Made with both ground beef and ground pork, with Italian herbs, Parmesan cheese, and a flavorful, easy, homemade spaghetti sauce, this is the best spaghetti and meatballs recipe ever and it is classic Italian-American comfort food at it’s best.
I know it’s a bold claim, but this really is the best spaghetti and meatballs recipe ever. At least the best that I have ever had, and I’ve had quite a lot of spaghetti and meatballs.
When I was researching foods that Connecticut is well-known for, I actually struggled to identify specific recipes that inspired me and could be made at home by home cooks. A lot of what came up were things like hot dogs, ice cream, chips, donuts, soda, and pez. So, apparently Connecticuters like junk food?
But when I read a statistic that Connecticut has one of the highest Italian-American populations per capita in the United States, I figured why not make some kind of classic Italian food? Or really, Italian-American food, since you aren’t going to find spaghetti and meatballs like this in Italy.
Only Rhode Island edges out Connecticut for the highest Italian-American population per capita, and New Jersey (where I lived for a year and a half and ate my fair share of Italian food) comes in third. And it’s the immigration of more than 4 million Italians to America between 1880 and 1920 that really resulted in this dish in the first place. So a homemade meatballs recipe seemed like a good fit for my American Eats series.
For an even more detailed history of how meatballs and spaghetti came to be, this article from the Smithsonian is a great read.
For me, the best homemade Italian meatball recipe calls for big, juicy meatballs, not little one-bite or two-bite sized meatballs. We’re talking substantial meatballs here.
Obviously you can make the meatballs smaller and get 20-24 of them instead of the 12 big meatballs that I like to make from this recipe. I find that two of the big meatballs makes a good serving size. Although in reality, I’m always wanting that third meatball. So we’ll say this recipe serves anywhere from 4-6.
These are the most tender, flavorful, perfect meatballs ever. I have made the exact same recipe except using all ground turkey and making baked Italian meatballs and they turned out good too. Obviously they don’t win in a side-by-side comparison to the fried beef and pork version that is my favorite, but they are still delicious if you wanted to try making turkey meatballs for a healthier version.
And you can’t just have meatballs without a wonderful, rich tomato sauce to go with them! I make the meatballs and the sauce in the same pan. It adds even more flavor to the sauce AND is saves me dirtying another dish, so it’s basically a no-brainer.
Toss is all with some spaghetti to coat every noodle or serve them separately with the sauce and meatballs on top of the plain noodles.
The secret to the most tender meatballs is bread, not just breadcrumbs. It might sound like a weird method, but you actually want four slices or stale Italian bread, which you then soak in water and squeeze out as much liquid as you can before adding it to the mix with the meat and seasonings and cheese.
Variations on this Italian meatball recipe
- Substitute ground pork for sweet Italian sausage, which is pretty much just ground pork with seasonings added to it already, but that doesn’t hurt when adding it to meatballs.
- Substitute ground turkey for any or all of the ground beef or ground pork for a healthier, lower calorie alternative.
- Make baked Italian meatballs instead of browning them in a pan first for another calorie saving option. Baked meatballs are totally delicious and hands-off (which is my favorite part), so this is another good option that I honestly do most of the time if it’s just us, even though I prefer frying the meatballs for special occasions.
Three Different Ways to Cook Italian Meatballs
So, I have three different approaches to cooking real Italian meatballs and they all work regardless of whether you are making 12 big meatballs or 24 small meatballs. Each method has its pros and cons, so you just kind of have to analyze what works for you. I don’t have one set method and choose an approach depending on the day or situation or what I feel like.
- Oven-Baked Meatballs: Place a wire cooling rack on a baking sheet lined with aluminum foil and spray it with cooking spray. Arrange meatballs on top and bake at 400 degrees F for 15-20 minutes. Pro: clean, healthier, hands-off cooking. This is my weeknight approach. Con: No crispy exterior to the meatball, which I love. Also, the sauce doesn’t turn out quite as rich as either of the other methods where you have a bit of fond (the crusty brown stuff that builds up on the bottom of a pan) to cook the sauce in after first browning or frying the meatballs.
- Pan-Seared Meatballs: Heat about 1/4-inch of oil (I use half olive oil, half vegetable oil) in a large cast iron skillet. Working in batches, brown the meatballs by cooking 2-3 minutes per side and turning with a spatula to create a nice crust around outside of each meatball. At this point, either transfer the partially cooked meatballs to a baking sheet lined with aluminum foil and bake at 300 degrees for 10 minutes until done OR set aside and add to the sauce to simmer for 15-20 minutes until the meatballs are cooked through. Pro: great texture and crust to the meatballs, maybe a little bit healthier than actually frying the meatballs until done, and you can work on the sauce while the meatballs finish cooking. This is my most-used, generally preferred approach, and the one I used for the pictures in these photos. Con: multiple steps and pans to wash.
