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Beef and Mortadella Meatballs in Tomato Sauce

Beef and Mortadella Meatballs in Tomato Sauce

Let’s cut to the chase: Nobody likes tough balls. Don’t overwork the meatball mixture, and make sure to simmer gently.


  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 1 medium carrot, finely chopped
  • 1 celery stalk, finely chopped
  • 1 28-oz. can crushed tomatoes
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 pound ground beef, preferably chuck
  • ½ pound mortadella, cut into ¼" pieces
  • ⅓ cup fine fresh breadcrumbs
  • ¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh oregano
  • Grated Grana Padano cheese (for serving)

Recipe Preparation

  • Heat oil in a large heavy pot over medium-high. Add onion, carrot, and celery; season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring often, until vegetables are soft and translucent, 10–15 minutes. Add tomato paste and cook, stirring, until darkened, about 4 minutes. Stir in tomatoes and cream and bring to a boil. Reduce heat; season with salt and pepper. Simmer while you form the meatballs.

  • Using a fork or your hands, mix beef, mortadella, eggs, breadcrumbs, parsley, oregano, and 1 tsp. salt in a large bowl until evenly combined. Form mixture into 1½”- diameter balls, packing fairly firmly (you should have about 26) .

  • Add meatballs to sauce, cover pot, and simmer until meatballs are cooked through and very tender, 40–45 minutes.

  • Serve topped with a generous amount of Grana Padano.

  • DO AHEAD: Meatballs (without cheese) can be made 2 days ahead. Let cool; cover and chill. Reheat gently in sauce before serving.

Recipe by The Meatball Shop, NYC,

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Reviews SectionQuick question! I've only ever cooked meatballs in the oven. Just to clarify, the raw meat mixture will cook through on the stove top in the sauce?mhmLet'sCookWashington, DC10/21/19DesislavaBulgaria11/04/18

Polpette: Classic Italian Meatballs

Those Italian polpette are made with a mixture of meat and cheese, flavored with a hint of nutmeg and sautéed with wine. A simple and delicious main dish of the traditional Italian cuisine that you should try at least once.

The recipe for meatballs and tomato sauce

Take of 1 lb 5 oz of ground meat (beef or mixed, as you prefer), 1 egg, 4 oz of grated Parmigiano Reggiano, minced parsley, breadcrumbs, extra virgin olive oil, salt, pepper.

For the sauce, 14 oz of tomato pureé, one garlic clove, extra virgin olive oil, and fresh basil.

First, prepare the sauce: in a large pan, brown the garlic in a little oil. When it’s golden, add the tomato purée and cook over low heat for about 20 minutes. Then salt to taste, add the basil and set it aside.

Now take the ground meat, put it in a bowl with the cheese, parsley, egg, salt, and pepper.

Mix well and then, with your hands, make small balls that you will cover with breadcrumbs.

Heat a little extra virgin olive oil in a pan and then brown the meatballs, a few at a time, turning them often until they are golden brown.

Once you’ve cooked them all, add the tomato sauce, cover with a lid, and cook over low heat for about an hour.

Browse the photo gallery for more tips on making the best meatballs and tomato sauce ever!

Italian-style Meatballs

Italian-style meatballs, cute morsels of ground beef, packed with tons of flavor, slow-cooked in a rich tomato sauce, will have your taste buds singing.

If you love meatballs, then this recipe is for you. In our home growing up, my parents would be making all kinds of tomato sauces or sugo, as we call it in Italian. Variations like straight tomato basil, tomato with carrots and onions, bolognese, sausages one of my favorites, there were always battles for the sausages, and then sugo with polpette: meatballs (a mix of ground meat mixed with herbs, bread soaked in milk, eggs, Parmigiano Reggiano, and Italian seasoned bread crumbs) laid to rest in a thick rich tomato puree and stewed ever so slowly for hours. I have mentioned this before about getting to the bottom of the saucepan and scooping that rich pulp and slathering it on a piece of pagnotta (Italian rustic bread) now that's Italian so good I would have a few of these what I called sauce sandwiches, absolutely amazing, you have to try it.

