Sunday Dinner

My Grandmother's Spicy Italian Meatballs Are Anything But Standard

They've got roots in Sicily...and Texas.

November  4, 2018

We're partnering with Lagostina to celebrate the Italian Sunday dinner with stories, recipes, and videos about this special family tradition. Here, chef and pizza guru Anthony Falco shares the story behind his grandmother's spicy Italian meatballs.

I grew up in a Sicilian-American family, and I’m sharing my grandma's meatball recipe with you. It seems like a pretty standard story...except there is nothing standard about it.

My grandma Mary was born in Louisiana and grew up in an almost exclusively Sicilian farming community called Highbank, Texas. She married my grandfather at a young age and they moved to nearby Marlin, Texas. In Marlin, they continued to farm, as well as operate the local liquor store named after my grandfather, Tony’s Liquor. As was common in many Italian-American communities, his mother, my great-grandmother Lena, lived in the house next door.

These cheesy meatballs wouldn't be complete without a spicy arrabbiata sauce, shown here in a Lagostina pot. Photo by James Ransom

I spent almost all of my childhood holidays and many stretches of the summer in Marlin, along with my cousins, uncles, aunts, and the rest of the combined Falco and Salvato family; my family would travel there from Austin, where I grew up pretty much disconnected from any other Italian-American community. I remember eating the food my great-grandmother and grandma prepared at these family gatherings: pizza, fresh-baked bread, sugo (slow-cooked tomato sauce), cucuzza (an Italian squash), fava beans, potato and squash casseroles, and lots of veggies from Lena’s garden. Still, I never once had my Grandmother’s meatballs. I saw them on the table, along with sausages, baked eggs, and all kinds of other meats that were completely off-limits to me.

Anthony Falco with Grandma Mary at a farm in Texas. Photo by Anthony Falco

That’s because my dad, in the process of moving to Austin in the ‘70s, had become a hippie and a vegetarian. So my great-grandmother prepared meat and vegetarian versions of everything; my dad would make vegetarian meatballs (another recipe for another time), and I never really thought much about it until well into my 20s.

By that time, I had cooked at many restaurants (and cooked meat) and never really considered switching from my vegetarian upbringing—until I knew I was about to start working at a restaurant in Brooklyn that would be dedicated to sourcing only the highest-quality meats. I didn’t want to be “that vegetarian cook” again. There was also an upcoming holiday party at the bar I was working at; it was going to be a dinner at Peter Luger’s, the 131-year-old steakhouse in Brooklyn. What better place to lose my meat virginity?

The longer you simmer these spicy, juicy meatballs, the tastier they'll be. Photo by James Ransom

After an informal poll I took vastly agreed that bacon was the gateway drug to my new carnivorous lifestyle, I started with the famous Peter Luger bacon. As it turns out, I really liked it. I ate shrimp cocktail, steak, and drank heavily to steel my nerves. Not only did I not get sick as some had predicted, I felt perfectly great. I tried everything that was offered to me, a rule I have continued to live by with great pride.

And then on a trip back home to Texas, the moment of truth came: I told my grandma that I was no longer a vegetarian. Without skipping a beat, she said, “Oh good, let’s go to Lockhart and get some barbecue!” The dividends of my new eating habits were paying off.

Over BBQ at Kreuz Market, I told her that I was really dying to try her meatballs and the next day we made them together. I was not disappointed. They were extremely delicious and unique—it was like I had been given a long-lost birthright. Because I have no nostalgia for meat or meatballs, I felt I was pretty quickly able to break down what made them special:

All beef or mostly beef

Being in Texas, of course beef is king. My grandma’s meatballs were almost always all beef (Falls County sits squarely in cattle country), but if you want to use pork or veal it shouldn’t affect the recipe too much.

Grandma Mary and Anthony's grandfather in New Orleans. Photo by Anthony Falco

Sooo much parmesan cheese—and very little binder

There is a lot of cheese in this recipe. I like Parmesan and Pecorino; my grandma would use both. I’ve also added a panade (a mix of starch, like bread or panko, and liquid), but she generally never used one. They are essentially meat and cheese balls.

It's a spicy meatball

Being Sicilians, and being in Texas, spice is a part of life. The recipe makes for a pretty spicy meatball, so if you have a low tolerance for spice you might want to bring it down a notch.

Fennel for the win

Fennel and fennel seed were featured prominently in many of my Sicilian family’s recipes. I like to grind my fennel with other spices and salt to make a blend that will season the meat evenly; you won't find the large chunks of fennel seed that would normally appear in my grandma's recipe. But if you want to go more rustic and skip grinding the spices, that will work too.

Perfect for Sunday Dinner

One of the great things about this recipe is that you can make the meatballs the day before and let them chill overnight. They’ll hold their shape better and all you'll have to do the next day is pop them in the oven, or fry them in a pan, before they take a swim in your tomato sauce. Once they are simmering away in the sauce, you have a pretty flexible window of time to prepare your pasta, salad, and any other accompanying dishes. As a bonus, the sauce will only get more flavorful and the meatballs more tender the longer you cook them. I prefer to serve them separately in a big bowl, then I dress some pasta with the sauce (paccheri or spaghetti are great) and let people help themselves. Mamma Mia Meatballs!

More Sunday Dinner Ideas

In partnership with Lagostina, the premium Italian cookware brand that values high-quality materials and time-honored craftsmanship, we're highlighting the #LagostinaSundayDinner with a new series all about the Italian tradition. Every Sunday, we'll share go-to Sunday recipes from some of our favorite chefs and cookbook authors.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

International Pizza Consultant


Adam April 6, 2019
My Fiancee said this was the best Spaghetti and meatballs recipe she ever had . I did though had baked the meatballs at 300 and for 20 minutes and held nicely. I had jalepenos and serrano peppers to add on to it and yes it was awesome!
Kim November 4, 2018
PLEASE post the vegetarian version!!