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Nonna’s Meatballs In Tomato Sauce – Polpette Di Nonna

Say goodbye to spaghetti and meatballs and hello to a much more authentic Italian way to enjoy this delicious recipe. I have a Nonna’s meatballs recipe straight from our own Nonna’s Kitchen which will leave everyone in the family asking for more!

A large bowl filled with large meatballs covered in tomato sauce. Surrounded by decorative items and ingredients.

What Makes This Recipe Great!

  • Authentic Italian Cuisine – This special recipe that has been passed down through the generations of our Italian family.
  • Family-Friendly – These large, soft meatballs are great for everyone to enjoy and the kids love the giant size of them!
  • Italian Comfort Food – Get that feeling of an Italian Grandma cooking for the family, with a comforting meal that’s all cooked in one pan.

Soft Italian Meatballs

I was so excited to share this recipe with you all. It’s one of my family’s most favourite meals and it’s an Authentic Italian meatballs recipe that has been passed down through generations of our Italian family. It’s Nonna’s recipe. 

I create giant meatballs from simple ingredients, that are cooked in a rich and delicious tomato sauce packed with flavour and served up with simple sides of green vegetables like this Italian Fried Broccoli and freshly-made bread like this parmesan focaccia.

Now, you may be wondering where the pasta is in this recipe. Spaghetti and meatballs is something that is enjoyed world-over and serving up meatballs with your favourite pasta seems like something that must come straight from Italy. However, I am here to tell you, I have never witnessed an Italian in Italy eating meatballs in this way, ever!

Often, in Italy, meatballs are fried and eaten simply on their own as a snack. And, if you don’t want to make them in tomato sauce as I have done here, you can fry them plain too. It’s actually my partner’s favourite way to enjoy these meatballs so, I usually make a mixture of both for Meatball night at the dinner table.

What’s more, is that leftover meatballs taste even better the next day! So, you can enjoy them for lunch too!

Serve these large, soft meatballs with a delicious Italian Focaccia Bread or some Italian Fried Broccoli and other steamed greens.

Two hands are cupping a bowl filled with beef meatballs covered in a tomato sauce.

Equipment Needed

  • Small/Medium Bowl – To soak the bread chunks in water.
  • Grater – To finely grate the parmesan, onion and celery. A box grater is best.
  • Sharp Knife and Chopping Board – To peel and chop the carrot, chop the parsley and crush the garlic.
  • Large Mixing Bowl – To mix all the ingredients for the meatballs inside. You can use your hands or a wooden spoon to mix everything together.
  • Large Plate – To place the prepared meatballs on before adding to the sauce.
  • Large Frying Pan or Large Skillet with a Lid – Use a pan with high sides so that the sauce doesn’t spill over the top when you place the meatballs in it.
  • Slotted Spoon – I find a slotted spoon is the best thing to turn the meatballs over in the sauce without breaking them apart. You can also use a large spoon too.

Ingredients

A labelled photo with all the ingredients needed to make Nonna's meatballs.
  • Crusty Bread Roll: Softens in water to add moisture and texture to the meatballs. A slightly stale bread roll works best.
  • Beef Mince (Ground Beef): The base of the meatballs. Choose a variety with some fat content for flavour and juiciness (I am using a mince with around 12% fat content in this recipe).
  • Fresh Parsley: Adds a fresh herby flavour to the meatball mixture.
  • Salt & Pepper: Seasoning for the recipe.
  • Parmesan Cheese: Choose a good quality parmesan cheese like Parmigiano Reggiano for the best flavour.
  • Eggs: Binds the meatball mixture together.
  • Olive Oil: Used for sauteing the vegetables for the sauce base.
  • Celery, Onion & Carrot: Provides a flavour base for the sauce.
  • Garlic: Adds depth of flavour to the sauce. Crush the garlic clove with a knife and add in whole.
  • White Wine: Deglazes the pan after sauteing the vegetables, adding a touch of acidity and complexity to the sauce.
  • Passata & Chopped Tomatoes: The base of the tomato sauce, provides richness and acidity. Use a good quality brand for the best flavour.
  • Sugar: A small amount of sugar helps balance the acidity of the tomatoes, giving the sauce a sweeter flavour.

Additions and Substitutions

Substitutions:

Meatballs:

  • Crusty Bread Roll: If you don’t have a crusty bread roll, breadcrumbs can be used as a substitute. Use about 1 cup of breadcrumbs soaked in a splash of hot water and then drained before adding.
  • Meatball mix-ins: Feel free to experiment with different flavourings in the meatballs! From fresh herbs and spices to suit your tastes.
  • Cheese variations: While Parmesan is classic, other grated cheeses like Pecorino Romano, Romano, or Asiago can be used for a slightly different flavour.

