Italian-American Spaghetti and Meatballs Recipe

"Spaghetti and Meatballs," from Make It Like a Man!

Like the lasagna recipe I posted last year, Spaghetti and Meatballs is another of Lidia Bastianich’s spectacular recipes. And, again like that lasagna, once I tried her recipe, it became definitive for this dish as far as my cooking repertoire is concerned. It’s celebratory, excessive in ways … worthy of a special dinner. (5 / 5)

This one is not nearly as massive an undertaking as the lasagna, and it’s not difficult. Lidia’s recipe produces six, nice-sized meatballs, about 4.75 oz. each before cooking, and one per serving is somwhere between plenty and the kind of meal that wants to be followed by a nice, long nap … especially if it’s accompanied by a bottle of red wine. Regardless, it’s so delicious that you’re going to want more than one meatball. That may not mean seconds, but if not, it will mean leftovers – which is cool, because this stuff reheats beautifully. That’s one of the reasons that I usually double her recipe, as I have here, and make a dozen meatballs. The other reason is to take advantage of economies of scale. Making twice as much is only slightly more effort. You’re going to whip the excess into lunch or dinner days or months later with breezy ease, and it will be just as fantastic as it was the first time around.

You might have some doubts about the sauce. It seems too simple. However, magic happens when you cook the meatballs in it. It becomes thick, rich, and substantial. The spices give it just the tiniest kick.

What you need to serve 12:


7 lbs. canned Italian tomatoes. (That’s 112 oz.)
½ cup olive oil
1 large white onion, chopped (about 2 cups)
2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
4 bay leaves
Salt and pepper

"Spaghetti and Meatballs," from Make It Like a Man!


1 lb ground pork
1 lb ground beef
2 cups fine, dry breadcrumbs
⅔ cup freshly-grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
½ cup chopped fresh Italian parsley
4 cloves garlic
2 eggs
2 tsp salt
½ tsp pepper
Olive oil


2 lbs spaghetti
1⅓ cups shredded Parmesan

How to do it:

These are abbreviated directions. See “Lidia’s Italian American Kitchen,” Knopf NY, 2003, pg. 134-35.

Crush or mill the tomatoes. Sauté the onions in oil until soft. Add the tomatoes. Simmer for a half-hour. Mix all the meatball ingredients except the flour and oil. Dredge. Brown. Submerge in sauce and cook gently for 30 minutes. Serve with spaghetti and cheese.

"Spaghetti and Meatballs," from Make It Like a Man!


The recipe is so straightforward, that there are very few shortcuts or clarifications that I can give you. But it would be truly unlike me to have nothing to say, so…

  1. Do they really have to be Italian tomatoes? Yes. I’ve tried American brands; they lack character. The difference in price is eyebrow-raising. However, even if you buy pricey tomatoes, this is not an expensive dish in the long run. If all you have are the spices, the rest of the ingredient list might cost you $38 – and that’s including the Italian tomatoes and a pricy hunk of high-class Parmesan. Divided by the number of servings, we’re talking right around $3 per.
  2. If you don’t have a food mill, you can crush the tomatoes by hand. You just – wash your hands, you animal – empty the cans into a large mixing bowl, then shove your hand in and start crushing the tomatoes. There’s an art to it: you have to hold the tomato fully submerged in liquid before you squish it. Otherwise, it will send spurts flying around at you, your clothes, your face, the counter, the walls, and the floor. Seven pounds of tomatoes is a lot; you’re going to be well past your wrist, deep into it. It’s sort of gross in an extremely cool way. In the end, you won’t get a result as uniformly sauced as a food mill, but the crushed tomatoes will break down during cooking and you’ll wind up with a beautifully chunky sauce. Plus, you will have had a great time. (I learned this trick from Lidia, by the way. I mean, not personally, but from watching her on PBS.)
  3. I rarely cross paths with a 35-oz. can of tomatoes. The stores I frequent stock 28-oz.cans. But they also stock those awesome 106-oz. mofos! Pick up one of those bad-asses and supplement it with a small can.
  4. You can use store-bought breadcrumbs – the typical kind with the consistancy of sand. That is, in fact, what the reicpe calls for. But you can also use homemade crumbs – so long as they’re dry. I used more of the wealth of leftover bread I still have from that stuffed French bread recipe, hacked to oblivion in a food processor.
  5. Lidia browns her meatballs in a large amount of oil, half olive and half vegetable. I use quite a bit less, 100% olive. I eyeball it, using about twice the amount I would for a typically sauté.
  6. To make this ahead, finish it completely, let it cool, and store it in the fridge. To reheat, separate the meatballs from the sauce, place each in separate, covered pots, and bake at 350ºF for about an hour.

