Mama Caruso's Fried Meatballs (don't tell my family!)

By • August 6, 2010 35 Comments

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Author Notes: “Mama” refers to my Grandma Caruso, my Dad’s mother. My dad and the rest of his siblings used to refer to her as “Mama”, never mom or mother. My French-American mother learned to make Italian food from "Mama", her Italian mother-in-law. We ate a lot of pasta on Sundays, and my mom always made meatballs with Sunday gravy. She would start her gravy early, and while most of my friends were waking up to the smell of coffee brewing or bacon frying, we’d wake up to garlic and meatballs frying. Yes, we fry our meatballs.
I’ve heard that some people plop their meatballs right into the gravy raw and let them do all of their cooking there. We brown our meatballs first in a sauté pan so they get nice and crispy and tasty. The browning is where all that great flavor comes from! My mom says this also really seals in the juices. I feel if you drop them into the gravy raw, they are missing all of that extra flavor they could be getting by browning them first. The key ingredients to Mama's meatballs are: garlic, fresh Italian parsley (and lots of it), Pecorino Romano cheese, and good rustic bread. My mouth is watering already!

Makes 12 meatballs

  • 1 pound ground chuck
  • 1/2 pound ground pork
  • 2 large slices of fresh Tuscan country bread, crusts removed, cut into tiny squares
  • 1 cup fresh Italian flat-leaf parsley, chopped
  • 3 large garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/2 cup fresh Pecorino Romano cheese, grated
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon Kosher salt or sea salt (don’t use table salt)
  • freshly ground pepper, a couple of good grinds
  1. Put the ground chuck and ground pork in a med-sized bowl and add the salt. Gently combine the meat using your hands. Add the rest of the ingredients, except the oil. Gently mix to combine, using your hands, until evenly mixed. Do not knead. The mixture should be slightly wet and workable, not too sticky. Using your hands, gently form meat into golf ball-sized balls. Don’t worry if they are not perfectly round, but try to make them all uniform for even cooking. Don’t roll them over and over. Be gentle.
  2. Add the olive oil to a sauté pan and heat on medium heat. Add all the meatballs to the pan (approx. 12) and leave them sit until they are brown on one side. Shake the pan to loosen the meatballs and then turn each one with tongs to brown the other side. Keep turning with tongs until they are completely and evenly browned. Don’t give up too quickly, you want that crispy browned exterior. When everything looks pretty brown, cut into one of them to test for doneness. Transfer the meatballs to a paper towel to drain.
  3. Hopefully you've already made a big pot of delicious Sunday gravy. Now is the time to throw your meatballs into your gravy to cook for awhile and then serve with pasta. But, make sure to save a few on the side (no gravy), just fried with a little salt. Delicious!

Tags: Beef, Italian, pork, savory

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Comments (35) Questions (0)


about 1 year ago john

Sunday gravy is what Italian Americans called tomato sauce with meat in it. If it was just tomatoes, we called it sauce.


about 1 year ago johnmarzy

Sundays and Thursdays!


about 1 year ago April Hladik

What on earth is Sunday gravy?


over 1 year ago john

When my mother made the gravy on Sunday, she baked the meatballs. She would serve fried meatballs every once in a while for dinner. They were delicious. At this point in my life, I shouldn't be eating fried meatballs. But every once in a while I make fried meatballs. You should take the time to do it. Once you do, you'll want to do it again.


almost 5 years ago RaquelG

Littleclove: What a heartwarming story and stomach-warming recipe!! My grandmother was from Spain and made very similar meatballs - a little veal and fresh thyme are the only differences, served in a sauce of the thickened pan drippings with more garlic and herbs. The old ways are always the best ways.... Funny how the Mediterranean cultures are all so close in their recipes! I'm sorry to hear that anyone could have misconstrued what you wrote here; I found the provenance, recipe and love behind it very clear. I also can't imagine any site more supportive of it's posters than Merrill, Amanda and food52. Please keep on posting!!!


almost 5 years ago Gale

A great recipe and the story really adds flavor. Plus the picture is an inspiration; they look delicious.

almost 5 years ago littleclove

Thank you! I love the stories behind the recipes, don't you? :-)


almost 5 years ago mrslarkin

Mrs. Larkin is a trusted source on Baking.

