Every week -- often with your help -- Food52's Senior Editor Kristen Miglore is unearthing recipes that are nothing short of genius.

Today: Just in time for Father's Day, ultra-tender meatballs with a surprising magic ingredient: water, and lots of it. 

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I don't care what your grandma says. Spaghetti and meatballs doesn't have to be a meal that you slave over and simmer all day, nor does it need to put you into hibernation once you've eaten it. 

This is why Rao's famous meatballs -- in particular, this version from owner Frank Pellegrino -- are surprisingly perfect for June (and especially Father's Day).


Other great meatball recipes rely on milk, or salty cheese, or even mayonnaise for their tenderness and personality. This one has the most unexpected secret ingredient of all: lots of tepid water.

  mixing meatballs

It's going to look like way too much -- two cups for two pounds of meat? You will also doubt you can serve very many people with this. But that's before you dump your water over the rest of your ingredients, and see the breadcrumbs quickly start rehydrating. 


Like little sponges, they suck up all available liquid, expanding and lightening the mix. Now you have meat, garlic, cheese, and herbs, all delicately clung together with a little egg and a lot more wet, willing bread. 

Now back to that thing your grandma said: I've found that you can mix, shape, and fry these meatballs in exactly the time it takes for Marcella Hazan's tomato, butter, and onion sauce to cook (or even this 20-minute marinara, if you're really fast). Then you'll plunk them into the sauce for 15 minutes to finish cooking.

  fried meatballs

You could just slip them straight into the sauce instead, but when you fry until they're good and brown first, you're invoking the Maillard reaction -- which might be my favorite reaction -- caramelizing all the cobbled surfaces and cranking up the rich, meaty flavor, which it then generously shares with the sauce.

meat a balls

The caveats: 

• Make your own fresh breadcrumbs (i.e. grind up some stale bread) or, if your crumbs are purchased and quite fine, cut back by half, and don't use quite as much water. I can't be responsible for your stiff, mealy dumpling-balls and sad dad if you don't heed this.

• Use local, pastured, not very lean meats if at all possible. Good flavor and fat go a long way here. 

Whether you want to tell the dad in your life that this took 1 hour, not 10 (and mention the pint of water), that's up to you. It won't matter once you serve them forth.


Rao's Meatballs

Adapted slightly rom Rao's Cookbook by Frank Pellegrino (Random House, 1998)

Makes 28 Meatballs

1 pound lean ground beef
1/2 pound ground veal
1/2 pound ground pork
2 large eggs
1 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese
1 1/2 tablespoon chopped Italian parsley
1/2 small clove garlic, peeled and minced
Kosher or sea salt, to taste
Freshly ground pepper, to taste
2 cups fresh bread crumbs
2 cups lukewarm water
1 cup good quality olive oil, for cooking
Your favorite marinara sauce (we recommend this one or this one)

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Got a genius recipe to share -- from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected].

Photos by James Ransom 


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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Becky
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I'm an ex-economist, lifelong-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007, before returning to the land of Dutch Crunch bread and tri-tip barbecues in 2020. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."


