If spaghetti and meatballs were a type of clothing, they would be sweatpants.
Warm, uber-soft, covered in nutty parmesan cheese…
Wait. I think I lost my train of thought.
Even though I didn’t grow up with a “nonna” who hovered over a bubbling stewpot of marinara sauce all day and slapped my hand away as I reached for a taste, I still appreciate Italian comfort food classics.
And, in my opinion, spaghetti and meatballs is undeniably at the top of the “greatest hits” list when it comes to rustic pasta perfection.
Although this staple is widely categorized as being an authentic Italian dish, you likely won’t find it on a menu in Italy. Though various regions throughout the country have their own version of the mounds of beef (known as polpettes), they’re often eaten without the spaghetti.
Instead of making you hungry with a long history lesson, I’ll just say this: the Americanized dish we’re familiar with today actually originated from Italian immigrants who came to America in the early 1900s.
Now, back to your regular programming…
Not only do I have a Jewish (not Italian) grandmother, I have two parents who prefer poultry over beef.
As young adults, my Philadelphia-rooted mom and dad did indulge in their fair share of cheesesteaks and fast food hamburgers (so I’m told). But today, their diets don’t include red meat.
And though I’ve seen my mom partake in the occasional prosciutto-wrapped fig (as there aren’t any religious reasonings to their preferences), they both simply favor chicken and fish over ribeyes and roasts.
When my dad, the head chef in our family, is in the mood for Italian, his homemade specialties include tender turkey meatballs, exquisite chicken marsala with wild mushrooms, and mouthwatering marinara-slathered grilled eggplant rollatini or parmesan.
Although these delicious dishes were branded into my own personal cooking inventory, I always had a soft spot for juicy red meat.
So when it comes to the versions made in my kitchen – it’s ground beef or bust.
I love tinkering with different methods of forming hearty rounds, from searing to baking to dropping them straight into a pool of red sauce.
Each technique has its own benefits for use in various dishes, but when I’m in the mood for a traditional dinner, baking gives me the best results every time.
The high temperature gives the balls a golden crust and drains off some of the fat.
The onions and garlic slowly release their caramelized juices as they cook, imparting even more flavor.
It can be tough (no pun intended) to get the texture right, but it’s all about the proper combination of ingredients that bind.
When it’s all said and done, what are you left with?
Light, airy, perfectly held-together orb of beef that are just begging to be plunked in savory sauce made with juicy tomatoes and swirled up into a forkful of spaghetti.
Add a full-bodied red and a side of actual sweatpants, and I’d call this a comfort food classic even my Jewish grandmother would slap my hand away from if I tried to sneak a sample too soon.Print
When it comes to classic Italian comfort food, nothing beats garlicky meatballs baked and simmered in savory red sauce, served over perfectly cooked spaghetti.
- 6 cups simple marinara (or store-bought)
- 1 slice stale white bread (or 1/2 cup dry breadcrumbs)
- 1/4 cup whole milk
- 1 pound ground beef (preferably 80% lean/20% fat)
- 1 large egg, lightly beaten
- 1 small yellow onion, minced
- 3 large cloves garlic, minced
- 3/4 cup grated parmesan cheese, divided
- 6 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley, divided
- 1 teaspoon coarse salt
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
- Nonstick cooking oil spray
- 1 pound uncooked spaghetti
- Preheat oven to 400°F. Place the marinara in a large, wide stew pot over medium heat. Allow it to come to a gentle simmer, reduce the heat to low, and then cover with a lid.
- If you’re using sliced bread, place it in the food processor and pulse until fine breadcrumbs form.
- Add the breadcrumbs, milk, ground beef, egg, onions, garlic, 1/2 cup of the parmesan, 4 tablespoons of the parsley, and the salt and pepper to a large bowl. Gently fold the mixture together, making sure not to overwork the meat.
- Using about 2 tablespoons as your size guideline, form the mixture into equally-sized meatballs. You’ll end up with approximately 20-24 of them.
- Place the meatballs on a baking sheet coated lightly with nonstick cooking spray. Bake until the meatballs are lightly golden brown and cooked through, about 15 minutes.
