Who doesn't love a hearty plate of pasta topped with authentic Italian meatballs? These juicy Italian polpettes infused with traditional flavors and simmered in a rich tomato sauce are a staple in Italian cuisine! This is my Sicilian family's traditional meatball recipe using beef, pork, and veal - and they're the best Italian meatballs you'll ever taste!
There's something truly magical about homemade authentic Italian meatballs.
Just like my beef braciole, spiedini alla siciliana, and crispy breaded chicken cutlets, these old-fashioned Italian meatballs have been passed down from my grandparents to my parents to me. They are leaps and bounds ahead of the usual pre-made ones you'd find tucked away in a freezer aisle.
I've been making these since I was a kid, but after working as a chef, I tweaked the recipe to be even better. These authentic Italian meatballs are so flavorful, tender, and juicy!
They will absolutely melt in your mouth. Simmer them in homemade marinara sauce or Sunday gravy, then serve with your favorite pasta, a big dollop of ricotta cheese, and a hunk of fresh bread for a truly delicious homemade Italian dinner.
For the best Italian meatballs, there are a few non-negotiable steps, but the recipe allows for some flexibility. While my mom used beef, I prefer a mixture of beef, pork, and veal, just like in my lasagna alla bolognese!
What's more, they freeze exceptionally well, making them a perfect option for meal prep.
So, say goodbye to bland, spongy, frozen store-bought meatballs and hello to a world of hearty, home-cooked goodness!
Why this recipe works
- Authentic Italian meatball recipe that’s been in my family for generations.
- Easy to prepare and make in large batches – make and freeze them for later!
- Finely grated fresh onion and garlic melt into the meat, adding moisture and flavor.
- Baked instead of pan-fried for beautifully browned meatballs that hold their shape.
- Can be used in a number of different ways – as an entree, with pasta, in a sub, or for an appetizer!
- Ground meat: A mixture of beef, pork, and veal is the traditional way to make old-fashioned Italian meatballs. The combination of meats creates an incredibly flavorful, savory, tender meatball. But you can use whatever meat you prefer - homemade Italian meatballs are delicious when made with all beef, all pork, or a combination of the two. Just avoid super lean meat - 80/20 is recommended.
- Cheese: The key to authentic meatballs is using a lot of freshly grated pecorino Romano cheese to add that perfect sharp and salty flavor. Locatelli is the best brand if you can find it. You can also use good quality parmesan cheese like Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano or a combination of parmesan and pecorino. Always grate your cheese fresh for the best results!
- Milk: Any type of dairy milk will work. I wouldn’t recommend using plant-based milk. If you avoid dairy, just use water - many Italian cooks do.
- Breadcrumbs: Using Italian-seasoned breadcrumbs adds an extra pop of flavor, but you can also use fresh breadcrumbs or day-old bread torn into pieces and soaked in the milk for a few minutes before adding other ingredients. You can add a ½ teaspoon of Italian seasoning or omit the seasoning altogether.
- Tomato sauce: I always simmer my meatballs in my homemade Marinara sauce. It's really easy to make while the meatballs are baking, but you can use your favorite jarred tomato sauce if you prefer!
*Full ingredient list with quantities is in the recipe card at the bottom of this post.
- Cookie scoop - This little scoop is perfect for portioning out the meatballs. It makes evenly-sized balls and helps the job go really fast.
- Microplane grater - This is super helpful for grating the onions and garlic so that they add tons of moisture to the meatballs without big chunks. You can also use it to freshly grate the parmesan cheese.
- Danish dough whisk - I recently started using one of these tools to mix my meatballs. It does a really great job of quickly creating a perfectly blended mixture.
- Sheet Pan - I prefer to bake my meatballs at a high temperature rather than frying them to save time and make easier clean-up. You will need a large sheet pan or baking sheet.
- Parchment Paper - This is optional. I find the meatballs brown slightly better without it, but it prevents them from sticking and makes clean-up a lot easier. Sometimes I use it, and sometimes I don't!
Start by preheating the oven to 450 degrees. Line a sheet pan with parchment paper if desired for easier clean-up.
1) In a large bowl, combine breadcrumbs, salt, grated cheese, and parsley. Use a microplane grater to finely grate the garlic and onion, aiming for about 1 ½ - 2 teaspoons of onion pulp.
2) Add milk and eggs to the mixture and mix until well combined. If the breadcrumbs and milk have hardened, add a few splashes of milk to loosen it up.
3) Next, incorporate the meat into the mixture, being careful not to overmix.
