This is the best spaghetti and meatballs recipe for an incredibly delicious version of the much-loved comfort food classic with juicy meatballs and a rich tomato sauce made from scratch. The spaghetti is combined with the sauce before serving in the Italian style, then topped with the meatballs, plenty of Parmigiano Reggiano and fresh basil. Serve the second it’s ready with crusty bread.
Our best spaghetti and meatballs recipe makes one of our best pasta recipes, as the key ingredients are made from scratch, from a rich deeply flavoured tomato sauce to the juiciest, tastiest homemade meatballs that simmer in the sauce, which the spaghetti is stirred in before being plated.
A generous sprinkle of Parmigiano Reggiano and fragrant fresh basil leaves complete this classic comfort food favourite. The only things we haven’t made are the dried pasta and Parmigiano Reggiano, because Italians do both better.
My spaghetti and meatballs recipe incorporates two recipes I’ve shared in recent weeks, the rich tomato sauce recipe – which I also used on this classic chicken parma recipe – and my homemade Italian meatballs recipe, however, for your convenience I’ve combined both recipes into this recipe.
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Best Spaghetti and Meatballs Recipe for the Comfort Food Favourite from Southern Italy
Mum made delicious spaghetti and meatballs when I was growing up. What mum didn’t in the 1970s when Italian recipes in magazines were influenced by the home-cooked Southern Italian food dished up in rustic Italian restaurants and pizzerias with red and white checked tablecloths owned by families of first generation Southern Italian immigrants?
My best spaghetti and meatballs recipe tastes very much like those spaghetti and meatballs we loved in the Seventies that originated in the Italian diaspora, with an injection of Southern Italian authenticity plucked from spaghetti and meatballs recipes from Calabria and Sicily.
Because while spaghetti and meatballs came to us from the Italian diaspora and is often called an Italian-American dish, Italian-Australian dish or Italian-British dish, spaghetti and meatballs was indeed a dish of Southern Italy, made in numerous forms in different towns, villages and homes of the region.
It is with Southern Italians from Abruzzo, Puglia, Calabria, and Sicily that Italian food travelled from Italy to the Americas, Australia and beyond, where it would be served up as it always was or adapted to suit the availability of local produce and ingredients, and local tastes.
In the Italian diasporas, the best of the food of Southern Italy – the heart of povera cucina, the ‘poor cooking’ or ‘peasant cooking’ of the countryside – often stayed in the home or was only served up in the cheaper local Italian restaurants and Italian cafés in the suburbs that Italians frequented.
The menus of the fancier Italian restaurants in the city and inner-city would feature specialties of Italy’s gastronomic capitals in Central and Northern Italy, such as Bologna (lasagne, tagliatelli Bolognese), Milan (risotto alla Milanese), Rome (spaghetti carbonara), Genoa (pesto alla Genovese), and so on.
If you think about how regional Italian cooking is – if it weren’t for tourists asking for dishes outside their regions, you probably wouldn’t find carbonara in Venice or pesto Genovese in Rome – it’s therefore not surprising that the average Northern Italian might know that spaghetti and meatballs is made in Southern Italy and didn’t originate in New York and Sydney.
Travel around Italy’s south and ask around and you might be pointed to a specific restaurant or particular village, because ‘spaghetti and meatballs’ is still a dish that’s mainly cooked in the home. Meatballs are ‘polpette’ for the regular size or ‘polpettini’ for small meatballs.
In Puglia, look out for a dish made with fried meatballs with a ragu-like pasta sauce also made with meat, while in Calabria, meatballs are often made with veal, bread soaked in milk, eggs, and parsley and are cooked in the sauce. And the pasta is not always with spaghetti.
The best known Southern Italian version of spaghetti and meatballs is spaghetti alla chitarra with pallotine, which are tiny meatballs that are a specialty of Abruzzo made with minced veal, bread soaked in milk, salt and pepper, and nutmeg.
‘Chitarra’ is of course ‘guitar’, because the spaghetti-like pasta which is square-shaped rather than round is crafted with a pasta-maker that resembles the string instrument. The basis of the tomato sauce is onion, garlic and tomato. Just a few tips to making my my best spaghetti and meatballs recipe.
Tips for Making our Best Spaghetti and Meatballs Recipe
I only have a few quick tips to making my my best spaghetti and meatballs recipe as there’s lots of detail in the recipe below and you’ll find a lot more tips in the recipe posts for the rich tomato sauce and juicy meatballs. Links above.
My first tip is not to cut corners. I completely understand why time-poor home cooks with families use store-bought pasta sauces. After a long day juggling the competing demands of family, work and chores at home, the last thing some of you probably want to do is spend a couple of hours in the kitchen cooking.
But this will not taste the same with a store-bought tomato sauce. You really must make the tomato sauce from scratch. It makes all the difference and it really doesn’t take that long. So don’t make this unless you have the time.
Like most cuisines, Italian cuisine is based on using the best quality ingredients. Those poor Italian peasants who invented povera cucina were still cooking with quality fresh produce from their own farms or markets or produce that was traded with their neighbours.