- Pan-Fried Meatballs: Heat an inch of oil over medium-high heat in a large cast iron skillet, then cook meatballs in batches. Cook the meatballs for 3 minutes on one side, then carefully flip and cook another 2-3 minutes on the second side. Remove the cooked meatballs to a paper-towel lined plate while cooking the remaining meatballs. The meatballs continue to cook a bit after removing from the oil so if you cut into them immediately, they won’t look completely done. They need 5-10 minutes to rest to finish cooking through. I still usually put the cooked meatballs in a dish in a barely warm oven to keep them warm while I prepare the sauce in the same skillet. Pro: um, deep-fried meatballs, so we’re talking amazingly crisp exteriors with soft, tender interiors, which is pretty much the best thing ever. Con: um, deep-fried meatballs, so pretty much these are a big no-no for any diet ever. But for special occasions or a dinner party, I say go for it!
How to Make the Best Spaghetti and Meatballs
- Soak 4 slices of stale Italian bread in water then squeeze out as much liquid as you can. Add the wrung-out soggy bread to a large bowl with the ground beef and ground pork, bread crumbs, Parmesan, parsley, salt, pepper, herbs, eggs, and mix to combine. Some people use a fork, others use a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment on low speed. I find it’s just easiest to work with my hands, since I’m about to shape the meatballs by hand anyway. Try not to overwork the meat so you don’t end up with dense, tough meatballs. I literally just squish things around a bit until it all comes together and looks like all the ingredients are evenly dispersed.
- Divide the meatball mixture into 12 equal-sized lumps and shape into meatballs. Cook using one of the three methods listed above, either baking the meatballs in the oven, searing first in some oil in a hot pan then finishing in the oven or in the sauce, or frying the meatballs in hot oil until done.
- Pour off any oil left in the pan from searing or cooking the meatballs but don’t wipe out the fond (those browned bits on the bottom of the pan). Make the sauce by sauteing the onions in a little olive oil for a few minutes, then adding the garlic and cooking for 1 minute more. Then add all the remaining sauce ingredients (and meatballs if using the second, pan-searing method) and simmer for 15-20 minutes, until the sauce thickens slightly.
- While the sauce simmers, cook the spaghetti according to package directions until just al dente.
- Serve spaghetti and meatballs with lots of freshly grated Parmesan cheese and chopped parsley for sprinkling on top.
What to serve with spaghetti and meatballs
- green beans or broccoli
- side salad or antipasto
- garlic bread
- grilled vegetables
- Italian sodas
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- 4 slices stale Italian bread, soaked in water, then squeezed out and torn
- 1 pound ground beef
- 1/2 pound ground pork
- 3 eggs, whisked
- 1/2 cup Italian seasoned breadcrumbs
- 1/2 cup Parmesan or Romano cheese
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
- 1 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon dried basil
- 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
- 1/4 teaspoon oregano
- 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
- Oil, for browning or frying
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1/4 cup grated onion
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 (28-ounce) cans crushed tomatoes
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon dried basil
- 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1/2 teaspoon dried parsley
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/8 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- 1 pound spaghetti, cooked according to package directions until al dente
- Soak bread in water then squeeze out as much liquid as possible and tear bread apart. Add bread to a large bowl with the ground beef, ground pork, eggs, bread crumbs, Parmesan, parsley, salt, basil, garlic, basil, fennel, oregano, and pepper. Gently mix to combine using your hands.
- Cook meatballs using one of the following methods:
- Oven-Baked Meatballs: Place a wire cooling rack on a baking sheet lined with aluminum foil and spray it with cooking spray. Arrange meatballs on top and bake at 400 degrees F for 15-20 minutes.
- Pan-Seared Meatballs: Heat about 1/4-inch of oil (I use half olive oil, half vegetable oil) in a large cast iron skillet. Brown meatballs in batches, cooking 2-3 minutes per side and turning with a spatula to create a nice crust around outside of each meatball. Transfer the partly cooked meatballs to a baking sheet lined with aluminum foil and bake at 300 degrees for 10 minutes until done OR set aside to add to the spaghetti sauce and simmer for 15-20 minutes in the sauce until meatballs are cooked through.
- Pan-Fried Meatballs: Heat an inch of oil over medium-high heat in a large cast iron skillet until it shimmers, then cook meatballs in batches for 3 minutes on one side, then carefully flip and cook another 2-3 minutes on the second side. Remove meatballs to a paper-towel lined plate and cook remaining meatballs.
- Pour off any oil left in the pan from searing or cooking the meatballs but don’t wipe out the fond (those browned bits on the bottom of the pan). Make the spaghetti sauce by sauteing onions in 1 tablespoon olive oil for a 3-4 minutes, then add garlic and cook 1 minute more. Add crushed tomatoes, sugar, basil, oregano, parsley, salt, crushed red pepper flakes, and black pepper and stir to combine. Add the partly cooked meatballs if using the second, pan-searing method mentioned above. Simmer for 15-20 minutes, until the sauce thickens slightly.
- While sauce simmers, cook the spaghetti according to package directions until just al dente. Drain well then toss with the meatballs and spaghetti sauce, or serve separately. Serve with freshly chopped parsley and Parmesan cheese for sprinkling on top.
Recipe makes 12 large meatballs, 24 medium meatballs and 50 small meatballs. Cooking times will need to be adjusted if making smaller meatballs.
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 780 Saturated Fat: 14g Cholesterol: 168mg Sodium: 1105mg Carbohydrates: 73g Fiber: 3g Sugar: 7g Protein: 37g
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