Italian meatballs in tomato sauce – the meal I enjoyed most as a child. Every Sunday my grandmother would wake at the crack of dawn to start her sauce, she called it gravy, loaded with meatballs and other assorted meat. I cannot think of a better smell to wake up to! The way she made it is the way my mother makes it, the way I make it, and the way my kids will make it when I’m long gone. And, hopefully, my family legacy will grace some of your dinner tables as well.
My Grandma’s sauce included pork and beef meatballs, beef braciole, Italian sausages (hot and sweet), and pork chops.
She started the sauce early and allowed it to simmer all day long.
She always made a lot of it. Like a ton.
I can still remember waking up on Sunday mornings to the smell of her sauce.
There was nothing like it. It took a lot of willpower to not sneak a taste every hour or so.
This is the dish that so many Italian-American families eat every Sunday. And many of us have our own version – we hope you enjoy ours!
Sunday sauce instructions
Note: Each number in the pics corresponds to the numbered directions.
- Dice one medium onion.
- In a large bowl empty the cans of the plum tomatoes. If you can’t fit all the tomatoes, just work in batches.
- With clean hands, crush the tomatoes with one hand and use the other to shield any splatter. If you don’t want to do this, pulse them in a blender for 2-3 seconds.
- In a large pot (large enough to accommodate 120 ounces of sauce and 2 pounds of meatballs), coat the bottom with a 1/2 cup of olive oil. Turn the heat to medium-low setting.
- Add in the onion and cook until just translucent. Avoid browning the onions and if necessary turn down the heat.
- Add in one 6-ounce can of tomato paste and spread it around the bottom of the pan.
- After about 5 minutes, the paste will start to redden the oil.
- Add in all the hand-crushed tomatoes, a 1/2 tsp of sugar, 1/2 tsp black pepper, and 1 tsp of kosher salt. Stir it all together and keep the sauce cooking at a very light simmer. Cover with a lid, leaving it slightly ajar. Every so often, (approximately every 15-30 minutes), stir the sauce to avoid any sticking.
So that’s the sauce. It’s nice to get it going and then turn to the task of making the meatballs.
Just stir it occasionally and keep the heat low. It needs to cook really slowly.
Tasting note: Our recipe is light on the spice rack herbs. Everyone has their own version, but we believe that excellent quality tomatoes and meatballs are the stars of this dish. When it comes to spices and herbs, less is definitely more here.
This recipe can easily be doubled or tripled. A lobster pot is a great convenience when making a large Italian Sunday dinner like this for a group.
If you don’t have one just get several smaller pots going.
Meatballs: step by step instructions
Note: You do not need to both bake and fry the meatballs. Choose only one of the two methods outlined below.
- Grate 3/4 cup of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese or use already grated cheese.
- Mince a 1/2 cup of fresh parsley.
- Make garlic paste out of 3 garlic cloves with the back of your knife like this or use a garlic press.
- Add the beef and pork to a large mixing bowl. Sprinkle with a 1/2 tsp black pepper and 2 tsp of kosher salt.
- Crack 2 large eggs into a mixing bowl and mix well.
- Add the fresh chopped parsley, grated Parmigiano Reggiano, garlic paste, and breadcrumbs to the meat mixture.
- Dry mix all the ingredients with your hands. Mix well but avoid over mixing.
- Add in the beaten eggs and again mix together. If the mix is too dry you can add another beaten egg.
- Form meatballs with your hands. The mixture will be slightly wet. To roll them properly, wet your hands or oil them prior to rolling to stop the meat from sticking.
- Form the meatballs to your desired size. This recipe will make roughly 12 meatballs as shown in pic 11.
- This step shows how to bake meatballs in the oven (if baking, skip steps 13-15). Preheat oven to 375f and place the formed meatballs on a wire rack and baking sheet combination. Bake the meatballs for approximately 25-30 minutes in the middle rack of the oven.
- They will look nice and brown as shown in pic 12.
- These next 3 steps show how to fry the meatballs (if frying, skip steps 11-12). In a large pan add a 1/2 cup olive oil and a 1/2 cup of canola oil and heat on medium. Test the oil by placing a wooden spoon into the oil and checking for small bubbles. If the bubbles are not too large, the oil is ready. If the bubbles are very large, just lower the heat a tad and wait 2 minutes before adding the meatballs.
- When the oil is ready, add the meatballs and fry on all sides until golden brown, turning carefully with a fork or spatula when required.
