Perfect Spaghetti and Meatballs: A (Pseudo) Italian Classic?

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Think of Italian food as date food? What’s the first thing that comes to mind? Ah yes, spaghetti and meatballs, that steaming hot Italian classic, featuring mountains of perfectly cooked spaghetti, generously splashed with creamy, rich, fruity and spicy tomato sauce, topped with countless giant spicy meatballs then covered in a generous snowfall of the best grated Parmesan money can buy. More likely than not served with a generous side of the house’s best Chianti.

spaghetti and meatballs

Fearing a lawsuit from Disney for illegitimate use of imagery, here’s my recreation of a most famous dinner between dogs

It is, in itself the definition of comfort food, of Italian classics and of, well, love. The latter thanks in large parts to a certain unforgettable scene from Disney’s 1955 masterpiece Lady and the Tramp in which a hopeful young Tramp (also known as Butch-a to his Italian friends) takes his Lady on a date to Tony’s Italian restaurant for what turns out to be a memorable spaghetti and meatballs dinner including a serenade from two very peculiar cooks.

Perfect, right? Well, there is really only one minor problem with this image: While cleverly branded, steeped in tradition and pop culture, and seemingly authentic, spaghetti and meatballs is a classic Italian dish that was never actually Italian.

A Brief History of Spaghetti and Meatballs

The dish spaghetti and meatballs, largely unknown outside of America and American pop culture (which I guess means it’s really not really unknown at all anywhere), was actually invented in early 20th century New York City by Italian immigrants! What’s worse, the dish is also very widely mocked by conservative Italians as being either pseudo-Italian or entirely non-Italian. Given my love for Italian food, this sort of mockery, I suppose, is understandable, but also – if you really want to get geeky about it – not quite justifiable:

The dish, it turns out, has actually been seen in Italy prior to it’s supposed invention in New York City’s Little Italy. In the southern part of Italy, Naples to be specific, a dish involving pasta and meatballs does actually predate the American version, but it features miniature meatballs about the size of a walnut as well as other ingredients such as ham and boiled eggs. In other words, a totally different dish from the one known to visitors of New York City’s Little Italy and most famously consumed by Butch-a and his lady back in 1955.

A fact that to me was not only largely surprising, but also begged a couple of questions. With Italians being so notoriously proud of their food culture, how and why did a most obscure Southern Italian dish warp into a world-famous pseudo-Italian dish served in the streets of New York City? The answers, according to this formidable and detailed read amongst others, is quite simply a combination of necessity and new input! As hordes of Italian immigrants for various reasons decided to start life anew in the New World, they realised that the streets of Brooklyn were considerably different from the fields and farmland of their native Italy. Flour for pasta making was plentiful in New York, but they lacked easy access to the greens and farm-fresh vegetables that were so readily available back home. So, out of necessity more than anything else, they took to mixing their pasta with what they found easily available or easy to grow in their new home country: canned stewed tomatoes along with more sturdy and easily transportable vegetables like onions, carrots, garlic, celery and the likes… not to mention another readily available new world favorite for the Italian immigrants: meat!

Ah yes, meat. While traditional Italian cooking may have been mostly based on vegetables, wheat, bread and dairy with meat playing a more moderate role sometimes reserved for special occasions, if there’s one thing the Italians really took to heart in the melting pot that was America at the turn of the last century, it was meat. Loved by immigrants from elsewhere, readily available and cheap by Italian standards, meat quickly became an Italian American favorite – along with stronger, more pungent spices like red pepper flake, chili and the like. And so, a combination of necessity, new input and good old-fashioned curiosity helped spawn a new “Italian” food culture, a perfect example of which would be the melting pot of a dish known as Spaghetti and meatballs:

Our dish of choice today starts with meatballs, a quintessentially Northern European invention often served in soups or stews, studded with Italian-ish spices and flavors, along with some New World jazz, fried golden brown and then simmered and served up covered in a decidedly Italian tomato sauce over another Italian classic of supposed Asian origin: pasta – more specifically spaghetti. Odd? Yes! Delicious? Yes! And in many ways, a dish that could have only come together in the melting pot that was early 20th century New York City

Culinary anthropologic details aside, the dish has become not only an Italian American but also a pop culture classic and as such a dish worth exploring in our ever expanding series on getting to the roots of classic dishes and ingredients. Having had a look at the history and origins of the dish, let’s take a look of the components that make up this by now internationally renowned but often overlooked classic.

Making Spaghetti and Meatballs just like an Italian grandma wouldn’t!