- Meanwhile, cook the spaghetti in boiling water according to the package directions, drain, and set aside.
- Add the meatballs to the marinara and cover the pot. Simmer the meatballs in the sauce for 5 minutes.
- Divide the spaghetti, meatballs, and marinara among plates. Garnish with the remaining parsley and parmesan cheese.
- Category: Beef
- Method: Stovetop/Baking
- Cuisine: Italian
Keywords: Italian, meatball, spaghetti, pasta, marinara
Cooking By the Numbers…
Step 1 – Warm the Marinara and Chop the Onions, Garlic, and Parsley
Preheat the oven to 400°F, and place the marinara in a large, wide stew pot over medium heat. Allow it to come to a gentle simmer, reduce the heat to low, and then cover it with a lid.
Step 2 – Make the Breadcrumb and Beef Mixture
If you’re using sliced bread, place it in the food processor and pulse until fine breadcrumbs form.
In a large bowl, add the breadcrumbs, milk, ground beef, egg, onions, garlic, 1/2 cup of the grated parmesan, 4 tablespoons of the parsley, and the salt and pepper, and gently fold the mixture together. Don’t overwork the meat, or it will get tough.
Step 3 – Form the Meatballs
Spray a large baking sheet with nonstick cooking spray and set it next to the bowl of beef.
Using about 2 tablespoons as your size guideline, form the mixture into equal-size spheres and place them onto the baking sheet as you go, spaced about 1 inch apart.
An easy way to keep the beef mixture from sticking to your hands is to keep a bowl of cold water nearby that you can occasionally dip your hands into between forming each one. You’ll end up with approximately 20-24.
Step 4 – Bake and Cook the Spaghetti
Bake until they are lightly golden brown and cooked through. This will take about 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the spaghetti according to the package directions, drain it in a colander, and set it aside.
Step 5 – Simmer in the Marinara
Remove the pan from the oven. Transfer the meatballs to the marinara sauce and cover the pot. Simmer over low heat for 5 minutes.
Step 6 – Divide Among Plates and Garnish
Divide the spaghetti, meatballs, and marinara among plates by either tossing the spaghetti into the marinara, or simply dividing the spaghetti among plates and topping each with a portion of every component.
Garnish each plate with the remaining parsley and grated parmesan cheese.
Spaghetti, Meet Balls
Has there ever been a more beautiful relationship than the one between juicy mini mounds of beef, and spaghetti swaddled in tomato sauce?
If you ask me, the song is called “That’s A-more” because everybody always wants seconds. But don’t take my word for it. Make this entree yourself at home and watch everything disappear before your very eyes.
One of my favorite tips to take this dish over the top is swapping in a more fiercely flavored cheese for the parmesan. Pecorino romano is slightly sharper and wildly saltier, and aged asiago is tangy and dry.
If you give one of these a try, don’t be shy. Nothing bad ever happened from adding too much cheese. Not that I know of, at least.
Craving even more meatball dishes like this one? Give these hand-rolled recipes a try next:
- Italian Meatballs with Red Sauce and Roasted Vegetables
- Goulash with Turkey Meatballs
- Sweet and Tangy Meatballs
What types of additional aromatics make your homemade recipes pop? Crushed red pepper flakes? Fresh basil and oregano?
Share your spaghetti secrets in the comments below! And don’t forget to give this dish a five-star rating if you loved it.
Photos by Fanny Slater, © Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Originally published on October 14, 2010. Last updated October 13, 2020.
Nutritional information derived from a database of known generic and branded foods and ingredients and was not compiled by a registered dietitian or submitted for lab testing. It should be viewed as an approximation.
About Fanny Slater
Fanny Slater is a home-taught food enthusiast based in Wilmington, North Carolina who won the “Rachael Ray Show” Great American Cookbook Competition in 2014, and published her cookbook “Orange, Lavender & Figs” in 2016. Fanny is a food and beverage writer, recipe developer, and social media influencer. She was a co-host on the Food Network series “Kitchen Sink,” was featured on Cooking Channel’s longtime popular series “The Best Thing I Ever Ate,” and continues to appear regularly on the “Rachael Ray Show.”