Calabrian Meatballs Recipe (2024)

By Anna Francese Gass

Calabrian Meatballs Recipe (1)

Total Time
2 hours
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Featured in my cookbook, “Heirloom Kitchen: Heritage Recipes and Family Stories from the Tables of Immigrant Women” (Harper Design, 2019), this polpette recipe comes from my grandmother’s Calabrian kitchen. The sugo di pomodoro, or tomato sauce, delivers complex flavor, serving as the poaching liquid for the delicate meatballs and as an essential ingredient in the meatballs themselves, adding both flavor and juiciness. Lightened further with milk and Italian bread crumbs, the meatballs are incredibly tender, bursting at the touch of your fork. The recipe yields a crowd-serving portion, perfect for Sunday dinner, but also freezes beautifully. Though the sauce may be tossed with your favorite pasta, this dish is the ideal version of a traditional platter of meatballs, covered in sauce and garnished with cheese and basil.

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Yield:About 16 meatballs and 7 cups sauce

    For the Sauce

    • 10fresh basil leaves
    • ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
    • 2garlic cloves, peeled and lightly smashed
    • 1teaspoon red-pepper flakes (optional)
    • 2(28-ounce) cans crushed tomatoes (8 cups)
    • 2tablespoons tomato paste
    • 1tablespoon kosher salt (such as Diamond Crystal)
    • 1teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

    For the Meatballs

    • ½ pound ground pork
    • ½ pound ground veal
    • ½ pound ground beef (preferably 15-percent fat)
    • 1cup finely grated Pecorino Romano cheese, plus more for serving
    • 1cup seasoned Italian bread crumbs
    • ½ cup whole milk
    • ½ cup tomato sauce (reserved from recipe above), cooled
    • 2large eggs, beaten
    • 1tablespoon chopped fresh parsley leaves (optional)
    • 1tablespoon kosher salt (such as Diamond Crystal)
    • 1teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Ingredient Substitution Guide

Nutritional analysis per serving (16 servings)

277 calories; 18 grams fat; 6 grams saturated fat; 0 grams trans fat; 9 grams monounsaturated fat; 2 grams polyunsaturated fat; 16 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams dietary fiber; 7 grams sugars; 14 grams protein; 489 milligrams sodium

Note: The information shown is Edamam’s estimate based on available ingredients and preparation. It should not be considered a substitute for a professional nutritionist’s advice.

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Calabrian Meatballs Recipe (2)


  1. Step


    Prepare the sauce: Tear 5 basil leaves in half; reserve the rest. Combine the torn basil, olive oil, garlic and red-pepper flakes (if using), in a small saucepan over very low heat for 10 minutes, allowing the basil and garlic to steep in the oil. (Do not let the garlic get beyond medium brown in color.) Remove from the heat, strain the oil, discard the solids and set aside.

  2. Step


    In a large pot, combine the crushed tomatoes, tomato paste, salt and pepper with 2 cups water and the infused oil. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then immediately reduce to a simmer. Remove ½ cup of the sauce for the meatballs, setting aside to cool.

  3. Partially cover the pot and simmer the sauce, undisturbed, while you prepare the meatballs.

  4. Step


    In a large bowl, hand mix all the meatball ingredients (including the reserved ½ cup sauce) until combined. (The mixture will be quite soft.) Wet your hands and pinch off approximately ¼-cup portions and roll them into balls between your palms. (They should each be about 2 ¼-inches wide.) Place each meatball on a baking sheet and repeat with the remaining mixture, making about 16 meatballs.

  5. Step


    Once all the meatballs have been rolled, carefully drop them into the simmering sauce. If the pot seems too full, shimmy the pot back and forth gently to make more room to simmer the meatballs in an even layer. Do not stir, as the meatballs will break apart.

  6. Step


    Cover the pot partially with a lid and gently simmer the meatballs in the sauce for 1 hour (or up to 2 hours) until they are firm and cooked through. Carefully remove the meatballs to a plate, adding spoonfuls of sauce, or transfer the meatballs and sauce to a shallow serving bowl. Chop the remaining basil and sprinkle on top, and garnish with more grated Pecorino.



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Cooking Notes


This is very much like my Sicilian mother-in-law’s recipe, except she uses fresh breadcrumbs and broils the meatballs before adding them to the sauce. The fresh crumbs makes them tender and the broiling keeps them from breaking up in the sauce.


No need to use veal if you don’t want to - beef and pork 1/2 and 1/2 mix works great


This is very much like Daniele Uditi’s recipe, though I believe he adds calabrian chili paste to his. I do the same, and they are superb! I don’t do Italian breadcrumbs, just panko they’re superior imo. I also add pecorino AND parm.


Very traditional Calabrian style. Made me think of my Calabrian nonna. I typically freeze the balls raw, and then pull out the quantity I want to use. I also broil the balls before adding them to the sauce. Take all the scrapings from the broiling pan and add to the sauce!

100% Italian

My mom(born in Chiavari, near Genoa) always dropped her raw meatballs directly into bubbling sauce. And so do I. Been making them that way for over 40 years. Saves a step and the meatballs are tender. No one has gotten sick.


