{Wicked Good} ItalianĀ Meatballs

August 10, 2010
3 Ratings
  • Serves 8-10 meatballs
Author Notes

The secret to moist, airy, perfectly seasoned meatballs is in the breadcrumbs -- they can make or break the flavor and texture.

If you've never made your own breadcrumbs before, pardon me for yelling at you, but you really should MAKE YOUR OWN BREADCRUMBS! It takes seconds to whirl up in a food processor, and will make the best meatballs in town. Seriously.

Why store bought breadcrumbs stink:
Store bought breadcrumbs often take on the taste of the cardboard in which they are packaged, and offer a crumb so small that they could never allow the small pockets of air to form within the meatball, which keeps the meatballs light and airy. Store bought breadcrumbs make a dense, dry meatball, so stop using store bought breadcrumbs for meatballs, I mean it!

Use fresh bread, not stale:
Grab a loaf of any bakery-style bread -- Italian, sourdough, French -- or, make your own. It's very important that the loaf or baguette be fresh. Fresh bread has a lot of moisture in it and will help to produce the larger crumb we need in the food processor. Dry or stale bread will produce a smaller crumb, which is bad for meatballs. Do not use sandwich bread. It's full of chemicals to keep it stable and fresh for weeks, and will fall apart in the food processor {um, because it's not real food -- real food doesn't contain exthoxylated mono and diglycerides or diammonium phosphate}.

Using fresh bread also eliminates the need for soaking the bread in milk, or anything else. Soaking stale bread will add necessary moisture, but it also creates a mushy mess that condenses within the meat, creating a dense meatball. We're looking for light, airy meatballs. Milky bread does not make a light and airy meatball.

Flavor profiles:
The breadcrumbs are going to carry our herbs, spices and aromatics, and infuse them into the meat. We're focusing on an Italian flavor profile in this recipe, but in the future, be brave enough to think beyond spaghetti night. More on that later.

The flavor will make its way into the breadcrumbs with an infused olive oil of roasted garlic, shallots and fresh herbs. Once the oil is fully infused with the roasted aromatics, the breadcrumbs will soak it all up and then be toasted, right in the pan.

Never put this into the meat:
Do you like steamed onions and garlic? Nope, I didn't think so. Neither does anyone else. Do not add raw onions or garlic to your meat as seasonings. The onions and garlic will steam within the meat and produce an off-putting flavor that is strangely bland and unidentifiable. Is it an onion? Is it garlic? The world may never know when it's steamed inside meat.

What kind of meat makes a great meatball?
The type of meat you use for your meatballs is personal preference. Some cooks and chefs like to use a mixture of ground beef and pork, or a trinity of ground beef, pork and veal. Ground turkey, chicken and lamb are also popular choices.

I'm not a fan of mixing meats for meatballs, period. I find the gray color that the pork and veal produce when cooked, along with the varied textures, unappetizing. Whether I'm making beef, chicken, turkey or lamb meatballs, I only use one type of meat. In this recipe, I'm using lean, grass-fed ground beef. Lean beef is important for this recipe because we're adding olive oil back into the beef via the breadcrumbs, essentially removing the bad fats, and adding in good fats. If we used an 80/20 ground chuck, our meatballs would be too greasy {which, on rare occasion, isn't such a bad thing}.

And what about the tomato sauce?
Wicked Good Italian meatballs are a treat on their own, but they're even better when slowly braised in tomato sauce. The sauce itself couldn't be simpler, with only four ingredients: tomatoes and garlic, salt and pepper. The meatballs absorb some of the cooking liquid while braising, plumping them up, and return the favor by imparting herby flavors from the breadcrumbs into the sauce.

Are you ready? Let's make some Wicked Good Meatballs! —dawnviola

What You'll Need
  • 1/2 loaf of Italian, French or sourdough bread, sliced
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 4 cloves garlic, lightly smashed (split but still whole)
  • 4 fresh basil leaves, whole
  • 1 shallot, finely minced
  • 1/4 cup fresh Greek oregano leaves, whole
  • Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper to taste
  • 1/2 cup fresh flat leaf parsley
  • 1 pound lean ground beef, preferably grass-fed
  • 1 anchovy fillet, smashed into a paste
  • Seasoned Breadcrumbs {made with ingredients above}
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten
  • olive oil for frying
  • 2 (28 ounce) cans San Marzano Crushed Tomatoes
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper to taste
  1. Make the breadcrumbs: Place the slices of bread in a food processor and whirl until they resemble large breadcrumbs, no larger than 1/4". Set aside. Heat the olive oil in a large skillet on low heat. Add the garlic to the warm oil and cook for one minute. Increase the heat to medium and toast the garlic in the pan until lightly golden. Add the oregano, basil and shallots and cook until wilted and aromatic. Adjust heat as needed to prevent the garlic from burning. Add the breadcrumbs to the pan and gently toss or stir to coat with the olive oil mixture. Toast the bread crumbs in the pan over medium heat until golden brown. Add salt and pepper to taste. Remove from heat and allow to cool for 10 minutes. Return the seasoned breadcrumbs back to the food processor, adding everything from the pan, including the herbs and garlic to the food processor bowl. Add the fresh parsley and pulse until the garlic and herbs are well chopped and combined. Set aside.
  2. Make the meatballs: Place the ground beef in a large mixing bowl. Add the smashed anchovy, seasoned breadcrumbs and egg. Mix with a fork until well combined and moist. Roll a handful of the mixture into a 1 1/2" ball and place on a baking sheet or tray. Repeat until all of the meat mixture is used. Place the tray of meatballs into the fridge for 20 minutes to firm up. Heat a large, wide stock pot on medium heat with enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan. Add the meatballs to the pan, in a single layer, without crowding. Allow the meatballs to sear and brown on the first side in the oil, and then gently turn the meatballs to cook another side. Some of the meatballs may stick, so use a flexible spatula or spoon to nudge the meatball from underneath. Repeat until all sides have been seared and browned, and have a well-formed crust on the outside of the meat. If the pan is not wide enough to cook all of the meatballs at once, sear the meatballs in batches.
  3. Make the tomato sauce: Add the garlic to the pan and gently stir, without breaking the meatballs. Add the San Marzano tomatoes, cover the post and slowly bring the sauce to a simmer. Reduce the heat to a low simmer, shift the lid to allow steam to escape, and cook for 30 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste. Carefully stir without breaking the meatballs, and adjust the seasoning as needed. Cover the pot, lid ajar, and continue to simmer for 2 hours. The sauce will reduce and thicken. Adjust seasoning as needed.
  4. To store, separate the meatballs and sauce, and store in a glass or ceramic container for up to 7 days. (plastic containers can transfer other flavors and odors into the meatballs and sauce)
  5. Meatballs without sauce: If you'd like to freeze the meatballs without sauce, or use them in another way without tomato sauce, simmer fried meatballs in low sodium chicken stock until cooked through. Store meatballs, without liquid, in a glass or ceramic container for up to 7 days.