Our best spaghetti and meatballs recipe calls for quality canned Italian tomatoes or the best quality you can source and afford. We’ve learnt from tasting them from the tin although you can quickly ascertain the quality by looking at them: if they’re not a vibrant red colour and are more orange-red with a little yellow-green and they taste a tad acidic, then they’re not going to be great.
One way to improve their taste is to sprinkle on a little salt after popping them in the pan and then add a little sugar during the cooking process. Seasoning does wonders but start with the best quality and you won’t need to season very much at all.
Also use proper Parmigiano Reggiano or aged Pecorino Romano (not fresh), even if you buy a small wedge and use it sparingly. Avoid the grated ‘parmesan cheese’ that looks like saw dust, as there’s a reason for that. Tests found that some brands contained cellulose, made from wood pulp.
Serve with a fresh crispy garden salad and crusty bread – it’s not very Italian to the serve the salad and bread alongside the spaghetti and meatballs, of course. That’s definitely a tradition created in the Italian diaspora.
Best Spaghetti and Meatballs Recipe
- 4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 6 garlic cloves - peeled and lightly pounded in a mortar and pestle
- ½ tsp chilli flakes
- 1 large whole onion - peeled, finely diced
- 2 400 g cans crushed tomatoes - best quality you can source
- 2 tbsp tomato paste
- 2 tsp sea salt
- 1 tsp sugar - optional
- 2 tbsp virgin olive oil
- 250 g onion - finely diced
- 40 g white bread - crusts removed
- 4 tbsp whole milk
- 400 g ground fatty pork
- 250 g ground beef
- 1 egg - whisked
- 60 g ricotta cheese – or another white cheese
- 20 g grated parmesan cheese
- 20 g grated pecorino cheese
- 2 tbsp fresh flat leaf parsley or celery leaves - finely chopped
- 2 tsp salt
- 2 tsp white pepper
- 1 tsp sugar
- 2 tsp ground paprika
- ¼ tsp garlic powder
- 1 tsp salt
- 220 g spaghetti
- 4 tbsp Parmigiano Reggiano - grated
- 2 tbsp fresh basil leaves - roughly chopped or torn
- First, make our rich Italian tomato sauce recipe: to a large frying pan or skillet, over medium-high heat, add the extra virgin olive oil and heat, then add the garlic cloves and fry for a minute or so until fragrant, then add the chilli flakes, stirring well with a wooden spoon or spatula to combine.
- When the garlic cloves start to brown and sizzle and splutter, remove the cloves and set them aside but do not discard. Immediately add the finely diced onions to the pan and fry, stirring only occasionally so the onions don’t burn and adjusting the heat as necessary, until they’re soft, almost translucent and aromatic.
- Add the crushed tomatoes, tomato paste, and sea salt, and stir to combine well. If you’re a garlic lover, return the garlic cloves to the sauce now; if you’re not, leave them out. Turn the heat to high so the sauce is bubbling. It will reduce fairly quickly on high heat, so stir the sauce occasionally.
- When the tomato sauce is thick and luscious, turn the heat to low, taste, and adjust the seasoning, adding more salt if needed; if it’s a little acidic, add some sugar. Leave to simmer while you make the meatballs.
- Next, prepare the meatballs: in a fry pan or round flat-bottomed wok, heat the olive oil and fry the diced onion until soft and translucent, then transfer to a dish and refrigerate to cool to room temperature.
- In a large mixing bowl, soak the white bread in whole milk, then add the ground fatty pork and ground beef, whisked egg, ricotta, parmesan and pecorino cheeses, fried onion, chopped flat leaf parsley or celery leaves, and seasonings, and combine with your hands.
- Using a tablespoon and kitchen scales, scoop out 40 g of the ground meat mixture and roll it a few times between your two hands to form a meat ball. Don’t over-roll as you want the mixture loose to produce a more rustic meatball rather than a tight ball. Transfer it to a tray and repeat until you’ve used up all the mixture, then refrigerate until ready to fry.
- To another large frying pan/skillet over medium heat, add the olive oil and heat until hot, then, using long tongs, transfer enough meatballs to fill the pan without touching. Fry the meatballs until they’re brown, using the tongs to rotate so that they’re evenly coloured, then transfer to the pan in which the tomato sauce is simmering. Repeat until all meatballs are fried and are simmering in the tomato sauce.
- Bring a large pot of water to boil, add a teaspoon of salt, then add the spaghetti to the boiling salted water and cook for as long as the packet instructions direct until al dente.
- Reserve a metric cup of cooking water before draining the spaghetti into a colander.
- Return half a cup of the cooking water to the pot, then the spaghetti, then use a ladle or large serving spoon to transfer four scoops of tomato sauce to the pot and combine well, adding a little more cooking water if needed.
- Distribute the spaghetti between the bowls, along with the tomato sauce and meatballs, sprinkle a tablespoon of grated Parmigiano Reggiano and fresh basil leaves onto the meatballs, and serve immediately with crusty bread.
Please do let us know in the comments below if you make our best spaghetti and meatballs recipe for the comfort food favourite from Southern Italy, as we’d love to know how it turns out for you.