Tomato Sauce:

  • Vegetables: Don’t feel that you have to limit yourself to the traditional mirepoix (celery, onion, carrot). Roasted red peppers, chopped bell peppers, or even a handful of spinach can be added for extra flavour and colour.
  • Dried Herbs: A teaspoon of dried oregano, Italian seasoning, or thyme can be added to the sauce along with the garlic for extra flavour.
  • Stock: For a richer sauce, add a little beef broth in with the wine used to deglaze the pan.
  • Wine alternative: If you don’t have white wine, a splash of red wine or even balsamic vinegar can be used instead for deglazing.
  • Chilli Powder or Crushed Chillis: If you like a little heat to your sauce, you can add in some chilli powder to suit your spice levels.

Step-By-Step Guide – How To Make Nonna’s Meatballs

Step 1: Preparing Bread

  • Fill a small bowl with hot water, then break the crusty bread roll into large chunks and soak them in the water.

Step 2: Mixing Meatball Ingredients

  • In a large bowl, combine the beef mince, salt, pepper, finely chopped parsley, and finely grated Parmesan cheese. Gently mix together with your fingers until evenly distributed.
  • Lift the soaked bread chunks out of the water, squeezing out the excess liquid back into the bowl, and leaving the soggy bread in your hands.
  • Add the squeezed bread to the mince mixture and mix it through gently as before.
  • Whisk the eggs briefly, then add them to the meatball mixture. Mix everything together until the eggs are evenly spread throughout.
  • Cover the mixture and place it in the fridge to chill.
A glass bowl filled with torn crusty bread rolls soaking in water.
Two hands are mixing together beef mince, salt, pepper, chopped parsley and parmesan cheese in a glass bowl.
Two hands are adding soaked bread to a beef mixture in a glass bowl.
Two hands are mixing the meatball mixture in a glass bowl.

Step 3: Preparing Vegetables and Sauce

  • For the sauce, grate the celery and dice the onion, peel and chop the carrot into small pieces, and crush the garlic cloves.
  • Heat the olive oil in a large pan with deep sides over medium heat. Make sure the pan is large enough to hold all the sauce and meatballs.
  • Add the grated celery and diced onion to the pan and fry until soft. Then add the crushed garlic and chopped carrot pieces, frying for another minute.
  • Pour in the white wine and allow it to reduce slightly.
  • Add the passata and chopped tomatoes to the pan, mixing everything together.
  • Season with salt, pepper, and sugar, stirring well.
A hand is using a grater to finely grate celery on a wooden chopping board with diced onion, chopped carrot and garlic cloves.
A hand is using a spatula to stir the vegetables in a pan as they fry.
A hand is preparing to pour passata in with the other tomato sauce ingredients in a large frying pan.
A hand is tipping salt and pepper into the tomato sauce to season it.

Step 4: Preparing and Cooking Meatballs

  • Once the sauce is bubbling, reduce the heat to low-medium and let it simmer uncovered for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking.
  • While the sauce simmers, remove the meat mixture from the fridge and shape it into large meatballs, ensuring they are evenly sized, somewhere between a golf ball and tennis ball. Set them aside on a plate.
  • After the sauce has simmered for 20 minutes, gently place the meatballs into the sauce and cover the pan with a lid. Let everything simmer together for another 20 minutes.
  • After 20 minutes, use a large spoon or slotted spoon to gently turn the meatballs over in the sauce. Simmer for an additional 20-30 minutes, or until the meatballs are cooked through.
Two hands are shaping the beef mixture into large meatballs.
A hand is holding a large meatball to show the size.
A hand is using a slotted spoon to gently place the meatballs in tomato sauce.
A hand is placing a lid on the large frying pan to cook the meatballs.
A hand is using a slotted spoon to turn the meatballs over in the tomato sauce.
A hand is placing a lid on the frying pan for the final phase of cooking.

Serving


FAQ

My meatballs are falling apart while cooking in the sauce. What did I do wrong?

Overmixing the meatball mixture can make them tough and prone to crumbling. Mix the ingredients gently until just combined. Additionally, ensure the meatballs are chilled for at least 30 minutes before cooking. Be careful not to overhandle them in the sauce either, carefully turn them once, halfway through the cooking time.

How can I tell when the meatballs are cooked through?

You can use a meat thermometer. The internal temperature of the cooked meatballs should reach 71°C (160°F). Alternatively, you can carefully cut one open in the middle. If the centre is no longer pink and the juices run clear, they’re done.

My sauce tastes too acidic. How can I fix it?

The acidity of tomatoes can vary. A small amount of sugar helps to balance it. If your sauce tastes too acidic after simmering, add a pinch of sugar at a time and taste until it reaches your desired flavour.

A large bowl filled with tomato-covered meatballs surrounded by ingredients and plates.

Pro Tips and Guidance

  • Mix Gently: Don’t overwork the meatball mixture. Mix until just combined to prevent tough meatballs.
  • Chilling Matters: Let the meatball mixture rest in the fridge for at least 30 minutes. This firms them up for easier shaping and prevents crumbling during cooking.
  • Stick to The Same Size: Form meatballs into uniform sizes for even cooking. Aim for a size between a golf ball and a tennis ball.
  • Simmer, Don’t Boil: Let the sauce simmer gently. This allows the flavours to develop without reducing it too much.
A person is holding a fork full of meatballs above a large bowl filled with meatballs and Italian tomato sauce.

