Dinner Party

Grandma's Sicilian Meatballs in a Spicy Tomato Sauce

October 19, 2018
6 Ratings
Photo by James Ransom
  • Prep time 5 hours 45 minutes
  • Cook time 2 hours 45 minutes
  • Serves 6 to 8
Author Notes

Growing up Sicilian-American in Texas, I remember eating the food my great-grandmother and grandma prepared at big family gatherings. But I never once had my grandmother’s meatballs until my 20s (I had always been a vegetarian, like my dad). When I finally made them with her, I was not disappointed—it was like I had been given a long-lost birthright. The recipe makes a pretty spicy meatball, so if you have a low tolerance for spice you might want to bring it down a notch. A note: I like to 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 arrabbiata sauce. —Anthony Falco

Test Kitchen Notes

This recipe is featured in the story, My Grandmother's Spicy Italian Meatballs Are Anything But Standard, sponsored by Lagostina. —The Editors

What You'll Need
Watch This Recipe
Grandma's Sicilian Meatballs in a Spicy Tomato Sauce
  • For the meatballs:
  • 2 slices stale white bread, crusts removed and roughly chopped
  • 1/3 cup milk
  • 1/4 cup fresh flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 3/4 teaspoon dried, crushed Calabrian chili
  • 1/2 teaspoon fennel seed
  • 2 pounds ground beef
  • 1/3 cup rendered beef fat
  • 1 cup Pecorino Romana, grated
  • 1/2 cup Grana Padano, grated
  • 1/4 cup unseasoned breadcrumbs
  • For the sauce:
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 large white onion, finely chopped
  • 4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
  • 1 fresh red chili (Birdseye or similar), stem and seeds removed and finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon dried, crushed Calabrian chili
  • 48 ounces tomato passata
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt, or more as needed
  1. Make the meatball mixture: Add the bread to a medium bowl and pour the milk over top. Soak for 15 minutes, then tip off any excess milk. Add soaked bread to a food processor along with the parsley and a pinch of salt, and pulse until a smooth paste forms. Set aside.
  2. Add 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, Calabrian chili, fennel seeds, and 1/4 teaspoon black pepper to a spice grinder and grind until a fine powder forms.
  3. Line the bottom of a large baking dish with parchment paper. Using a large mixing bow, add the ground beef, beef fat, Pecorino, Grana Padano, soaked bread mixture, ground spices, and bread crumbs. Gently mix with your hands until fully combined. Roll meat mixture into 1-inch balls and arrange in a single layer in the prepared baking dish. Cover and refrigerate for at least 5 hours, or up to overnight.
  4. Make the sauce: Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan set over medium-low heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened and lightly browned, about 6 to 8 minutes. Add the garlic, fresh chili, and dried Calabrian chili; cook, stirring often, until fragrant, about 2 to 3 minutes.
  5. Add the tomato passata and salt; bring to a boil, then lower the heat to low, cover the pan, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until thickened, about 2 hours.
  6. Cook the meatballs: Preheat the oven to 250° F (take the baking dish out of the refrigerator and let rest at room temperature while the oven preheats). Transfer the baking dish to the oven and bake until meatballs are firm enough to handle, but still rare on the inside, about 20 minutes. Gently transfer the meatballs to the sauce. Cover and simmer, gently stirring once or twice, until cooked through, about 20 minutes. Taste, and add more salt, if needed. Serve hot.

See what other Food52ers are saying.

  • TurkeyBeanBacon
  • Sarah Bradley
    Sarah Bradley
  • Matt
  • Michael Persuitte
    Michael Persuitte
  • Anthony Falco
    Anthony Falco

8 Reviews

Chloroph March 29, 2020
These were delicious! Didn't have rendered beef fat on hand (used a little olive oil and egg instead) or enough time to let them set overnight. Still, the meatballs turned out beautifully. Great flavor and perfect consistency- just the perfect balance between soft and firm ad oh so silky. This will be my go-to from now on!
TurkeyBeanBacon September 11, 2019
These were fantastic! I took the time to render the beef fat (which I’d never done before and took forever), and I’m so glad I did! Also, in the past I’ve browned meatballs before adding them to the sauce, but I really like this low-oven trick, as it keep the meatballs together and still really soft. Thank you Grandma Falco!
Sarah B. July 17, 2019
Spicy Balls - delightful
Sarah B. July 17, 2019
LOVED this recipe!! I used about half the amount of cheese (just had the pecorino on hand). I browned the meatballs on the stove on two sides before dumping them (and the fat) in the sauce. I also cooked the meatballs first and prepared the sauce in the same pan to get all the beefy fatty goodness in the sauce. Usually add onion, celery, and carrot in the sauce base before adding tomatoes for a thicker marinara then use an immersion blender to smooth out the sauce before adding meatballs. This meatball recipe is by far the best I’ve tried!!! Can’t wait to make them extra cheesy next time.
Matt December 16, 2018
The recipe and the video do not have the same instructions. I wish I had followed the video instructions. Cooking the meatballs in the oven at 250 and then simmering them in the sauce for 20 minutes was not enough time to cook and create a proper texture. I cut into one and while my thermometer said that they were at temp to be considered "cooked" they were so full of liquid that they turned to mush almost immediately. I was unable to stir the meatballs in the sauce they were falling apart so badly.

This recipe needs to be fixed.
Michael P. November 5, 2018
Hello Anthony,
Great story. I grew up in a very similar life. I learned a lot in the kitchen from my Mom. She was from Italy.
When you posted the oven temp, did you mean 450 degrees? We always put the meatballs in a hot oven so they would brown on the outside.


Anthony F. November 10, 2018
I actually meant 250f. It's a very low and slow cook, to keep all the fat from coming out. I'm not looking to get any color, just have them setup so they stay together in the sauce. They are finished cooking in the sauce. This will keep them juicy and tender.
Michael P. November 10, 2018
Interesting. I will have to try that.