Truly Tender Meatballs in Rich Tomato Sauce

By • February 6, 2010 25 Comments

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Author Notes: I’ve been working on my meatball recipe for what feels like forever, and though I had turned out some satisfying versions in the past, none of them ever really knocked my socks off – until these. The meatballs were light and super tender, and the sauce got a depth and sweetness from the port, as well as a bright fruitiness from the wine added near the end. We fell hard for these meatballs – I hope you will, too. - lastnightsdinnerlastnightsdinner

Food52 Review: Thanks to the ricotta, the meatballs are extremely tender. Overall a delicious dish -- the sauce has a very deep tomato-wine flavor and matches the meatballs nicely. - CeciliaThe Editors

Serves 2-3 dozen meatballs

Truly Tender Meatballs

  • 1 cup soft fresh breadcrumbs
  • 1/4 to 1/2 cups milk
  • 2-3 shallots, peeled and roughly chopped
  • 1 cup loosely-packed picked fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
  • 1 tablespoon fresh marjoram leaves
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten
  • 1/2 cup fresh ricotta, drained if very wet
  • 2-3 teaspoons Kosher salt
  • 1 pound ground beef
  • 1/2 pound ground pork
  • oil for frying (I use a mixture of ¼ cup olive oil for flavor, plus ¼ cup grapeseed, a neutral oil with a high smoke point)
  1. Place the breadcrumbs in a bowl and moisten them with just enough milk to cover them, pressing gently. Let them sit about 10-15 minutes, until the crumbs are very soft.
  2. Put the shallots and herbs in the small bowl of a food processor and pulse until finely chopped. Scrape the mixture out into a large mixing bowl and add the egg. Remove the breadcrumbs from the milk, squeezing out the excess liquid, and add to the bowl. Add the ricotta and salt and mix until well combined. Add the beef and pork and, with clean hands, mix gently until the ingredients are evenly incorporated.
  3. Scoop or pinch off small amounts of the mixture and roll into meatballs, placing them on a plate or platter.
  4. Heat the oil in a wide skillet until shimmering, then fry the meatballs in batches, turning them to brown them well on each side, and draining them on paper towels. Alternatively, you can place the meatballs on a foil-lined sheet pan and bake them in a preheated 400 degree oven for 20-25 minutes. Either way, you'll finish cooking the meatballs in the sauce.

Rich Tomato Sauce

  • 1 28 oz. can whole peeled imported Italian plum tomatoes with juice
  • 1 baseball-sized onion, peeled and roughly chopped
  • 1 small carrot, peeled and roughly chopped
  • 1-2 cloves garlic
  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • Kosher or sea salt
  • 1 tablespoon double-concentrated tomato paste
  • a pinch of red chile flakes
  • 1/4 cup port wine
  • 2-3 sprigs fresh thyme and/or marjoram
  • 1/4 cup dry red wine
  • for serving: 1 lb. of hot cooked pasta, chopped flat-leaf parsley, and freshly grated parmesan
  1. Place the onion, carrot, and garlic in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until finely chopped.
  2. In a heavy-bottomed pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat until shimmering. Add the chopped vegetables and a pinch of salt and stir through, cooking until the vegetables are soft. Clear a spot in the bottom of the pot and add the tomato paste, allowing it to toast briefly before stirring it through the vegetables. Add the chile flakes and port, and cook for a minute or two before adding the herbs and the tomatoes with their juice, breaking the tomatoes up with your fingers or a spoon.
  3. Add the browned meatballs to the simmering tomato sauce, cover and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and cook uncovered until the meatballs are cooked through and the sauce is nicely thickened and reduced (about 30-45 minutes).
  4. Add the red wine and stir through, then simmer for an additional 15 minutes, tasting and adjusting the salt if necessary.
  5. To serve, remove the meatballs and place them in a serving bowl with a bit of sauce still clinging to them. Toss 1 lb. of hot cooked pasta (spaghetti or rigatoni work well) in the sauce to coat it, adding a splash or two of the starchy pasta water, and serve the dressed pasta and the meatballs separately, passing additional sauce at the table. Garnish with plenty of freshly grated cheese and a sprinkle of chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley.

Tags: can be made ahead, comfort food, freezes well, kid-friendly, serves a crowd

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Comments (25) Questions (1)


about 1 year ago Valerie Thomas

these meatballs really are as good as everyone says, thank you! i am not huge on tomato so i make the sauce using a mix of bell pepper and tomato.


about 1 year ago Kevin French

Have been looking for a good meatball recipe for some time, and decided to try these. So glad I could "piggy-back" on all the trial and error that lastnightsdinner put into this recipe - it is delicious.

