Monday, April 11, 2011

Authentic Italian Meatballs... & Gravy??

I've never made a meatball. I'll admit it, I've always been afraid. I've heard so many people and television chefs complain about dense, heavy, bland meatballs, that making a genuinely authentic and flavorful meatball seemed completely unattainable. This apathetic attitude changed with one meal. We had dinner at our friends' house, a couple who share the same birthday. Their Italian father/father-in-law made his family recipe for spaghetti and meatballs and from the first bite of heaven, I was determined - I absolutely had to try to make meatballs. I could no longer be dependent on the food charity of amazingly talented friends, or the fare at second-rate Italian restaurants; I resolved to research authentic recipes and learn to feed the future cravings this meal was sure to ignite.

Along the way, I was surprised to learn that many American Italian families living in the North East U.S. refer to spaghetti sauce as gravy, that the addition of meat to the sauce is an American adaptation of traditional Italian recipes to accommodate the American love of meat, and that the name spaghetti and meatballs is derived from the type of pasta that is used in the dish, not the dish itself.

I did a lot of research and combined tips, tricks and methods from several sources, but this recipe, from Cook's Illustrated is fantastic start. This recipe took the better part of a day, but it was more than worth it!

Sunday Gravy

source: Authentic Italian Gravy



  • Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • 1 Rack of Pork Spareribs
  • 1 Package Hot Italian Sausages
  • 1 Package Sweet Italian Sausages
  • 2 Large Onions, Chopped
  • 2 Teaspoons Dried Oregano
  • 1/2 Teaspoon White Pepper
  • 3 Tablespoons Tomato Paste
  • 4 Cloves Garlic, Minced
  • 1 Teaspoon Beef Bullion or 1 cup beef broth
  • 3 28 Ounce Cans Crushed Tomatoes
  • 1/4 Cup Chopped Fresh Basil Leaves
  • 1/2 Cup Red Wine


  • 4 1/2" Slices Sourdough Sandwich Bread, cubed
  • 1.5 Cups Buttermilk
  • 1/4 Cup Chopped Fresh Parsley
  • 3 Garlic Cloves, Minced
  • 1 Large Egg Yolk
  • 1/2 Teaspoon Kosher Salt
  • 1/4 Teaspoon Crushed Red Pepper Flakes
  • 1 Pound Ground Pork
  • 1 Pound Ground Veal
  • 1 Pound Ground Beef
  • 1/2 Cup Pecorino Romano Cheese, Grated
  • 2 Ounces Proscuitto, Chopped Fine
  • 1 Box Barilla Plus Angel Hair Pasta


For the Sauce

  1. Adjust oven rack to lower- middle position and heat oven to 325 degrees.
  2. Heat enough extra virgin olive oil to cover the bottom of large Dutch oven over medium-high heat until just smoking.
  3. Pat ribs dry with paper towels and season with salt and pepper.
  4. Cut the rack of ribs into individual ribs.
  5. Add ribs to pot in batches and brown on both sides and set aside.
  6. Brown sausages on all sides and transfer to plate with ribs.
  7. Reduce heat to medium, add onions, white pepper and oregano
  8. Cook, stirring occasionally, until beginning to brown.
  9. Add tomato paste and cook, stirring constantly for a few minutes, until very dark.
  10. Stir in garlic and cook briefly until fragrant.
  11. Deglaze the pot with red wine.
  12. Add crushed tomatoes, basil and bouillon or broth, scraping up any browned bits.
  13. Return ribs and sausage to pot; bring to simmer, cover and transfer to oven.
  14. Cook until ribs are tender, about 3½ hours.

For the Meatballs

  1. Combine bread cubes, buttermilk, parsley, garlic, egg yolk, salt and red pepper flakes in the bowl of a food processor and blend until well combined (I tried the fork and hand blender method below, but will definitely leave the work to the food processor next time).
  2. Add veal, pork, beef, prosciutto and Pecorino Romano to the bread mixture in a large mixing bowl.
  3. Divide and roll into 17 meatballs.
  4. Transfer to cookie sheet or jelly pan, cover with plastic and refrigerate until ready to use (for at least one hour).
  5. When sauce is about 30 minutes from being done, heat oil in large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering.
  6. Add meatballs in batches and cook until well browned all over and transfer to a paper towel lined cookie sheet to drain.
  7. Transfer browned meatballs to sauce pot and submerge.
  8. Cover, return pot to oven and continue cooking until meatballs are just cooked through, about 15 minutes.
  9. Remove sauce from oven and skim fat from top with large spoon.  

To Serve

  1. Bring 6 quarts water to boil in large pot. 
  2. Add pasta and salt and cook until al dente.
  3. Reserve ½ cup cooking water; drain pasta and transfer back to cooking pot.
  4. Using tongs, transfer meatballs, ribs, and sausage to serving platter and cut sausages in half.
  5. Stir basil into sauce and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.
  6. Toss pasta with 1 cup sauce and reserved pasta cooking water so that sauce lightly coats pasta.
  7. Serve pasta, passing remaining sauce and meat platter separately.

What I'd Change Next Time:

  • Portion out the raw ribs and meatball mixture into smaller batches and freeze for future use so there's a better proportion of sauce to meat.
  • Separate the ribs and the meatballs from the sauce when storing the left overs to keep the meatballs in tact.
  • Add an additional egg yolk for each additional pound of meat in the meatballs to help bind them.
  • Use less Pecorino Romano cheese in the meatballs, as the flavor is both strong and rich and threw the flavor balance in the meatballs a little off.
  • We couldn't tell the hot sausages from the sweet, next time I'll cut one of them in half to differentiate between the two. 
  • Next time we're inviting friends and family over to share the feast, this recipe makes a lot of food, and while it made great leftovers, it would have been more fun to share.


I highly recommend a pair of kitchen tongs. I use them for everything, and they're especially great for not having to touch raw meat and for flipping steaks, pork chops, bacon, chicken or anything else in a hot pan.
The only and best thing I've ever learned from Rachel Ray is the infamous garbage bowl, get one, use one, love one! It really helps your workflow in the kitchen, prevents trips back and forth to the sink or trash can and seems to be more sanitary to work over as well.