What a great story and recipe! I love your dad's letter on your blog post - so cute that your grandma sent him salami!!! Thanks for sharing.

almost 5 years ago littleclove

thanks for taking the time to head over and read the full story. She was a cutie, that Mama. Can you imagine salami 22 days on a boat?! WOW.


almost 5 years ago Food52

This is from your friendly editors at Food52.

We firmly believe there is no one best way to do anything and we're thrilled to learn from all of you each week. And while we welcome constructive feedback, we also expect civility and respect. There was some unfortunate miscommunication in this comment thread and one member requested that their account be deleted. Thank you all for helping food52 continue to be a supportive, respectful community and a fun place to be. Now let's get back to the food. - A&M


almost 5 years ago dymnyno

They sound delicious!! and your photography is gorgeous!

almost 5 years ago littleclove

Thank you! I use a point and shoot for my blog, and was considering upgrading. But, I've gotten a few compliments over at littleclove on my shots so I think I'll stick with it. At least for now. :-)


almost 5 years ago Sunchowder

This recipe looks fabulous!

almost 5 years ago littleclove

Thanks for the compliment! They're really delicious and simple.


almost 5 years ago MonkeyBusiness

I am sorry to keep this going, but I feel compelled to weigh in (no pun intended). It is often not WHAT is said, it is HOW it is said, and I too, flinched at the comments on frying v. not even before I read the reactions. Better to have promoted the method of having the meat flavor the gravy, therefore some of us might have tried that approach. My Polish Mother fried her meatballs, so therefore I do too...although I must admit to having tried baking them once. Hard to give up on Mom's (or Mama's) technique, it is what we were weaned on..our tastes are almost hardwired there.
PS. Love the story about Mama!!

almost 5 years ago littleclove

Thank you!


almost 5 years ago johnmarzy

littleclove - I miss my grandmother's Thursday and Sunday gravy. Please take this thread to the next level and post your gravy recipe!!!

almost 5 years ago littleclove

Well, since you asked...... ;-)

Here is the link to the full story on our gravy with pictures:


But if you want to skip right to it.......

Sunday Gravy
Inspired by Grandma Caruso, adaptad from Mom

Makes a large 5 1/2-quart pot, enough to freeze for later

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 rack baby back ribs (about 2 1/4 pounds), cut into 2-rib sections
1 pound hot Italian sausage links, cut into 2-3? chunks
2 medium onions , chopped fine (about 2 cups)
2 tablespoons fresh oregano, plus 2 tbsp dried oregano
6 garlic cloves , minced or pressed through a garlic press
2 (28-ounce) cans crushed tomatoes
2 (28-ounce) cans tomato sauce
1 can tomato paste, 6 oz.
chopped fresh basil leaves, 2 big handfuls
1 ½ cups Pecorino Romano cheese, grated
½ tablespoon kosher salt, plus more for seasoning
freshly ground pepper

Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and heat oven to 325 º. Heat oil in 5 ½ quart Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Pat ribs dry with paper towels and season with salt and pepper. Add half of the ribs to the pot and brown on both sides, 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer ribs to large plate and brown remaining ribs. After transferring second batch of ribs to plate, brown sausages on all sides, 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer sausages to plate with ribs.

Reduce heat to medium, add onions and dried oregano; cook, stirring occasionally, until beginning to brown, about 5 minutes. Add tomato paste and cook, stirring constantly and scraping up the browned bits, until very dark, about 3 minutes. Stir in garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Fill up the empty tomato paste can with water and add that while stirring and scraping up any more browned bits.

Add the rest of the tomatoes, cheese, 1 hand full of the chopped basil, ½ tbsp Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper. Return ribs and sausage to pot (and some meatballs if you’ve made them); bring to simmer, cover, and transfer to oven. Cook until ribs are tender, about 2½ hours. Remove ribs with tongs to serving platter and cover.

Turn the oven down to 200º, put the pot of gravy back in and let it simmer until dinner time. You can eat now, but I feel the longer, the better.

