Authentic Italian Meatballs Recipe | How to Make the Perfect “Polpette”
Updated: Mar 18
While many cultures have their own meatball traditions, few are as recognizable and memorable as Italian “polpette.” In this recipe, we’ll share how to make the perfect meatball. Using simple ingredients (and a few Italian tips and tricks), this recipe creates flavorful, juicy meatballs that are sure to become a regular favorite.
Where Do Meatballs Come From?
The earliest known meatball tradition goes back to ancient Persia. It was probably there, in the eastern fringes of the Roman empire, where soldiers first encountered such a dish and brought recipes back to the Italian peninsula.
The Roman gastronomer Apicius (whose historical existence is actually debated) wrote the first extant Italian meatball recipe. His preparation was very similar to recipes we know of from medieval Italy, forming boiled meat into a ball and wrapping it all up in caul.
Even in the 19th century the godfather of Italian cuisine, Pellegrino Artusi, was making his polpette with cooked meat. From there, the dish rapidly evolved into the comfort food we know today where the meatballs are first formed with raw meat prior to being cooked.
What Kind of Meat is Best for Polpette?
This is really a matter of preference! Ground beef, pork and veal are the most common choices in Italy when making meatballs. Some prefer just one, others a mix. It’s really up to you. We definitely recommend staying away from chicken or turkey, though. You can certainly give it a shot, but expect some rather dry meatballs if you do.
Bread or Bread Crumbs?
It’s very common, even in Italy, to see meatballs made with dry bread crumbs. While they can work, bread crumbs will really dry out your meatballs (unsurprisingly, when you think about it).
Instead, we recommend using “fresh” bread crumbs. The best way to make these is to grate some bread (ditch the crusts) that was baked 3-4 days ago. It will be a little bit firmer than fresh baked bread, but not completely stale. If you have bread that’s a little bit staler, you can cut it into chunks and briefly soak it in milk until it softens a little bit. Drain it, break it up into crumbs, and you have revitalized fresh bread crumbs!
How to Season Meatballs Like an Italian
Some herbs and spices are up to you. We like adding some chopped parsley and black pepper, but you can also add ground nutmeg and/or a little bit of minced garlic.
You should definitely add a generous sprinkle of salt but, because we can’t taste raw meat, we’re going to largely season our meatballs with cheese. The great thing about using cheese is that it adds salt and flavor into the meatballs, but it’s impossible to over-salt. The worst thing that can happen is that your meatballs taste “too cheesy.” Is there such a thing? Not in Italy!
Use finely grated Pecorino Romano, Grana Padano, and/or Parmigiano-Reggiano. There’s no right amount, but there’s also no such thing as too much so we recommend adding more when in doubt!
The Trick to Making Perfect Meatballs
It’s all in the mix! The only “tricky” part of making great meatballs is getting the right ratio of meat, bread, egg and cheese. In order to nail this, we need to think about the two ends of the textural spectrum…
Imagine rolling a ball in your hands of pure, ground meat. Beef, for instance. It will be a little tricky to make it super smooth and round. One can see and feel the fibers of the meat. On the other end of the spectrum is a sticky, wet and doughy mix. It clings to your fingers and leaves a batter-like residue on your hands. Definitely hard to work with!
We want to be somewhere in the middle. The mix should be firm enough that the meatballs won’t dissolve when cooked, soft enough that you can easily roll a very smooth ball, but not sticky and wet.
To achieve this texture, we recommend starting with 1 lb of meat, about 1 cup of fresh bread crumbs, 1 egg, and as much cheese as you want for flavor. Test out the dough and add more bread if the mix is too sticky, and more egg if it’s too crumbly or fibrous. If you add more cheese at any point (never discouraged) then just keep in mind that it will have a similar effect as bread on the final texture.
How to Cook Italian Meatballs
Meatballs are cooked in a few different ways in Italy. They’re commonly fried and eaten as an appetizer. It’s simple to do so: just bring a few inches of extra virgin olive oil up to high heat (about 300 F, but we never measure), fry until crispy and browned, then drain on a paper towel before eating.
An excellent way to cook meatballs as a second course is “in bianco,” or “white.” It’s a deliciously simple, white wine pan sauce. You can check out that recipe here!
The most classic, traditional way to cook meatballs is in tomato sauce, so that’s the method we’ve included in this recipe. The meatballs soak up a ton of extra flavor, and the tomato sauce becomes almost a type of ragù. Try serving the sauce with some fresh tagliatelle pasta as a first course, followed by the meatballs as a second course for an incredible meal!
Watch the Pasta Grammar video where we make meatballs here:
ITALIAN MEATBALLS IN TOMATO SAUCE RECIPE
Makes: About 15 meatballs
Cook Time: 1 hour and 30 minutes
To make the meatballs, you will need:
1 lb. (450g) ground beef, pork, veal or combination of any of them
Fresh bread crumbs to taste (about 1-2 cups, or 150-300g)
1-2 large eggs
Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or pecorino cheese to taste
2 tbsp. chopped parsley
Fresh black pepper
Large mixing bowl
To cook the meatballs, you will need:
28 oz. (800g) canned whole peeled tomatoes
1 cup (250ml) water
1 whole garlic clove, peeled
3-4 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
Fresh basil, about 3-4 leaves
Medium saucepan or small pot
In a large mixing bowl, combine the ground meat with 1 cup (about 150g) of fresh bread crumbs, 1 egg, a very generous grating of cheese, the chopped parsley, and a big pinch each of pepper and salt.
Mix the ingredients thoroughly by hand. The mixture should be soft enough that it can be rolled into very smooth balls, but not wet and sticky. Add more breadcrumbs if the mixture is too wet, or another egg if it’s too firm and crumbly. When you have a texture you like, scoop up enough meat to roll a 2-inch ball between your palms. Set it aside on a plate and repeat until all of the mixture has been used up.
Time to cook the polpette! In a medium saucepan, add the tomatoes, water, garlic, olive oil, basil, and a generous pinch of salt. Bring to a simmer and cook for 10 minutes. At this point, you should be able to mash the whole tomatoes with a fork. Do so, then gently add the meatballs into the sauce.
Bring the sauce to a simmer again, partially cover the pot, and let the meatballs cook until the sauce has thickened to your liking—up to an hour. As they cook, occasionally swirl the pot to turn the meatballs (it's ok if they don't remain completely covered). When the sauce is nearing completion, be sure to taste it and add salt as necessary to taste.
Want to try a different way of cooking meatballs? Check out our "In Bianco" white wine pan sauce recipe! Looking to pair your meatballs with some pasta? Skip the spaghetti, make some fresh tagliatelle instead, and thank us later!