4) Wet your hands and form the meat into desired-size balls, about ¼ cup each. Place them evenly spaced on the parchment-lined baking sheet.
5) Bake the meatballs in the oven for approximately 7 minutes on each side until nicely browned. While they bake, prepare the sauce.
6) Once cooked, place the meatballs directly into the sauce and let them simmer on low heat for about 1 hour. If needed, keep them warm by turning off the heat and letting them sit in the sauce until ready to serve.
Tips for success
- If the breadcrumbs and milk harden while sitting in the bowl, add a few splashes of milk until it’s thinned out and easy to mix together.
- Use fresh ingredients whenever possible, especially freshly grated cheese and ground spices.
- Adding the meat at the end makes all the difference! Mix all other ingredients together first, and then add the meat. Be careful not to overmix, or else it will become tough.
- Let your meat get to room temperature, or at least sit out for 10-15 minutes. Everything will be easier to combine if the meat isn’t too cold (just out of the refrigerator).
- I find the meatballs brown better without parchment paper, but using t on your pan to keep the meatballs from sticking to the pan and make clean-up much quicker. Sometimes I use it if I'm short on time, and other times I don't.
- Use a cookie scoop or small ice cream scoop to portion the meatballs before rolling them out with your hands to keep them uniform in size.
- I like to rub my hands with a little oil when forming the meatballs.
- Be gentle with the meatballs. Roll them firmly, but don't pack them too tight.
- It's okay if the meatballs don't cook all the way through in the oven. They will simmer in the sauce. The key is to get them browned on the outside!
- Add some of the brown bits and drippings from the pan to the sauce. It adds a ton of flavor!
- If you're not ready to eat the meatballs when they're finished cooking, turn off the heat and let them sit in the sauce until you're ready. Then, warm them back up before serving. They will continue to become more tender as they sit and soak up all of the delicious sauce.
How you eat your meatballs is entirely up to you, but here are a few delicious ways to enjoy them!
- Serve in a bowl with the tomato sauce and topped with a spoonful of homemade ricotta.
- Boil some pasta to enjoy with the Italian meatballs. Spaghetti, bucatini, and rigatoni are some of my favorites!
- Use polpettes as a filling for a classic Italian meatball sub or meatball parmesan sandwich with crusty bread, melted mozzarella or provolone cheese and marinara sauce.
- Slice up a few meatballs to use as a homemade pizza topping with a side of Caesar salad.
- Add them to your favorite soup, like Italian Wedding Soup.
- Make them smaller and serve as an appetizer with toothpicks.
You can freeze these meatballs uncooked or cooked.
To freeze them uncooked, follow the recipe instructions and shape the meatballs. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and place the shaped meatballs on top. Freeze for 1 hour, then transfer to an airtight container or freezer-safe bag.
To freeze them cooked, make the recipe as directed and let the meatballs cool completely. Place them on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and freeze for 1 hour, then transfer to an airtight container or freezer-safe bag.
Either way, they will keep for up to 3 months in the freezer!
The best way to reheat frozen meatballs is to let them thaw in the refrigerator overnight and then warm them up in the oven at 350°F for about 15 minutes. You can also microwave them on medium heat for a few minutes, but they may not be as crispy.
Be sure to check that they are heated through before serving. If you're reheating them in a sauce, be sure to stir occasionally so that the bottom doesn't burn.
Italian meatballs, also known as polpettes, are typically made with a mixture of ground meats such as beef, pork, and veal. They often contain breadcrumbs or soaked bread to keep them moist and tender. They are simmered in tomato sauce!
In Italy, meatballs are never served with spaghetti - it's an American thing! They are usually served on their own, often with a dollop of ricotta. Sicilian meatballs usually include raisins (or currants) and pine nuts in the mixture for added sweetness and texture.
Other meatball variations, such as Swedish or Greek, have their own unique ingredients and cooking methods. It's all about personal preference and cultural traditions!
I prefer baking meatballs over frying them on the stove. They still get golden brown (just bake at high heat) but have none of the mess and hold their shape much better than they do when frying them!
Bake your meatballs at a high temperature until browned on the outside, then let them simmer in the sauce for at least an hour. This will ensure perfectly cooked and flavorful meatballs without breaking down too much in the sauce.
Yes! These Italian meatballs turn out wonderful in the air fryer. Cook them at 425 degrees for 10-12 minutes or until nicely browned on the outside.
Yes, you do not have to simmer the meatballs on the stove. They work incredibly well in a crock pot.
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