I know when we think Italian, spaghetti and meatballs come to mind, but in true traditional Italian cooking, it is not the norm. The spaghetti is served with just the sauce, and after that is consumed then comes the next course meatballs with some side dish. Actually, the order of plates in an Italian household would go something like this: Antipasto (appetizer), Primo (first course) which is usually pasta or minestra (soup). Then Secondo (second course) consisting of some kind of meat or fish accompanied by a Contorno (side dish) being cooked vegetables or salads. Then finally Dolce (sweets) and Frutta (fruits) and the finish, a robust espresso. It is always a feast and a great social experience. Now back to what we made today Meatballs as I was sidetracked by the legalities of Italian cooking. We were asked by a charitable organization that helps patients with cancer make some food for themselves and their families at these troublesome times. We were honored and humbled to be able to help and trying to decide what to make. This particular family had small children and I thought how about some cute little meatballs cooked in San Marzano tomato sauce would be great. There would be enough sauce for them to make some pasta to enjoy.

A blend of good organic grass-fed ground beef, shredded mortadella for an extra bit of flavor, combined with fresh herbs from our garden, a little dusting of Parmigiano Reggiano, some bread crumbs mixed with herbs and cheese, and there you have it a morsel packed with such a flavor it will have your taste buds singing, not to mention the fact that they are slow-cooked in a rich tomato sauce.

These would be perfect in a nice fresh baked bun with arugula and fresh mozzarella.

Now that's a meatball sandwich! All kidding aside, this is an easy dish to prepare and very enjoyable. I might even try to make some veggie ones one day, who knows they could be a hit. My creative mind is already thinking.

Mortadella and Prosciutto Polpettine

Recipe adapted from Michael White, Osteria Morini, New York

Yield: 4 to 6 servings


3 slices white bread--crust removed

2 ounces mortadella (about one ½-inch-thick slice), chopped

2 ounces prosciutto (about one ¼-inch-thick slice), chopped

3 ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, grated (about 1 cup)

⅛ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

6 cups homemade or store-bought marinara sauce


1. In a small bowl, combine the bread and milk and let stand for 10 minutes. Drain and discard any milk that hasn't been absorbed by the bread. Tear the bread into ¼-inch pieces. Reserve.

2. In a food processor, combine the mortadella and prosciutto and pulse until the meat is coarsely ground--about 8 one-second pulses.

3. In a large mixing bowl, combine the mortadella and prosciutto with the ground pork, Parmesan, eggs and bread. Add the nutmeg and season the mixture well with salt and pepper. Mix gently by hand until just combined. Let the mixture rest in the refrigerator for 1 hour before forming the meat into about 14 golf-ball-size meatballs.

4. In a large, nonstick skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high. Add the meatballs and cook, turning occasionally, until browned on all sides, about 10 minutes. Cover the meatballs with the marinara sauce, bring to a simmer over medium-low heat and cook, partially covered, until the meatballs are cooked through, about 20 minutes longer. Serve immediately.

These meatballs just beg for a cold, crisp glass of Italian white wine.

The Research


In his foundation book, Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well (La scienza in cucina e l’arts di mangiar bene), Italian Pellegrino Artusi has this to say about making meatballs — polpettes in Italian.

“Do not think for a moment that I would be so pretentious as to tell you how to make meatballs.”

English Translation, The Lorenzo Da Ponte Italian Library, University of Toronto Press, 2003

He continues with a scatological quip and indeed does not tell us how to make meatballs. Instead, he offers a series of suggestions on making meatballs. Since Artusi is considered the inventor of Italian cuisine, who am I do otherwise? I will, however, tell you how meatballs are made both in the Anglo world (North America, UK, and Australia) and how they are recommended to be made in Italy. Based on this I will offer some recommended recipes.

Using cooked meat to make meatballs may seem unusual to the Anglo world, but Artusi considers it a given that cooked meat is being used. This points to what may be considered the origin of Italian meatballs — Sunday leftovers. The drier cooked meat can benefit from some moisture for the evening meal and that leads the common dish Polpette al Sugo (Meatballs with sauce). Commonly a tomato sauce.

The Approach

A total of 74 Italian meatball recipes were analyzed, 37 in English and 37 in Italian. English recipes are a combination of well-known English adaptions published by authors such as Mazen Hazan, Jamie Oliver, and the English translation of the Italian recipes. Although not a random sample, an effort was taken through the use of different search engines, keywords, and by drilling down through links to find a broad representative sample. These were supplemented by internet searches using multiple search words. The Italian search was on the internet only. This was accomplished by setting search engine settings to search in Italian and in Italy.