Despite being mocked as pseudo-Italian and coming across at first sight as a bit of a mess, spaghetti and meatballs can actually be a real treat – even if it has way too often been bastardized in cheap, easy processed versions and TV dinners. A sad fate which has probably not helped the dish gain popularity or respect.

spaghetti and mealballs closeup

Alright, you got me, this is Linguine and meatballs.. But really, any long, narrow pasta type will do, and there are plenty to choose from

I’m here today, though, to prove that spaghetti and meatballs can be more than easy, flavorless and half-hearted attempt at an Italian-styled dinner. Haphazardly thrown together as it may seem, there’s actually thought and logic behind the combinations of flavors and textures found in a proper order of spaghetti and meatballs. And, quite unlike the cheap, sometimes ready-made versions, a proper order of spaghetti and meatballs does involve a bit of work and relies of the perfect combination of a few important elements. These are of course: the meatballs, the sauce and last, but certainly not least, the spaghetti. Actually, to prove a point, let’s kick things off by talking a bit about the part of the dish that people usually pay the least attention and respect to.

Step 1: Finding the right Spaghetti

For something that is such an essential nutritional cornerstone in so many people’s lives, very little attention is paid to the subject of pasta in general or spaghetti in particular – and that’s a crying shame because pasta is much more than just flour and water. Well, actually, scratch that: pasta, in its simplest form is little more than just flour and water, add a little salt and sometimes an egg and a little olive oil, and you’ve got something that is not only a basic source of sustenance but also, when done right, one of the greatest culinary treats in the world.

Spaghetti Carbonara

A truly great pasta needs very little in the flavor department to be one of the best eats you’ve ever had!

With so few ingredients at play, it goes to reason that depending on the quality of the ingredients and the way they’re handled, pasta can be anything from a soggy, doughy forgettable affair to a truly memorable meal in its own light or the perfect side for the perfect meal. Assuming that you’ve made it this far into the post, chances are you’re really keen on making a perfect serving of spaghetti and meatballs. Good on you, but to achieve that goal, we need to find the perfect spaghetti to play one of the leading roles of our dish. Given that there are about a gazillion brands of pasta out there, finding the right one can be a bit of a challenge. My best advice would be to go to a specialty store and ask for advice, pick up a few, give them a try and find your favorite. It’s not an easy game, but it’s a fun one to play. And because I love you, here are a few pointers to get you started:

Fresh or dried? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again till the day I die. Fresh pasta is not necessarily better than dried pasta. As a matter of fact, unless you’re in a small-scale shop in Italy or at a very good and authentic restaurant (preferably in Italy, too), chances are that the dried alternatives are actually better. Fresh pastas sold in supermarkets in the rest of the world are usually large scale industrial products not worth the cost of the fancy label. The same goes for the dried varieties, by the way.

Squid ink pasta

There are a gazillion varieties of pasta out there – this is squid ink pasta. Not necessarily good for spaghetti and meatballs

Eggs or no eggs? Whether you want eggs in your pasta or not is probably more of a matter of preference than anything else. I find that eggs in pasta add a nice touch of flavor and a creaminess in texture and mouthfeel. On the other hand, (quality) eggless pasta offers a little more bite and an interesting chalky mineral-like quality. I’d suggest you go with whatever you like here, I’d be well pleased with an egg-based pasta for meat sauces and an eggless variety for egg, dairy or tomato-based sauces. But to each their own.

Branded goods? This may come as a shocker to some, but brand IS important when it comes to pasta. And not in the way you might think: brand is important but in this case bigger is not better. In other words: if you feel the need to state words along the lines of “Italy’s No 1 Pasta” on your packaging, chances are you’re far from number one tastewise. Truly great pasta usually comes in small humble packages, packaged by small producers who would rather spend their money on making pasta than on advertising. How do you find a good brand? Well, ask Google for help or your friendly local food geek or specialty store.

Bronze cut or not? Some packages of pasta will proudly proclaim to be bronze cut. Others won’t. If the package doesn’t specifically say bronze cut, simply put down the package and walk away. Bronze cut refers to the way that the pasta is mechanically squeezed and cut into shape. Producers have traditionally used bronze dies (and quite an amount of pressure) to squeeze their pasta into their final shape. Later on, in an effort to save money, some producers moved to plastic which is, of course, a cheaper and more durable material. The thing is, though, using bronze gives the final product a coarser, more rustic texture which helps the sauce stick better to the pasta and as such provides better mouthfeel and flavor. Bronze cut pastas will usually cost you a bit extra but are well worth the premium!

rustichella d'abruzzo pasta - one of Italy's best

Want the best possible pasta? This, according to myself and a certain Mr. Blumenthal, is it!