Su: LOL...yes, seasoned Italian bread crumbs are a thing one buys. Actually, I don't and season the bread crumbs myself. But my husband who is Sicilian on both sides and grew up in a tradtional home in Brooklyn where his only Italian speaking nonna did all the cooking tells me she always used Progresso brand seasoned bread crumbs in her meatballs. :-)


My Calabrian grandmother from Rende soaked bread in milk to soften, squeezed excess milk from the bread with her hands, and pulled bread apart into small pieces. Then added to the meat mixture. She also added fresh well chopped parsley.


All salt is not the same (the crystals are different sizes). Diamond Kosher has 3360 mg in one tablespoon. If you dived by sixteen, that equals 210 mg per meatball. That is, if my math is correct—and it may not be since I am an English teacher.


These meatballs will be very soft and tender but I would precook them either in the oven or in a skillet in evoo first, otherwise the risk of them falling apart in the sauce is high. Here’s a little trick I have been using forever to know if I’ve used enough salt and seasonings—pinch a bit of the raw mixture and fry it up quickly to see if you are happy with the flavor before you even form them into meatballs. And start with the lowest amount of salt; recipes are notorious for being over salted.


Yes, they can be found at most stores. I love pre-seasoned breadcrumbs as they add another flavor level! Spicy panko are my favorite!

laura C.

No need to brown the balls first. You can. But poaching is just another method. It's easier, causes less mess, and makes for a very tender ball.


If you can’t find seasoned Italian breadcrumbs, I would guess that you could add Italian seasoning to plain breadcrumbs.


Delicious recipe. Served with homemade spaghetti.. easily the best spaghetti and meatballs I have ever had! The meatballs are so tender and flavorful. Red pepper adds a hint of heat. I will make this as many times as my waistline allows for!


It's a thing one buys if one wants to make this recipe. If it's not too far beneath you, that is.


Thoroughly authentic Italian meatball recipe! Bravo!


You could discard the garlic, pepper flakes, and basil after infusing the oil… or you could toast a piece of sourdough and slather some ricotta on top and finish with the leftover garlic, flakes, and basil and a little of the oil. Also added some balsamic glaze. Perfect snack while you cook lol. This is a great recipe btw!

Mae Not

Broil five minutes only, then transfer to pot.


Made the meatballs almost as written (omitted the veal) and thought they were okay, but a little bland. I baked them in the oven on parchment paper at 350 for about 30 minutes. I'll definitely use it as a base next time, but add some additional herbs and garlic to make them a little more flavorful.

Janice H

I made them with Impossible Meat, and they were delicious!

Lamb Husks

Nice recipe~ Simple and tasty. I added some diced onions and jarred Calabrian peppers, just because


Winter is time to worship at the altar of these meatballs. Melt in your mouth perfection! Some small adjustments the second time around making these: Instead of discarding the basil, garlic, and red pepper flakes after infusing the oil, I chopped it all up and added to the meatball mixture for more flavor and no food waste. I also added several Calabrian peppers to the sauce for extra heat. Unreal, truly. My go-to cold season comfort meal.


I just made these and loved skipping the browning process. The meatballs poached in the a simmering sauce for a few hours and were perfectly tender. I am so glad I doubled the recipe. I’ll be making these again, no doubt.


Can these be frozen with sauce once ready?


I made this but the only change was that I didn’t simmer for an hour - I simmered for about 20 minutes and the meatballs were done. One thing to note was that some of the sauce carmelized and was a little black on the bottom so I didn’t scrape that up to serve. I was a little disappointed that happened. Next time I will make the sauce and cook the meatballs separately and then before serving add the meatballs to the sauce. That’s what we usually have done with meatballs.


I have made these meatballs several times now. Planning to make them again tonight. So tender and delicious. They are the best meatballs I have ever tasted.

Madeline Nelson

The proportions of bread crumbs, egg, grated cheese, meat etc. gave a tender, flavorful meatball. I used only ground pork, as that's what I had, so they were distinctly porky.It's garden veggie time, and I added pepper, zucchini and cippolini onions. Maybe not so authentic, but very good.To speed up the cooking time, I sauteed the meatballs before adding them to the sauce (for 1/2 hour rather that 1 to 2 hours).


I saved the fried basil, garlic and chilli flakes after draining and added them to some toasted breadcrumbs as a topping and it was a wonderful addition. I love these meatballs, but my sauce is more watery than a typical pasta sauce - is that the style of sauce or should I be reducing longer?


8/18/23 used panko bread crumbs, 1 lb veal, 1 lb beef, less salt, poached in sauce as directed, made 16 meatballs plus 10 for freezer


Unreal!!! Infusing the oil at the beginning was new for me, but worth the extra step. I let it simmer at slightly longer and mashed the basil/garlic with a fork to get maximum flavor out. I added a bit of fresh oregano to the tomato sauce because I love herbs, and a pinch of sugar to cut the acidity of canned tomatoes. Came together in <30 mins of hands-on time and the kitchen was clean again by the time the meatballs were done simmering. This will be on heavy rotation!


I have made these twice as written (except for the veal) and they are exceptional! My absolute favorite meatball recipe now. I much prefer the texture of the slow simmered meatballs over those that are baked or pan fried. Tender and perfect. They have no trouble holding together in the sauce.

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Calabrian Meatballs Recipe (2024)


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