Although not a random sample, an effort was taken through the use of different search engines, keywords, and by drilling-down through links to find a broad representative sample.

Italian food is delicious. Ever thought about improving your love of the food, by learning a bit of the language? Busuu is an enjoyable way to do that.


The findings are listed below starting with the most significant.

Finding — Common Key Ingredients

Across all recipes there was little divergence from the five primary components of the meatballs.

Details are discussed below.

Finding — Pretty much any meat works

Although beef was the most common meat (harking back to the original use of leftover Sunday roast), almost any meat is used. A beef/pork combination is also frequent. Veal and fish, especially tuna, are used.

Sausage is more frequently listed in the Italian recipes, but not common. Mortadella is listed in many of the Italian recipes. References to the sensual texture may sound enticing, but the high fat content of mortadella should help with drier (read previously cooked) meats.

Finding — Leave out the Garlic

A repeated theme from traditional Italian cooks is the overuse of garlic by those that are trying to cook as if they were Italian. This was unquestionably seen out in this research. Whereas 62% of the English recipes used garlic, only 22% of the Italian recipes used garlic.

Finding — Cheeses Used

A wide variety of cheeses were used in the recipes. A greater variety was found in the Italian recipes representing regional dishes. Parmesan and Pecorino were the most common, sometimes in combination. Parmesan was used in the majority of recipes: found in 54% of the English recipes, and 60% of the Italian.

Finding — Coating the Meatballs improves texture and flavor

The most distinct difference in the Italian recipes was the technique of coating the meatballs either by rolling in flour or some cases breadcrumbs. 60% of the Italian recipes used a coating, where only 13% of the English meatballs were coated. The flour coatings add texture and thickness to the sauce. This technique is used in the recommended Meatballs in Tomato Sauce recipe and the Polpette al lemone. The bread crumb approach is frequently used when the meatballs are to be fried as in the Venetian Bacari Meatballs.

Finding — Parsley is the most common herb

Across the English and Italian recipes, parsley was the most common herb used. Oregano, rosemary, thyme, and basil were also frequently used. Often depending on the meat or the sauce to be prepared. Regardless, the clear indication was to use whatever fresh herb you had over a prescribed herb if only dried was available.

Serves: 6 – 8

I originally found this recipe in the New York Times and dialled it up over the weekend as a meal for the three boys: doubled the quantity of meatballs, added fresh tomato to the sauce as well as a cup of red wine and a handful of oregano.

It smashed it out of the park.

The sort of dinner kids – and adults – die for on a Saturday night before a movie, popcorn and ice cream.

The meatballs are the cracker here, with handfuls of Parmesan, extra breadcrumbs, eggs and parsley, additions I added and have reflected below.

Slow cook the tomato sauce, throw in the browned meatballs and boom.

This is definitely worth coming home to.


Freshly ground pepper
4 tbsp olive oil
1 kg beef mince
3 cups, grated Parmesan
1 bunch fresh parsley, chopped
1 breadcrumbs
3 eggs
1 large onion
3 garlic cloves
3 cans crushed tomatoes
2 tomatoes, cored and roughly chopped
3 bay leaves
1 cup red wine
Handful of fresh oregano leaves
500gm spaghetti

Recipe for Meatballs in Tomato Sauce

You’ll need 1 lb 7 oz of minced meat (beef or mixed meat, based on personal preference), 1 egg, 4 oz grated Parmigiano Reggiano, chopped parsley, breadcrumbs, extra-virgin olive oil, salt, and pepper.

For the sauce, you’ll need 1 lb tomato purée, a clove of garlic, extra-virgin olive oil, salt, and fresh basil.

First, prepare the sauce: in a large pan, brown the garlic in a little oil. Once golden-brown, add the tomato purée and cook over low heat for about 20 minutes. Then add salt and basil. Set aside.

Now take the minced meat and transfer it to a bowl with Parmigiano Reggiano, parsley, egg, salt, and pepper.

Mix well and then, with your hands, form balls that you will dip into the breadcrumb mixture.

Heat a little extra-virgin olive oil in a frying pan and brown the meatballs a few at a time, rotating them often until they are golden-brown.