Want a few names to start with? Rustichella d’Abruzzi is a long-running favorite of mine (and of star chef Heston Blumenthal), Pastificio dei Campi is hailed by other authorities as the best in the world and Spaghetti Martelli is legendary as well. All are excellent choices. In the world of pseudo-fresh and egg-based pasta Armando de Angelis (made in Italy) is actually a pretty good example. Neither of these options come cheap, I’ll give you that, but hey, rather a little of a good thing than too much of a bad thing, right?

Got it? Found a pasta you’re happy with? Good! Slightly upset that I made you spend upwards of 10 bucks on a pound of pasta? Good! Believe me, you’ll thank me later! For now, let’s move on to another key player.

Step 2: Making the meatballs

Wow, if you thought pasta was a lengthy subject, just you wait till we get to the subject of making great meatballs.

Meatballs always start out with all the best of intentions, but in reality they unfortunately sometimes turn into dry or rubbery hockey pucks lacking in both taste and texture which have led to many a frustrating outbreak in countless kitchens across the world. There are, thankfully, a few handy, and more importantly, easy tricks to getting perfectly flavorful and juicy meatballs – every damn time! And you wanna know the real beauty of this? They don’t work for just spaghetti or red sauce based applications. They’ll work for any type of meatball – whichever way you cook it!

As such, the tricks we are going to discuss here are not even particularly Italian, but tricks known for centuries to culinarily seasoned grandma’s of every meatball culture, be they Italian-American, Eastern European, Swedish or even Danish of descend.  Because of their decades worth of experience Grandmas of these cultures, and consequently their sons and daughters, know that there are actually very few secrets to making perfect meatballs, and we’re gonna spill the beans here today. With my sincerest apologies to grandmas around the world! With that said, here in a few short rules, are the tips to a perfect meatball:

Perfect meatballs, Rule A: It needs to be moist

A lot of dried out leathery meatballs owe their cruel fate to overcooking and/or to the meat drying out during cooking. While we can’t exactly guard against overcooking, we can take out some insurance on the subject and we can do a few things to retain moisture in the meatball mix during cooking. One obvious bit of insurance is to read rule D below, then read it again. Having done that, a few times, another way to safeguard against dried up results is to add a bit of bread to your meatball mix. Either in the shape of breadcrumbs of some crumbled, crust-less, day-old bread. Some food cultures actually use flour instead of bread, but I’ve always found that a little weird and, well, floury.

The reason we add the bread, breadcrumbs of even the flour for that matter is because it will act as a sponge before and during cooking, soaking up the juices from meat and keeping the resulting meatball moist and juicy rather than dry and gummy. For this reason, you’ll want to avoid doing what quite a lot of people religiously do which is to soak the bread in milk before adding to the ground meat. It sort of ever so slightly defies the purpose of adding the bread in the first place.

Perfect meatballs, Rule B: It needs to be coherent

Keeping things moist and airy in the meatballs department is all good. We want nice, juicy bites after all. But it does also pose somewhat of a problem. While we do want things as nice, moist and airy as possible, we don’t want them so nice, moist and airy that they fall apart on us!

So, how do we create a ball out of little fatty pieces of meat that is both nice, airy and juicy, yet coherent and keeps it’s shape when fried, simmered, served and bitten into? We add a binder! In the shape of one of the world’s greatest culinary miracles: the egg! The raw egg will mix perfectly with the other ingredients and coat them evenly as we mix, shape and roll our metaballs. When subjected to the high heat of the cooking procedure, the proteins in the egg will toughen, helping our great balls of meat hold their shape both during the cooking process and on the plate – without seeming at all tough or chewy! Simple! Magic!

Texture, however, isn’t everything. And what good is the perfect texture if the flavor doesn’t match the hard work put into creating the perfect texture? This rather fundamental question leads us to the third cardinal rule of meatball cookery:

Takeaway meatballs

There are perfect meatballs and then there are take-away style meatballs. We’re making the good shit! Not this stuff!

Perfect meatballs, Rule C: It must be flavorful

Great flavor, of course, starts with great meat. For meatballs, you’ll probably want a mix for a deeper, more complex flavor. I prefer a 50/50 mix beef and pork myself, but some people add lamb to the party as well and go 1/3 on each for even more depth. Whichever mix you prefer, do procure quality meat from a reputable source. It should come as no surprise to the regular reader that I like organic and free range alternatives and please make that ground to order from someone who knows what he or she is doing if at all possible. This preference for organic and free-range is not an act of food snobbery, it makes sense not only from an ethical standpoint but also from a flavor standpoint. Animals that have been eating well and have had space to move around just plain taste better.