"Spaghetti and Meatballs," from Make It Like a Man!

Spaghetti and Meatballs

Credit for images on this page: Make It Like a Man! This content was not solicited, nor written in exchange for anything. In doing research for this recipe, I came across this quote at the Smithsonian: “Don’t think I’m pretentious enough to teach you how to make meatballs. This is a dish that everybody can make, starting with the donkey.” I nonetheless persisted.

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22 thoughts on “Italian-American Spaghetti and Meatballs Recipe

  1. Quite a few years ago I met my living Italian relatives, originally from Sicily. Long story, but I never knew my father or that side of the family. Anyway, one night they made us dinner of noodles and… Ragu! Out of the jar! I almost fainted. So for me, “Italian-American” doesn’t really have a good connotation!!! But the food, although neapolitanized (is that the word?) can still be good with good ingredients, and this is proof!!!
    mimi recently posted…Cast-Iron Grilled Chicken

  2. Yup, I need these meatballs in my life. Well, I guess I just need one of these meatballs in my life. This reminds me of the spaghetti + meatballs they served this past weekend at the curling tournament I went to. They cut the meatballs into quarters…I guess to make them easier to dish out and eat? I ate 8 quarters. Then I wanted to take a nap. That’s how I roll.
    David @ Spiced recently posted…Scallops and Roasted Veggies Quinoa Bowl

    • David, I totally get you. I ate two of these in one sitting and fell immediately into food coma.

  3. Hi Jeff,
    Can I pulse those tomatoes a batch at a time in a blender? My wife, god love her, is not a fan of anything resembling chunks of tomatoes in her food.

    • Hey Justin! I’d recommend you start with tomato sauce instead of whole tomatoes. Then you won’t have that problem.

  4. That’s a lot of tomatoes! Although I often buy Italian tomatoes in those really big cans — the ones that are about 6 pounds (don’t remember exactly) so I’ll just use one of those. 🙂 Good stuff — and I really like the idea of making big meatballs rather than a bunch of smaller ones.
    John/Kitchen Riffs recently posted…Braised Greens with White Beans

    • I do have a good deal of leftover sauce, but I’ll make good use of it.

    • Italian food is so amazing, especially when it’s homemade. Delicious, homey, and so inexpensive!

  5. A couple of years ago for a morning show, I had to make a meatball recipe from a local restaurant (the launch of Toronto Cooks, cookbook) that was out of this world. In addition to your recipe, there was pork belly! OMG, so good but horrifying calorie count! I love how simple your recipe is. I’m definitely going to give it a try. My hubby usually adds a pinch of baking soda to neutralize the acidity of the tomatoes (not necessary if using San Marzano), it works so darn well, that the first time he did it, I accused him of adding sugar to the sauce!
    Costco in Canada sells San Marzano tomatoes in a gigantic can (I usually bring it home and divide it into more manageable portions in zip lock bags and freeze).
    Eva Taylor recently posted…Appelkaka Remake, A Swedish Apple Cake

    • Nice to know about Costco! I’ll have to check out the one here. (And how awesome about being on a morning show!)

  6. Ah yes I love homemade pasta sauce, but never make it. Thanks for the simple take on it, it reminds me of how easy it can be to make something so delicious. And of course, the meatballs look great.

    • When I first started cooking from Lidia’s book, I was surprised at how many sauces can be made almost faster than the pasta can be boiled.

  7. That’s a lot of bay leaves! Are you using them fresh? I admire Lidia and her influence on Italian cuisine especially in The States. I cook meatballs the same way with mainly fresh breadcrumbs and a little dried breadcrumbs as well. I do add 1 finely chopped onion as well (which my mother-in-law says makes ‘rissoles’) but they certainly are delicious and this recipe has been passed down through many generations. I will have to get Lidia’s book, thanks for sharing 8)

    Merryn recently posted…Baked Custard Tart – a family tradition

    • Dried bay. It is a lot, but it’s a ton of tomato sauce. I’ve never heard of rissoles – I had to look that up. Thenks for introducing something new to me!

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