Once cooked, add the tomato sauce and cover with a lid.

Let cook over low heat for about an hour.

In the photo gallery, discover a few tips and tricks for unforgettable meatballs!

Sicilian Veal Rolls (Braciole) in Tomato Sauce

This dish reminds me of Sunday dinners at Nonna’s house, when she would have a large pot of tomato sauce simmering on the stove with meatballs and braciole, or brucioli as we say in the Sicilian dialect. Braciole are thin slices of meat that are stuffed, rolled, and cooked in a tomato sauce. These little bundles of delicacies are traditionally made with veal, beef, pork, and pork skins. They can also be made with chicken or fish. This recipe is for making the smaller braciole. A braciola or the Sicilian farsumagru is one large meat roll.

When making braciole the trick is to have the meat slices as uniform in size as possible. It doesn’t have to be exact. The meat can also be a little larger than the measurements specified in the recipe. You can even patch a few pieces here and there if necessary. The filling usually starts with a seasoned breadcrumb mixture, then slices of prosciutto and mortadella are placed on top. Then comes the salami and cheese, which can be either sliced or in pieces. A piece of hard-boiled egg gives the final touch, and then the meat is rolled up.

In Italy, the sauce is usually served over pasta, and the meat is served separately. Americans like to serve the meat on top of the pasta. I love serving this dish over fresh homemade pasta noodles such as fettucine or papparadelle.


Difficulty Rating: Intermediate
Makes 4 servings.

1/4 cup olive oil
3/4 cup chopped onion (about 1/2 medium onion)
1 cup dry plain breadcrumbs
1/4 cup + 1 tablespoon grated Pecorino Romano or Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons dried currants or chopped raisins
2 tablespoons minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
2 tablespoons pine nuts
8 thin slices veal or beef top round (approximately 8-inches long by 4 to 5-inches wide)
8 slices prosciutto or ham
8 thin slices of mortadella, cut in half
8 thin slices of salami (optional)
8 pieces Cacciocavallo or Asiago stravecchio cheese, cut 1/4-inch thick, 2-inches long by 1/2-inch wide
1 hard-boiled egg, cut into 8 wedges (optional)
Salt and ground black pepper
Wooden toothpicks or Butcher’s twine

3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 medium onion, chopped
2-3 garlic cloves, smashed
1 (26 ounce) carton strained tomatoes or 1 (26 ounce) can tomato puree
1/2 cup red wine
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
5-6 fresh basil leaves
1 bay leaf
A few gratings fresh nutmeg, or a pinch of ground nutmeg
Salt and ground black pepper

1. PREPARE THE FILLING: Using a frying pan, heat 1/4 cup olive oil over medium heat. Add onion and cook until soft and translucent. Reduce heat to low. Add bread crumbs, stirring constantly, cook until breadcrumbs are lightly toasted, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat immediately and transfer to a small bowl. Stir in Pecorino cheese, currants, parsley, and pine nuts. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

2. ASSEMBLE THE BRACIOLE: Lay the meat flat on a work surface. Divide the breadcrumb mixture equally and spread over the meat, leaving a little space along the edges. Place the prosciutto on top, then place two mortadella halves on top, and the salami. Place a piece of cheese and a piece of egg along the bottom of the short end of the meat closest to you and roll the meat over the filling like a jelly roll, until the filling is completely encased. Secure the seam and both ends with toothpicks or tie with butcher’s twine.

3. MAKE THE SAUCE AND COOK THE BRACIOLE: Using a large covered casserole or Dutch-oven, heat the olive oil over high heat. Brown the meat rolls and transfer onto a plate. Reduce heat to medium-high. Add the onion and cook about 4 minutes, until soft and translucent. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute longer. Add the tomatoes, wine, sugar, and 3/4 cups water. Stir to scrape the brown bits off the bottom of the pan. Cover and bring the sauce to a boil. Add the meat rolls, basil, bay leaf, and nutmeg. Reduce heat to a simmer. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Stir occasionally while cooking. Add additional water, as necessary, to thin the sauce. It should not be too thick. Cook for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, until meat is tender.

Discard the bay leaf and carefully remove toothpicks or butcher’s twine from the meat rolls before serving. Serve with sauce and cooked noodles or spaghetti.

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