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I love meatballs!

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Spaghetti with meatballs is the consumate Italian-American dish, but it doesn't exist as such in Italy. Here is how an Italian would cook it.

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I love meatballs. I even learned Italian to get up close and personal with meatballs. This is a working class dish in Italy, with stale bread ground into crumbs added to the meat to increase the volume while keeping the cost in check. American meatballs are very special and unlike those found in the Italian peninsula. In America, a very traditional way of preparing this is spaghetti with meatballs. Here is a hybrid rendering with meatballs in ragù sauce just like in Italy but served with linguine, a sort of fat flat spaghetto. In Naples meatballs are used with maccheroni.

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Your bread needs to be stale and if possible rock hard so that you can turn it into crumbles in a mortar and pestle or mixer. Add a little milk to turn these dry crumbs into a sticky cement that will become part of the meatballs without having them fall apart. alternatively, if you don't have very stale bread use day's old bread cut in little cubes and leave it soak in the milk for 10 minutes. I recommend you then chop the wet bread finely so that it won't show up in the meatballs.

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Clockwise from the top: ground meat, crushed garlic, finely chopped parsley, wet bread crumbs, onion, egg, grated cheese. Mix with a fork or with both hands until you have a smooth, homogeneous paste.

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With your hands shape walnut-sized meatballs.

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Fry the meatballs in a large frying pan in 2 tbsp olive oil until they are white all over and pale brown patches start to appear. Cover and reserve.

The sauce
To follow Neapolitan tradition I prepared a simple Neapolitan ragù, much quicker to make than the real thing. In Naples it would be called ragù finto - 'pretend ragù'.

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In a large Dutch oven fry a finely chopped dry sausage or pancetta. Add the chopped onion and garlic and leave to color for about 5 minutes.

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Prepare your tomato concentrate (yes it comes in cans, called buat in Napoli) and a jug of water next to your Dutch oven.

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Add the tomato concentrate little by little (ideally one tablespoon at a time), mix well and let it turn dark brown. Add a glass of water, mix everything and let the mixture bubble over high heat, adding a little more concentrate. Let it turn dark too before adding water again. Proceed like this until you run out of concentrate, then add the meatballs and a 2 glasses of water, cover and let it simmer over low heat until the pasta is ready but if possible at least 1 hour.

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Fill your largest pot with water, add 2 tbsp salt and bring it to a rolling boil over your hottest burner.

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Boil your pasta - here I used homemade linguine but you can use bought spaghetti.

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Heat the plates and serve a generous laddle of sauce and meatballs over the pasta. Spaghetti with meatballs, an American recipe for meatball lovers, at last prepared like real meatballs should.


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  • #1
  • Comment by claudia
I didn't think that anyone used that kind of curley parsley ever for cooking. I would have assumed that you use the flat leaf.
  • #2
  • Comment by Saxit
What kind of ground meat would you use for this to make it traditional Italian?
  • #3
  • Comment by Alex de Berniere
I do like the simplicity of your method and writing style; ben fatto indeed.  Whilst true that this particular combination of 'polpette di carne' in ragu, with spaghetti, is not 'italian-italian' it is delicious and exactly what non-italian friends dream of and come to expect.  Great stuff to devour in front of The Sopranos or Goodfellas.  I would love to see a recipe here for the kind of dry, bread-heavy polpette that you find flattened into oval shaped discs.  Such have I sampled in Milan, Venice and Bologna though whether characteristically northern or not, I could not say.  These polpette are a real treat, especially in the lunch-box or with a salad.distini salutiAlex de Berniere
  • #4
  • Comment by thuan
So I finally got the proper ingredients, equipment, and kitchen to emulate the works of FX and wow!!! - i never knew how easy it was to make "real" meatballs this tasty!  there was only a tad bit trouble with the daddy meatballs trying to break up into clumps of baby meatballs (too much bread-milk i suppose) but in the end it tasted magnificent!
  • #5
  • Answered by fx
Thuan, congratulations on trying your first meatballs! You can use them in many different shapes, even on the grill in the summer, or in baked pasta dishes, etc...
I've got half a mind to stop everything I'm doing and go through your site to make every single recipe. I've tried three so far, the Bolognese, the drowned broccoli and this one (just posted about it on my blog), and every single one has been a delicious dream. I'm going to stop now, because I'm drooling on the keyboard, but I just wanted to thank you from the bottom of my heart for the most delicious meatball recipe EVER.
  • FX's answer→ Well thanks Emiglia, that is very nice to hear! You certainly chose three nice recipes, perhaps next time you might try the Neapolitan Ragù or the Lasagne alla Bolognese or one of the Sicilian pasta?

  • #8
  • Comment by Chanio
Gracias por tan buena receta.
Aprecio la forma de volver marrón oscura la salsa. Tal como la hacia mi abuela...

La estoy haciendo, y le he agregado a la salsa básica un poco de champignones para homogeneizar aun mas el sabor general.

Suerte a todos los que prueben la receta... Y buen provecho!
  • #9
  • Comment by Omí Wale

I learned from my mother and she always used one or all of:  grated carrot, grated potato, eggs.  Not as an extender but to homogenize and keep tender the meat balls.

In my family we only use the curly parsley.  Some of it is ground with the meat, along with onions.  We use canned tomato paste.  I've never used the Ragu that they sell.

I love your recipe and will try it soon.

Omí Wale

  • #10
  • Comment by Debbie D
I have been cooking for over 30 years and in the process,have taken classes, bought hundreds of cookbooks, inherited my mother's and grandmother's recipes and books, and have visited recipe/cooking websites and watched TV shows, videos, etc.  Your web site, especially with your gorgeous photos and esplicit instructions, is by far the best I have experienced.  (Don't know how I missed it before now!)  I have found a reason to have a computer in my kitchen!  Never thought I could find anything that compares to one-on-one learning but your presentations sure come close!  Congrats and thank you for sharing your skill and knowledge with the all of us.  If it inspires others as it has me, just think how many new cooks might discover the joy of home cooking and the real value of good food, family, and friends! My family is in for one glorious summer of eating!
  • #11
  • Comment by Sarah
Hi, I wanted to make something like this but for about 15 people. How would I go about that? Especially if I wanted to use your 7 hour ragu recipe.
  • FX's answer→ Just a big pot and multiply the recipes.

  • #13
  • Comment by nancyThe  ritz
Reading The Dance of the Seagull and looked up pasta 'ncasciata and found your site and am so happy for the book and finding your recipes.
  • FX's answer→ I hope you get to try it!

  • #15
  • Comment by Donald Emery
Some hint about proportions would be nice, but even more specific. For example, how much is 2 glasses of water?
  • FX's answer→ Donald, you are right. Here all you need is to add just enough water so as to dissolve the tomato, especially the bits attached to the bottom of the pot, but not too much water either as you need to almost scorch it again right afterwards. So use a 1dl glass of water and see how much you really need to achieve that. Good luck!

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