Becky February 18, 2016
I followed recipe but the meatballs were a little to soft or mushy? Would using 1 cup of milk instead of the water help this problem? And, I found the meatballs a little bland, any suggestions for how they could be made more flavorful? Thank so much!
Marie F. December 29, 2019
I add oragano ( I use the ground kind) and a few flakes of hot pepper ( pepperoncini) Kosher salt and I soak the bread or breadcrumbs in milk in a cup. This adds moisture and flavor. Use 1/2 cup grated cheese for 1 1/2 lbs of. Meats.
claudia November 15, 2015
Tired of Thanksgiving?? It hasn't even arrived yet! Golly!!
aron G. November 15, 2015
This recipe is just about identical with that of Ina Garten's.
Lara June 21, 2015
I followed the recipe to a T, made homemade breadcrumbs, meatballs had great flavor, but the texture was a little weird-too "soft", any thoughts?
Christina November 15, 2015
The same thing happened to me. The mixture was so soft, the balls flattened into patties when I fried them. Now that I'm rereading this recipe, however, I realize that I didn't use stale bread or dried out bread. I used fresh bread and turned it into crumbs in my food processor. But this recipe mentions how the water rehydrates the bread, so now I'm wondering if my 'fresh' bread crumbs weren't dry enough.
JessieV June 18, 2015
These are the best meatballs I've ever made. They were incredible! Keeping this recipe on the fridge. :)
Kylee March 13, 2014
Rao's is a wonderful dining experience! I was inspired to make these meatballs for my grandson's first birthday. I made them smaller and served them as sliders to rave reviews. They didn't last long. So good!
Kylee March 13, 2014
One more note: I baked the meatballs instead of frying them. They came out really good and I didn't have to deal with the frying mess!
ginger B. March 12, 2014
Aren't these just the best?!!! Split open a baguette, stuff in a couple of meatballs, slather on your favorite marinara sauce. And Rao's -- what an experience,and I'm not talking about the food.
Eileen January 15, 2014
I've had the pleasure of eating at Rao's twice, many years ago. The small intimate restaurant in the midst of Harlem on the river. It had a 2-3 month reservation wait list. I now own the cook book. 5 STARS......your mouth will explode with an orgasm of flavor.
Teresa December 11, 2013
I have owned this cookbook for many years; one of my favorites!! These meatballs are soooo delicious!! If you haven't, try making the lasagna. Use ground Bison meat in place of the ground beef in the marinara sauce....you won't be disappointed
Dave S. June 15, 2013
Ever since I was a kid my mom has always made her meatballs with crushed Ritz crackers (instead of bread crumbs), plenty of water, and some instant mashed potato flakes. Her meatballs are also incredibly light, tasty and tender!
jgjensen June 12, 2013
You're sooooooo right. I make a vegetarian version, eggs, cheddar, chopped walnuts, minced onion and bread crumbs and bake about 20 min. Tonight I added about 1/2 cup water--so much better. Added to pasta sauce with linguini--fab!
Auntie M. June 12, 2013
When I saw Genius meatball recipe, I knew it was Rao's! I gave the cookbook to my husband many years ago, and he has been making the meatballs and lemon chicken religiously. Both recipes are genius! Feel honored that Food52 agrees with us.
Amanda S. June 12, 2013
We usually don't use any breadcrumbs in our meatballs, but I have been craving meatballs and these popped up on my newsfeed so I made them tonight. My only problem is that they have totally broken apart since moving from the frying pan to the sauce! It's turning into a meat sauce... Perhaps they weren't done enough inside before I moved them to the sauce?
Amanda S. June 12, 2013
Oh I should mention that I did not use any pork, only beef and veal...
frog June 12, 2013
That is the problem.
Kristen M. June 13, 2013
Amanda S, I'm sorry to hear that. The meatballs don't need to be completely cooked before going into the sauce, but they should be nicely browned on the outsides. Did you increase the amounts of the other meats to make up for the pork? Hope it still tasted good!
wendy W. June 12, 2013
your recipe is nothing new. the secret was always to soak the bread in water or milk. however, it is nice to see someone making a rather authentic meatball.
Kenzi W. June 12, 2013
New recipes aren't so much the point of this column. Kristen uncovers a lot of old gems, too -- and these meatballs are a great example of that!
wendy W. June 12, 2013
i would not have known that. it is the first time i read it. thank you. i will keep it in mind.
wendy W. June 12, 2013
and i didn't see it was rao's recipe. sorry.
jslade June 12, 2013
This is the first recipe for meatballs that I have read that is exactly the way my mother used to make. Wow! Thanks!
ShannonJ June 12, 2013
I make them the way my grandmother (who made THE BEST meatballs in the world) did, by cooking them right in the sauce. Always soft and perfectly round. Always delicious. I also think cooking the meat in the sauce gives the sauce a richer flavor. Yum.
ChrisVeros June 17, 2013
I am also a proponent of 100% braising the balls. The frying is messy, oily, and it gives them flat sides. I have never found them wanting for a fried coating after cooking them in the sauce.
Karen A. June 12, 2013
I knew about this trick because my Taiwanese hubby's family has always used water in their dumpling meet. Works!
celine June 12, 2013
do we think there is magic to the water, or would any liquid do? milk, like MeatballsandMilkshakes suggested, or other? I know, I know, we're supposed to get over the weirdness of adding water to meatballs and just try it, but I am scared!
nutcakes June 12, 2013
Nothing to be scared about, this is a tried and true method from a well known restaurant and cookbook, and others use this method too. Rocco di Spirito used to have Rocco's Mama's meatballs on his website and his mother uses chicken stock which is also genius and I've made those many times. You can google to find that recipe reprinted on the food.com site.
ChrisVeros June 17, 2013
Milk works. In my recipe I use actual staled Italian bread and soak it in milk.
Henry L. June 12, 2013
Any suggestion for a substitution for the pork? Can't have any in our house... Thanks.
Amanda S. June 12, 2013
We just used all beef and veal, I also don't eat pork.
pierino June 12, 2013
I will second Amanda S on that. Just keep the meat ratio the same but increase the amounts of beef and veal. I would also use a "hamburger grind" of 80/20 which means 80% meat to 20% fat.
sabina June 12, 2013
I used lamb in place of veal, and it was not missed.
DeniseP June 12, 2013
Do any of you have a suggestion for something to use as a binder in lieu of egg? We have an egg allergy in the family. THANKS!
pierino June 12, 2013
That's an interesting challenge. I would like to think about that further. My first thoughts/impulses would probably turn your meatballs into cement bombs. I still have some ideas...
AntoniaJames June 12, 2013
Here's an interesting Hotline thread on that topic . . .http://food52.com/hotline/3846-i-don-t-have-an-egg-for-meatloaf-what-can-i-use

Also, vegans use ground flaxseed with water to replace eggs. The usual ratio is 3 tablespoons of water to 1 tablespoon of ground flaxseed = 1 egg. I might add a bit more water in this case. I'd probably try that first.

If you end up making these, please let us know how they turn out! ;o)
sabina June 12, 2013
Whey is a great binder used in a lot of non-egg cooking. You could strain some plain whole milk yogurt and try that--perhaps along with a little flax meal.
nutcakes June 12, 2013
My egg allergy friend uses a product called Ener-G egg re placer which comes out reasonably well for this task. I have heard of using flax but not tried it. Also Chia seed, also pureed tofu. And the strained yogurt sounds like a great idea for this use.