- The Italian meatballs will look nice and brown as shown in pic 15. When they are brown on all sides (about 10-15 minutes), remove them and place on a paper towel-lined plate to drain.
- Gently place the meatballs into the low simmering sauce, allowing them to further cook for about 1 hour.
The meatballs can be safely left cooking in the tomato sauce for 2-4 hours longer. Just keep the heat real low and stir occasionally. Once the meatballs are added to the sauce they will rarely break.
In picture A above – I’m adding the meatballs into the sauce and covering with a small opening to let them simmer and let the sauce evaporate and thicken slightly.
In picture B above – The meatballs have cooked for approximately 2 hours on low heat and the sauce has reduced by about 1″ in the pot. This would be a perfect time to start boiling some pasta water!
The full Sunday dinner
Obviously, pasta will be needed. If you want the traditional spaghetti and meatballs, go for it!
Though not pasta this sauce works great with homemade potato gnocchi too.
In our home, our go-to’s are tube-shaped pasta, such as rigatoni or penne rigate. When this recipe was photographed, my daughter picked tortiglioni.
Toss the pasta with some sauce and a touch of butter. The butter will allow the sauce to better cling to the pasta.
In most of the pasta recipes on this site, the pasta is cooked al dente and finished in the sauce with a touch of pasta water.
For Sunday sauce, especially if making multiple pounds of pasta, it’s easier to just mix it in a large platter or bowl.
Meatballs, sauce, and bread
Pile those meatballs in a bowl with extra sauce on the side. And most importantly, don’t forget a loaf or 2 of good Italian bread.
In our house, we don’t slice the bread because we all enjoy the act of tearing it ourselves (my wife always claims the heel) and dipping it in the extra sauce.
I prefer to not over-sauce my pasta, so serving the extra sauce on the side is also good for those who like theirs a bit saucier.
In our home, we always debate over Parmigiano Reggiano vs Pecorino Romano.
Tara adores Parmigiano Reggiano, but I’m all about the Pecorino. The meatballs are flavored with the former, but the latter is my go-to on all types of pasta recipes.
Half the time we end up serving both and let the individual make their own decision.
We also enjoy adding a dollop of ricotta cheese to our Sunday pasta every now and again. It changes the texture and is a delicious and creamy add-on.
Side dishes that work
This meal is hearty, so why not lighten it up a bit with some veggies. A few of our tried and true are:
- Italian broccoli – simple garlicky side dish.
- Garlic sauteed broccoli rabe – delicious bitter green sauteed with garlic and oil.
- Italian green beans in garlic and oil – crispy green beans sauteed in garlic and olive oil.
- String beans with tomato sauce – stewed green beans in garlicky tomato sauce.
And don’t forget to end the meal with a green salad with our homemade Italian vinaigrette.
- Meat – Chuck, which has a large amount of fat and flavor, and ground pork are a great combo for juicy, tender meatballs. Avoid using really lean meat if at all possible. A touch of milk can help to keep the meatballs juicy. Use a half-cup for this recipe, especially if using lean chop meat.
- Mixing the meatballs – It’s crucial to not over-mix a meatball and not to form them too tightly. Making them by hand, forming them in a less than perfect manner gives you that home-cooked taste that is often lacking in commercial kitchen meatballs that are scooped, weighed and machine rolled.
- Breadcrumbs – The amount this recipe calls for is a fair compromise in the meat to breadcrumb ratio. Obviously adding too many breadcrumbs will make them harder, so pay attention to the amount used. Less is more.
- Eggs – 2 eggs is a good starting point, but don’t be shy about using an extra one if the mix is too dry. The eggs act as a binder and ensure the meatballs can be formed properly.
- Let the meatballs cook – Leave them in the sauce (minimum 1 hour) on real low heat to slowly braise and absorb the flavors of the homemade tomato sauce.
- How to thicken the sauce – With or without paste the sauce can be thickened by simply opening the lid to allow quicker evaporation. Conversely, to slow the thickening process keep the sauce fully covered.
- Leftovers – The meatballs and sauce can be stored in the fridge for 2-3 days and reheated on the stove-top. Don’t forget to make meatball parm heroes with the leftovers! If the sauce is a little too thick, just add a touch of water to loosen it up. Or if needed, just toss in another can of hand-crushed plum tomatoes to increase the amount of sauce. We do this all the time!
- Freezing – The sauce and meatballs freeze well, and taste even better when used a month later.
Want more meatballs?
- Sicilian-style meatballs – With raisins, pine nuts, Pecorino Romano, garlic, and parsley.