Making only the meatballs here, I decided to do these in the oven - as a 2x batch would have taken me some time to pan fry off. These were fantastic - only to grow richer in our sauce, and compliment the sauce as well. Tender, as advertised, and such a delicate, rich flavor! These are definitely being added to our permanent collection of recipes.


almost 3 years ago TheLearningCook

Can I freeze the sauce AND the meatballs? And if so, should I freeze them together or separately?


almost 3 years ago AntoniaJames

AntoniaJames is a trusted source on Bread/Baking.

You should freeze the sauce and the meatballs together. The meat does so much better that way. (I learned this from a wonderful book I bought way back when, called "Fresh from the Freezer" by the late, great Michael Roberts.) I often put meatballs in a freezer box that's just large enough to hold them comfortably; I then surround and cover them completely with the sauce, and freeze the rest of the sauce separately. This allows for a quicker defrost time, plus it makes it easy to reheat the sauce for a longer period with fresh herbs, to "freshen up" and thus improve the sauce for serving after freezing, without overcooking the thawed meatballs. ;o)


over 3 years ago student epicure

these were truly delicious! yum! really loved using the port in the sauce and the meatballs were so tender and well-seasoned. i baked the meatballs and they were very light and delicate, so i didn't finish them in the sauce because i was worried they would fall apart. overall, absolutely delicious!


over 4 years ago PattersonCooks

I've been reading Food52 and using the recipes for a long time now. I have never signed up, until I made your meatballs and had to let you know how delicious they are! I have made them several times now, and always enjoy the recipe! Thanks!


almost 5 years ago AntoniaJames

AntoniaJames is a trusted source on Bread/Baking.

Congrats on the EP Honors! Looking forward to trying these . . . never used port and marjoram together. Both the meatballs and the sauce sound so yummy! ;o)


almost 5 years ago lastnightsdinner

Thank you so much! We've talked before about how wonderful marjoram is in cooking - I do hope you'll enjoy them!


almost 5 years ago Midge

Marjoram and ricotta, yum! Can't wait to try these.


almost 5 years ago lastnightsdinner

Thanks! It has been so hot that I can't believe I'm entertaining the idea of making meatballs, but this contest has me craving them - so many great entries :)


almost 5 years ago dymnyno

I have been making these since you posted the recipe on your blog months's my favorite meatball recipe and I am so glad that those who don't read your beautiful and inspiring blog can see your recipe now.


almost 5 years ago lastnightsdinner

Wow, thank you so much! That's high praise coming from you ;)


almost 5 years ago lapadia

Nice spaghetti & meatball picture!


almost 5 years ago lastnightsdinner

Thank you!


almost 5 years ago Lizthechef



almost 5 years ago lastnightsdinner



almost 5 years ago WinnieAb



almost 5 years ago lastnightsdinner

Thanks, Winnie! It's a little warm here for meatballs at the moment, but I'm looking forward to making them again soon :)


about 5 years ago monkeymom

I'm eating this meatballs for lunch right now and they are so good. I'm wondering what brand of tomatoes you generally use? The ones I used were quite acidic this time around. Thanks!


about 5 years ago lastnightsdinner

Thanks, monkeymom! I typically stock up on San Marzano tomatoes at one of the markets on Federal Hill. I had been getting a brand called La Bella, but I recently learned they aren't actually from Italy, so I'm trying out other brands now. You can certainly add a bit more carrot to provide a little more sweetness.


about 5 years ago monkeymom

I will definitely try that and different San Marzanos as well. Looking at the picture makes me want to make it again right now!


over 5 years ago AntoniaJames

AntoniaJames is a trusted source on Bread/Baking.

These meatballs are gorgeous! It's really nice to see someone else using marjoram. What a nice herb it is. I read the other day that the Chez Panisse kitchen uses it all the time! Not surprising. It's my go-to herb, too, in recipes where others would use oregano.


over 5 years ago lastnightsdinner

Thank you! I *love* marjoram :) Regular oregano can be a bit strong, I think, and I prefer the softer flavor of marjoram in most dishes.

over 5 years ago TheWimpyVegetarian

This looks wonderful! I like to combine the pork and beef too for something like this but hadn't thought to add ricotta cheese. I love it!


over 5 years ago lastnightsdinner

Thank you! I think the ricotta is what keeps them so light. We get such great local ricotta here from Narragansett Creamery that I look for any excuse to use it :)