Italian Meatballs with Tomato Sauce: Ragu


While vacationing at Niagara Falls one summer, my parents went to an Italian restaurant and witnessed a fastidious diner eating a dish of spaghetti with a fork in one hand and a pair of scissors in the other.  As he placed a forkful of pasta to his mouth, he proceeded to cut it with the scissors.  I kid you not.  We still get a chuckle out of that story.  As a kid, it seemed to me that the diner put way too much effort into eating that pasta.

As a child, I leaned that the only way to eat spaghetti was with a fork and spoon in each hand.  Slurping those long strands of pasta into your mouth was a not allowed.  You grab a few strands of spaghetti with your fork and twirl them around the bottom of the spoon into a neat bundle and then place it into your mouth.  I remember reading somewhere—perhaps it was Emily Post—that this method wasn’t the proper way to eat spaghetti. But old habits die hard, and I still eat spaghetti that way.

Like many Italian families, we often had meatballs with tomato sauce (Ragù in Italian) for Sunday dinner at Grandma’s house.  Sometimes my grandmother would add beef stew meat, or even braciole to the pot along with the meatballs.  My husband likes Italian sausage so I sometimes add that in as well.  My grandfather believed that adding different meats made the sauce taste better.  Wild boar comes to mind as a good addition.


Difficulty Rating:  Medium Difficulty
Makes 8 to 12 servings.

For the Meatballs:
Makes approximately 20 meatballs.

1/4 cup finely minced onion
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 slices of white sandwich bread
1 1/2 pounds ground beef
1/2 pound ground veal or bulk Italian sausage meat
1/2 cup grated Percorino Romano or Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup minced flat-leaf parsley
2 large eggs
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
Olive oil for browning

For the Sauce:
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 medium onion chopped (about 1 cup)
5 cloves garlic, smashed
1 (6 ounce) can of tomato paste
1 (28 ounce) can peeled tomatoes, chopped, including juices (preferably San Marzano)
1 (28 ounce) can crushed tomatoes or tomato puree
7 fresh basil leaves
Salt and ground black pepper
1 to 2 tablespoons granulated sugar or honey (optional)

Optional Additions:
1 1/2 pounds beef chuck, cut into 1 1/2-inch cubes, or 1 pound Italian sausage

1. MAKE THE MEATBALLS:   Heat olive oil in a skillet, add onion and cook until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes.  Let cool.  Place bread slices in a shallow bowl and add enough water to saturate the bread.  Let it sit for 1 minute and using your hands, squeeze as much water out of the bread as you can.  Combine the ground beef, veal, bread, cheese, onion, parsley, eggs, garlic, salt, and pepper in a large mixing bowl.  Mix well with your hands.  Form into 2 1/2-inch round balls using an ice cream scoop or your hands.  Place on a large platter and refrigerate 2 hours to firm up.

2. BROWN THE MEATBALLS AND MEAT:  Heat a thin layer of olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat and brown the meatballs in batches on both sides, about 2 minutes.  They will not be cooked through.  Transfer the meatballs back onto the platter.

*If using beef cubes or sausage, add to skillet and brown on all sides over high heat.  Transfer onto the platter.

3. MAKE THE SAUCE:  Heat olive oil in a large covered stock pot (6 quart).  Add the onion and cook over medium heat until soft and translucent, about 8 minutes.  Stir in the tomato paste using a wooden spoon and stirring constantly, cook for 2 minutes.  Stir in the peeled tomatoes, crushed tomatoes, garlic, and basil.  Stir in enough water (1 to 1 1/2 cups) to thin out the sauce, adding more if necessary during cooking to achieve desired consistency.  Bring to a low boil.  Add meatballs and sausage, if using.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.  Bring to a simmer and cook for approximately 45 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Halfway during cooking, taste sauce and adjust seasonings.  Add sugar if the sauce seems too acidic.  Serve over cooked spaghetti, rigatoni, ziti, or mostaccioli.

*If using beef cubes, add to the sauce along with the meatballs and cook for approximately 3 to 3 ½ hours, until the meat is tender.

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