- Italian sausage meatballs – Sausage is used in place of chopped meat for amazing flavor!
- Turkey meatballs – Tender (not dry) turkey meatballs.
- Mushroom meatballs – Uses portobello mushrooms for an earthy flavor and meaty texture.
- Eggplant meatballs – These eggplant meatballs are an easy change up to the traditional!
If you’ve enjoyed this Sunday sauce and meatballs recipe or any recipe on this site, give it a 5-star rating and tell us about it in the comments below.
We would love to hear how you did and it’s nice to show others as well. Thanks!
Italian Meatballs And Sunday Sauce Recipe
For The Sauce
- 4 28 ounce cans San Marzano plum tomatoes hand crushed or blender pulsed
- 1 6 ounce can tomato paste
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 1 medium onion diced
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- 1/2 tsp black pepper
- 1/2 tsp sugar
For The Meatballs
- 1 pound ground chuck
- 1 pound ground pork
- 1 1/2 cups unseasoned breadcrumbs
- 3/4 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano
- 1/2 cup fresh parsley minced
- 2-3 large eggs
- 3 cloves garlic paste
- 2 tsp kosher salt
- 1/2 tsp black pepper
For The Sauce
- Dice 1 onion. In a large bowl hand crush the tomatoes. Alternatively, pulse the tomatoes in a blender for 2-3 seconds.
- Coat the bottom of a large heavy pot with a 1/2 cup of olive oil and saute the onions on medium-low heat until translucent (about 5 minutes). Add the tomato paste to the onions and cook for 5 minutes, spreading the paste around with a wooden spoon.
- Add in all the hand crushed tomatoes, 1 tsp of kosher salt, 1/2 tsp black pepper and 1/2 tsp of sugar. Stir the sauce until incorporated and cook on a low simmer with the lid left slightly ajar. Stir the sauce every so often (very important!) to avoid sticking. The sauce should cook on low heat for at least 2.5 to 3 hours but longer will be better.
For The Meatballs
- Begin by grating 3/4 cup of parmigiano reggiano, mincing a half cup of fresh parsley, and creating garlic paste from 3 garlic cloves.
- Add the beef and ground pork to a large mixing bowl and season with 2 tsp kosher salt and a 1/2 tsp black pepper. In a small bowl beat 2 eggs and set aside.
- To the meat, add the breadcrumbs, grated cheese, parsley and garlic paste. Pour the eggs in and mix everything together. If the mixture is too dry, add one more egg to the mix.
- With wet hands roll approximately 2" size meatballs. The meatballs can be baked on a sheet pan with wire rack at 375f for 25-30 minutes or until brown in the middle of oven.
- Place the browned meatballs in the sauce and cook for a minimum of 1 hour on low heat to allow the meatballs to absorb the flavor of and braise in the sauce.
- When the meatballs are finished, serve with choice of pasta, grated cheese and Italian bread. Enjoy!
- Calories - The calorie info reflects the addition of 1 pound of pasta.
- Salt - Salt is necessary for flavorful meatballs. A good amount is 1 tsp per pound of meat, which is what the recipe calls for.
- Meat - Chuck, which has a large amount of fat and flavor, and ground pork are a great combo for juicy tender meatballs. Avoid using really lean meats if at all possible.
- Mixing the meatballs - It's crucial to not over-mix a meatball and to not form them too tightly. Use wet hands and roll the meatballs by hand until there are no cracks.
- Breadcrumb amount - The amount this recipe calls for is a fair compromise in the meat to breadcrumb ratio.
- Eggs - 2 eggs is a good starting point, but don't be shy about using an extra one if the mix is too dry. The eggs are the binder and ensure the meatballs can be formed properly.
- Let the meatballs cook - Leave them in the sauce (minimum 1 hour) on real low heat to slowly braise and absorb the flavors of the homemade tomato sauce.
- How to make the sauce thicker - With or without paste the sauce can be thickened by simply opening the lid to allow quicker evaporation. Conversely, to slow the thickening process keep the sauce pot fully covered.
- Leftovers - The meatballs and sauce can be stored in the fridge for 2-3 days and reheated on the stove-top. If the sauce is a little too thick, just add a touch of water to loosen it up. Or if needed, just toss in another can of crushed plum tomatoes to increase the amount of sauce and let it cook for 30 minutes to incorporate into the existing sauce.
- Freezing - The sauce and meatballs can be frozen. Reuse them by thawing in the fridge, then cooking on the stove-top until heated through.
Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.