Storage

Storage:

  • Cooked meatballs and sauce can be stored together in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 3 days. The flavours will actually meld and develop further over time.

Reheating:

  • Reheat leftover meatballs and sauce gently on the stovetop over low heat. Add a splash of water or broth to the pan to prevent sticking as the sauce reheats. Stir occasionally until completely heated through and the meatballs are hot in the centre.

Freezing:

  • Tomato Sauce: The sauce can also be frozen on its own. Let it cool completely, then transfer it to a labelled freezer-safe container and freeze for up to 3 months. Defrost overnight in the fridge before reheating.
  • Uncooked meatballs: Form the meatballs as directed, then flash freeze them on a baking sheet for about an hour. Once frozen solid, transfer them to a labelled freezer-safe bag or container for up to 3 months. You can defrost them in the fridge overnight or cook them directly from frozen in the simmering sauce, adding extra time to the cooking time to ensure they cook through completely.

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Two hands are cupping a bowl filled with beef meatballs covered in a tomato sauce.

Nonna’s Meatballs In Tomato Sauce – Polpette Di Nonna

5 from 2 votes
A one-pan recipe for giant, soft meatballs that comes straight from our Nonna's kitchen recipes. An authentic way to enjoy beef meatballs in a delicious tomato sauce without any pasta in sight!
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Course: Main Course
Cuisine: Italian
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 1 hour
Total Time: 1 hour 30 minutes
Servings: 10 Meatballs
Calories: 350kcal

Ingredients
  

For The Meatballs

  • 160 g Crusty Bread Roll, approx. 2 small rolls
  • 900 g Beef Mince, 12% Fat
  • 2 tbsp Fresh Parsley, finely chopped
  • 1 tsp Salt
  • 1 tsp Pepper
  • 30 g Parmesan Cheese, finely grated
  • 2 Medium Eggs

For The Tomato Sauce

  • 1 tbsp Olive Oil
  • 1 stick Celery
  • 1 small Red Onion
  • 1 Carrot
  • 2 cloves Garlic
  • 1.5 tbsp White Wine
  • 400 g Passata
  • 800 g Finely Chopped Tomatoes
  • 1 tbsp Sugar, or to taste
  • Salt and Pepper, to taste

Instructions

  • Fill a small bowl with hot water, then break the crusty bread roll into large chunks and soak them in the water.
  • In a large bowl, combine the beef mince, salt, pepper, finely chopped parsley, and finely grated parmesan cheese. Gently mix together with your fingers until evenly distributed.
  • Lift the soaked bread chunks out of the water, squeezing out the excess liquid back into the bowl, and leaving the soggy bread in your hands.
  • Add the squeezed bread to the mince mixture and mix it through gently as before.
  • Whisk the eggs briefly, then add them to the meatball mixture. Mix everything together until the eggs are evenly spread throughout.
  • Cover the mixture and place it in the fridge to chill.
  • For the sauce, grate the celery and dice the onion, peel and chop the carrot into small pieces, and crush the garlic cloves.
  • Heat the olive oil in a large pan with deep sides over medium heat. Make sure the pan is large enough to hold all the sauce and meatballs.
  • Add the grated celery and diced onion to the pan and fry until soft. Then add the crushed garlic and chopped carrot pieces, frying for another minute.
  • Pour in the white wine and allow it to reduce slightly.
  • Add the passata and chopped tomatoes to the pan, mixing everything together.
  • Season with salt, pepper, and sugar, stirring well.
  • Once the sauce is bubbling, reduce the heat to low-medium and let it simmer uncovered for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking.
  • While the sauce simmers, remove the meat mixture from the fridge and shape it into large meatballs, ensuring they are evenly sized, somewhere between a golf ball and tennis ball. Set them aside on a plate.
  • After the sauce has simmered for 20 minutes, gently place the meatballs into the sauce and cover the pan with a lid. Let everything simmer together for another 20 minutes.
  • After 20 minutes, use a large spoon or slotted spoon to gently turn the meatballs over in the sauce. Simmer for an additional 20-30 minutes, or until the meatballs are cooked through.
  • Once ready, serve the meatballs with freshly steamed greens and slices of fresh bread.

Recipe Notes

  • Mix Gently: Avoid overworking the meatball mixture to prevent tough meatballs. Mix until just combined.
  • Chilling Matters: Rest mixture in fridge for 30 mins for easier shaping and to prevent crumbling during cooking.
  • Stick to The Same Size: Form uniform-sized meatballs for even cooking, aiming for consistency between a golf ball and a tennis ball.
  • Simmer, Don’t Boil: Simmer sauce gently to develop flavours without reducing too much.

Nutrition Estimate

Calories: 350kcal | Carbohydrates: 18g | Protein: 21g | Fat: 21g | Saturated Fat: 8g | Polyunsaturated Fat: 1g | Monounsaturated Fat: 9g | Trans Fat: 1g | Cholesterol: 99mg | Sodium: 795mg | Potassium: 638mg | Fiber: 2g | Sugar: 6g | Vitamin A: 1473IU | Vitamin C: 14mg | Calcium: 97mg | Iron: 4mg

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