When ready, using tongs, transfer sausage and meatballs to serving platter with the ribs. Stir the remaining handful of basil and the fresh oregano into gravy and adjust the seasoning with cheese, salt and pepper.

When your pasta is done, we like to put some gravy into the bottom of the serving bowl first, then mix the pasta with some gravy to coat it. Then you serve a big gravy boat (is that what they are called?) full of gravy for the table so everyone can add as much as they like. Serve the pasta with the meat platter, extra grated cheese, salt & pepper and don’t forget the hot giardiniera.

Is it Sunday yet?

almost 5 years ago littleclove

WOW that is hard to read! Didn't realize it would look like that.


almost 5 years ago Sagegreen

I love your convincing photo as much as the story behind these meatballs! That your cook's name is "littleclove" and that your grandmother taught you to make this recipe with big garlic cloves makes this recipe even more endearing!

almost 5 years ago littleclove

One of my best friends started calling me littleclove when we were about 12 years old, and she still calls me that to this day. :-)
Our house always smelled like garlic, and I'm *guessing* I did (do), too!


almost 5 years ago lapadia

The recipe you submitted "mirrors" our family recipe (which also came from an Italian grandmother)...don't they know best when it comes to meatballs? Love them!

almost 5 years ago littleclove

They really do know best. I love passing my Grandma's recipes on. It means a lot to me.


almost 5 years ago Ellie36

These meatballs sound delicious!

almost 5 years ago littleclove

Thank you! They are unbelievably good. We don't mess around when it comes to meatballs. ;-)


almost 5 years ago Midge

Waking up to the smell of meatballs frying is second only to eating the few your mom has set aside, with a little salt like littleclove says, and a couple of over-easy eggs. My absolute favorite part of the whole Sunday gravy experience.

almost 5 years ago littleclove

You know what I'm talking about. I am dying to eat them with eggs now that you brought that up! ;-)


almost 5 years ago Lizthechef

Great photo - just finished a homemade pizza and am instantly hungry. Love the family reference!


almost 5 years ago Lizthechef

ps Thumbs up!

almost 5 years ago littleclove

Thank you! It's all about the family!

almost 5 years ago littleclove

A Kenetic Energetic Diabetic-
Actually, I don't have a husband, so he's not believing anything! ;-) I'm not a chef or a scientist. I learned from "Mama", a big, lovable Italian grandma who put her heart and soul into everything she cooked. I'm not saying my way is "the best way", it's just what I was taught and the way my family does it (my family being my very large extended Italian family). But comments are great, so thank you for yours!

almost 5 years ago littleclove

A Kenetic Energetic Diabetic-

I'm very new here and feel badly that this has taken a negative turn. I didn't mean to offend you in any way. I want you to know that I did NOT read your recipe first and then decide to talk about browning. I have never posted a recipe before, and as I was doing that for the first time with my meatball recipe, A&M say to write about a few *key* things in your recipe. Browning happens to be really important in our cooking (Mama's cooking).
I decided it was an important part to share, that's all. Reading back, I can see how you may have thought I wrote about browning because your post came first. That is not what happened. I actually took the phrase "I’ve heard that some people plop their meatballs right into the gravy raw and let them do all of their cooking there." right off a blog post I did on Mama's meatballs on my blog. Please read it so you can see where I'm coming from. Here is the link: http://www.littleclove...
Hey, we're Italian! We're passionate! Now can we hug and make up? :-)

almost 5 years ago littleclove

Loves Food Loves to Eat-
Aren't they delicious when you fry them?! I have to eat a few of them before I throw them into the gravy with an extra sprinkle of salt. Nice and juicy. YUM! My family believes that the meat flavors the gravy, not the other way around. Meaning, the meatballs, the Italian sausage and the pork ribs we also make when making Sunday gravy gives it it's great flavor. Who knows, it's just how we do it and I'm sticking to it! :-)


almost 5 years ago Loves Food Loves to Eat

I totally fry my meatballs too... the only way to go for a crispy outter edge and tasty caramelized flavor! Looks like Mama knows what she's doing! (And...your secret's safe with me!)