Food and Wine

Weekend Cooking: Italian Meatballs and Gravy

I am on a quest.

In preparation for our family trip to Italy in 2021 – as well as fueling my interest in researching my husband’s ancestry – I am learning to prepare authentic Italian recipes in my home kitchen.

It all began a few weeks ago when I took myself on an artist date to the local farmer’s market. The open-air stalls of fresh produce reminded me of Europe. I followed up that visit with a trip to the library where I found several cookbooks to help me on my quest.

Each book offered a different flavor of the country – but two, in particular, reminded me of my husband’s grandmother. I purchased them immediately: Cooking with Nonna by Rossella Rago and Italian Moms by Elisa Costantini. I will review each of these in more detail later this summer.

Spaghetti and Meatballs intimidate me. My mother-in-law made the best “Ronis and Gravy” according to my then four-year-old daughter and Cora’s meatballs were a meal unto themselves. Rather than set myself up for failure, I settled for jar sauce and frozen balls.

Yet this simple, classic dish is what my husband craves. So… I conquered my fears and entered the kitchen ready to experiment. I must admit – the first effort was not half-bad. I need to work on my bread-mashing technique for the meatballs, and I want to try tweaking the sauce a bit. But for the most part, we thoroughly enjoyed this debut effort.

Italian Meatballs

(from the book: It Ain’t Sauce, It’s Gravy by Steve Martorano)


  • 1/2 cup Italian parsley fresh, finely chopped (I used 1 tablespoon dried parsley)
  • 1 pound hoagie rolls (stale)
  • 1/2 pound ground beef
  • 1/2 pound ground veal
  • 1/2 pound ground pork
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 2 teaspoons black pepper, freshly ground
  • 2 teaspoons granulated garlic
  • 1 egg extra large
  • 1/2 cup Parmigiano Reggiano, grated
  • 1/2 cup breadcrumbs, unseasoned
  • 3 cups vegetable oil


  1. Slice bread into 1/2 inch pieces, add water and mash with your hands until it’s smooth and the water is incorporated – about 6 or 7 minutes. The bread should have firm but doughy texture.
  2. Add meats (I used equal parts beef and pork and eliminated the veal), salt, pepper, and granulated garlic to the bread. Knead well until all ingredients are thoroughly mixed.
  3. Add the egg, the Parmigiano, and parsley. Knead again until all ingredients are well-combined.
  4. Finally, add bread crumbs and knead well again.
  5. Divide mixture into rather large balls (5.5 ounces). Should make approximately 18-20 meatballs.
  6. In a large frying pan, heat vegetable oil to 325 degrees. Cook meatballs in batches. Cook until brown all over and internal temperature reaches 150 degrees.
  7. NOTE: I browned the meatballs in the oil and then finished baking them in the oven for about twenty minutes at 325 degrees. Meatballs had a crunchy exterior but juicy on the inside. Delicioso!
Sunday Sauce (Gravy)

(adapted from Tony Danza’s recipe on Foodnetwork)


  • 2 (35-ounce) cans plum tomatoes with basil (I used Cento San Marzano peeled tomatoes)
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 4 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 cup red wine
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup water
  • 1/2 cup fresh basil leaves, cut into thin strips


  1. Strain tomatoes in a colander to extract the juice, breaking the tomatoes apart with your hands, Discard the pulp and set aside.
  2. Heat the olive oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add 4 cloves of garlic, onion, red pepper flakes and black pepper. Saute until the onion is soft and beginning to turn brown – about 5 minutes.
  3. Add juiced tomatoes, red wine, Parmesan, and salt.
  4. Simmer over low heat at least 30 minutes (longer if possible to allow the flavors to meld).
  5. NOTE: next time I make the recipe I want to try my mother-in-law’s trick of browning beef bones in the olive oil before adding the garlic and onion. I think it would give an extra depth of flavor to the sauce that would pair well with any pasta.

This post is part of BethFishReads Weekend Cooking LinkUp. For more delicious recipes, please visit her weekly blog feature.


  • mae

    Your recipes sound quite nice. However, I’m horrified at the thought of throwing away the pulp from the tomatoes — there are so many wonderful uses for it!

    When I make a large quantity of meatballs I always bake them on cookie sheet lined with a silpat mat or aluminum foil at a high temperature like 475º. They still end up with that nice brown exterior that you mentioned. Much easier than frying, and ends up with a bit less fat in the sauce too.

    Good luck with your experiment!

    best… mae at

    • Molly Totoro

      I don’t mean to horrify, Mae 🙂 My husband can’t stand the tomato seeds… so this is a normal preparation method for us. I do, however, measure the wine in the tomato can to use every last remaining drop.

    • Molly Totoro

      I thought about that, Ellen. I’m going to try using the soaked bread/breadcrumb combo one more time and then that will be my next plan of action 🙂

  • Beth F

    Mr. BFR’s mother made spaghetti and meatballs often, though she was British through and through. I don’t know why I rarely make this dinner. I need to correct that. Both your recipes look terrific.

    • Molly Totoro

      I did not grow up Italian – so spaghetti and meatballs was considered a “special” dinner. My husband could easily eat the meal once a week 🙂 I try to compromise and fix something with tomato sauce about twice a month.

    • Molly Totoro

      I think Italian cooking is VERY personal, Carole. I tend to add a little less garlic to suit my taste but my son always adds more to his cooking. I would say if you want to eliminate the garlic… do so 🙂

    • Molly Totoro

      I don’t eat them often either… although now that I have a recipe I can make (and like) I may be adding them to the regular menu rotation 🙂

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