sauce rather than fry or roast them separately and add them later. I also leave out the Sicilian fennel sausage that my mother (of totally Irish ancestry, so how would she know?) insisted was essential for a great sauce. I sometimes add a small amount of whole fennel seeds to the sauce for the same effect, and offer that as an option in the recipe.

In my childhood we used to have “spaghetti” (“little cords”) as the pasta, “spaghettini” (thin spaghetti), or “vermicelli” (“little worms,” a very fine spaghetti slightly wider than the finest, which is “angel hair”). Nowadays we use various short pastas as well, but my grandkids seem to like spaghetti or thin spaghetti best.

Photo: Maria Dondero; Dish: Marmalade Pottery, Athens GA
Here’s a very functional and relatively easy spaghetti sauce with meatballs for the family. In future blog postings I’ll share my approaches to fancier and more sophisticated dressings for pasta. Some fancier recipes can be found in my still-accessible earlier blog (

Traditionally – at least for the adults – red wine would accompany spaghetti and meatballs, a not too fancy, hearty red wine. Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, Nero d’Avola, or an unoaked Zinfandel would be my choices.

Spaghetti Sauce with Meatballs

The recipe serves six with leftovers, enough for a pound of pasta.

Make meatball mixture first:
2 eggs
1/2 cup milk or water
1/2 cup quick oatmeal (or old fashioned oatmeal chopped on a board or in food processor)
1/2 cup dry unseasoned breadcrumbs
1 medium-large clove garlic, finely minced or put through press
2 teaspoons salt
3/4 teaspoon dry oregano
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
2 pounds of a mixture of ground beef (80% lean), turkey or pork

In large bowl, beat eggs with all ingredients except meat. Then mix in meat and knead well with your hands until thoroughly blended. Hold in refrigerator until sauce is ready.

Prepare the sauce:
4 large cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon whole fennel seeds (optional)
6 tablespoons olive oil
2 large (28-ounce) cans crushed tomatoes (I prefer Hunts or Kroger, among American brands)
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
Large pinch thyme or oregano
6 fresh basil leaves (optional)

In large wide pot (not cast iron), gently fry garlic and fennel seed, if used, in oil until garlic is softened but not golden. Stir in tomatoes and all other ingredients except basil. Bring to a simmer and let cook for 5 minutes. Stir occasionally, scraping bottom of the pan well.

With hands, roll meat mixture into similarly sized balls of preferred size, anywhere from 1 to 2 inches in diameter. As meatballs are formed, drop them into simmering sauce. When all meatballs are in, gently shake and swirl pot to mix (do not stir or meatballs can be broken). Some meatballs will be only partially submerged.

Simmer, covered, 15 minutes. Shake and swirl pot occasionally. Meatballs should be firm by then. Gently stir, scraping bottom of pot. Simmer, uncovered, 15 additional minutes (20 minutes if using primarily beef), stirring occasionally and scraping bottom of the pot.

Taste sauce. Add salt if needed. Stir in basil leaves, if used. Remove from heat.

Serve over freshly boiled, drained pasta. Sprinkle with grated Romano or Parmesan cheese. A simple green salad and Italian or French bread chunks make it a meal.

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