See what other Food52ers are saying.

  • Sandra Gout
    Sandra Gout
  • cakillgore
  • Fran McGinty
    Fran McGinty
  • Cook the Story
    Cook the Story
  • AntoniaJames

19 Reviews

Sandra G. May 27, 2021
I learnt something new about how to add fresh breadcrumbs rather than stale breadcrumbs to the meatball mixture. Excellent reviews from my family at the dinner table last night :)
Eric E. February 22, 2021
This is my go-to meatball recipe. The process is time-consuming but the results are worth the work.
Laine November 16, 2019
This did NOT work. Meatballs dinistigrated within 15 mins of being in sauce. So disappointing.
Eric E. February 22, 2021
I have done this. You have to sear the outside so that you create a shell-like "crust" that keeps the meatballs together.
Meffaman November 27, 2012
Wow, I'm a believer! Cooking the garlic and sweating the onion really made sense. I've never made homemade breadcrumbs before and am a total convert now! I live in a very Italian area with lots of top notch bakeries that have been around for ages. I just Scali bread for my crumbs. I also added a little sausage meat for extra flavoring. I can't even begin to tell you how good the meatballs came out. Thanks so much!
cakillgore February 4, 2012
I was not searching for meatballs but your name caught my eyes. I for the first time made my own breadcrumbs per your suggestion and I will never look back. The thought you put into all these instructions and explanation of why you did it convinced me and makes perfect sense. I just finished making and my husband already ate six (and it's not even dinner). I doubled the recipe as you mentioned 1 lb. of meat makes 8-10 but after buying 2 lbs of meat, and doubling recipe, I came out with 35 meatballs. I figure if I spend time cooking, I want to make sure there is plenty for left overs.

The recipe is time consuming, and I loved all the processes and steps to make the perfect meatball. As you mentioned, it's very light and airy and now I know the difference between taking your time and making it perfect, or rushing and using boxed breadcrumbs. Many Thanks!
dawnviola February 5, 2012
You made my day, @cakillgore! Thank you for your very sweet post :-)
Fran M. May 7, 2011
I will be making your meatballs tonight. I have always used Basil as my seasoning, so this will be a little different for me. I am sure it will be very tasty. I especially like the addition of anchovy, Nobody I talked to in Italy when I lived there ever mentioned Anchovy. My girlfriend who's family is from Northern Italy says you always use basil, never oregano. That in itself makes me want to try them. I can't wait to try them and the tell her how they turned out OR, I will make them for her one night while she is at work and just listen to the argument at the dinner table that night.
Cook T. May 5, 2011
You're hilarious! It's weird, I make my own breadcrumbs for all kinds of things but for some reason I always throw the bought ones into meatballs and burgers. I guess I thought the difference wouldn't be noticeable there. You've convinced me!
AntoniaJames April 28, 2011
Okay, you say "no sandwich bread." May I use my Buttermilk Barley Bread (recipe posted here on food52) that's two days old and still moist? BTW, it's nice to see a meatball recipe that calls for 1/4 cup of fresh oregano leaves. ;o)
hardlikearmour April 28, 2011
Your header is a riot! Thanks for sharing such explicit directions, my tummy is growling from your recipe.
jollygreenani April 28, 2011
Thank you for the tutorial! I'm so looking forward to trying these. As a young cook, I appreciate any handed down knowledge (especially the helpful kind).
Sagegreen August 12, 2010
You are so right! I love the basics that you have covered so well, here.
lapadia August 12, 2010
Your picture is worth a thousand words; shows your dedication to some "Wicked Good Meatballs" the name!
Svetlana August 11, 2010
Having airy and moist meatballs is essential. I do not mind you yelling (if you did not, I would have!). It is so easy to make breadcrumbs. I have a friend who thinks I am too idle because I make so many things from scratch. But I forgo soap-operas, naps, useless gossiping, etc. so that we can enjoy the food at its best.
Great post!
dawnviola August 11, 2010
Thanks @aargersi and @AntoniaJames. Hope you enjoy the recipe - it's definitely worth the effort :-)
aargersi August 10, 2010
You passion and conviction re: breadcrumbs and meatballs make me smile. Plus, they DO sound wicked good!!!
dawnviola August 10, 2010
Awwwe, sorry. All of my paragraph breaks are gone :-(
AntoniaJames August 10, 2010
No worries, I love your recipe, anyway. And your passion for doing whatever it takes to produce great results. You've utterly and unequivocally convinced me. The four-ingredient sauce (four counting the salt and pepper, no less!) rocks, too. ;o)