But meaty flavors isn’t everything, of course, and as we already established in the history part of this post, Italian-Americans do like a bit of spice and a lot of flavor in their meatballs, so let’s consult our friendly neighborhood spice rack for a little added charm:

To help the great flavor of our meat mix along, we’ll kick things off by first adding some of nature’s best flavor boosters: salt and freshly ground black pepper along with a nice shot of Worcestershire sauce for added richness and oomph. To this rich, meaty mix, we will, of course add the Italian American favorites of onion and garlic along with a true Italian staple oregano or marjoram (aka wild oregano) if you have it. Kicking things up a notch, and playing homage to the true Italian American roots of this dish, let’s also add a bit of red pepper flake as well for a bit of heat and, well, bam!

But other than that, let’s try to keep it simple and, well, beefy. You can (and should) play around with the recipe and spice things up as you like. Thyme and or basil would be good for a herbal kick, coriander or cumin would offer a nice earthy touch, smoked paprika or even chili a nice warmth, fennel a lovely anise-like note. The possibilities are endless and I’ll leave it to you, dear reader, to figure them out.

Experiment around as you like, but when you’re ready to move on, remember, once again, the most cardinal rule of meatball making:

Perfect meatballs, Rule D: It must – to some extend – be fatty

If you’re going to make great meatballs, you’re going to have to deal with a bit of fat. Why? Because fat adds flavor and succulence! There’s really no way of getting around this fact. No, really, I’ve tried. I’m often asked if you can substitute low fat ground beef/pork for the fatty variety and I’ve always said no. In the research phase of this post, and out of the sheer interest of accommodating you, the readers, I took one for the team and had a stab at those low fat ground beef/pork grinds that are so popular these days. The end results, much as I’d predicted, were horrible: flavorles, gummy meatballs. No really, I may well be prejudiced, but I tried and it just plain wasn’t worth it.

Don’t believe me? You can go the low fat way, if you do desire, but you will need to seriously adjust your seasoning to get some flavor going and you’ll have to put up with a somewhat denser texture in your meatballs. You won’t find me using anything lower than 8-12% fat grinds for my meatballs and I don’t suggest you do either. Now, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Besides, who cares about a bit of fat these days? If you want to get all technical about it, the calories and the carbs in the spaghetti are probably more fattening and worse for you. But really, this is comfort food. Why would you even want to get all technical and health-conscious about it? Go on, live a little. And with that, lets talk about the most borderline healthy aspects of the dish in question: the tomato sauce.

Step 3: The Tomato sauce

Tomato sauce is a most wonderful thing: sweet, tangy, herbal, spicy and full of flavor. In the case of spaghetti and meatballs, the tomato sauce is also a perfect multitasker. The sauce is not only initially a cooking medium for the meatballs, it’s also an important flavor boost that clings lovingly to the otherwise slightly dry spaghetti and an interesting texture addition in that it adds a certain velvety creaminess to the dish. Most importantly, though, it adds flavor! A deep, rich, sort of fruity, sweet and tart flavor boost that adds both depth and a zing of contrasting flavors to the succulent and, well meaty, meatballs.

The Italians, and consequently the Italian Americans, are rightfully proud of their sauces: they are perfectly concocted works of art, containing perfect proportions of all major flavors: salty, sour, sweet, bitter, spicy and that ever illusive but oh so delicious umami. They are also usually simmered and reduced forever, with or without meaty bits, to create an intense and explosion-like symphony of said flavors on the palate.

Tomato reduction

Pro tip: The secret to a good tomato sauce? Time, patience, and reductions…

We’ve all had at least one of those sauce masterpieces at some point or another and have probably ended up thinking something along the lines of “I could never make something like that!” Well, I’m here today to tell you that *yes you can!* But also that it will take a bit of time and patience. Creating such a saucy work of art is by no means a simple feat and it does take an unusually large array of ingredients by Italian standards as well as a fair amount of time. It is, by no means, an impossible task, though. And it can be done quicker than you may think. Making a great and nuanced tomato sauce will never be a fifteen minute ordeal, but given a little bit of time and patience, it is more than possible to make a sauce that tastes like a day’s worth of work in as little as two hours.

How to make a sauce in hours, that feels like it’s been simmering all day.

The key to making a tomato sauce bursting with flavor is, not too surprisingly, to use tomatoes bursting with flavor. No ten cent cans of watery tomatoes here. Get some nice, organic, vine-ripened specimens picked at the height of summer that have been treated and processed as little as possible. That generally means whole, canned tomatoes. In other words, as with the pasta, reach for the top shelf pricy salternative. San Marzano tomatoes are great for the job, but other varieties from Southern Italy or Sicily will do. As with the pasta, they will run you a pretty penny and you may have to do some research, but it’ll be worth it. Trust me!

canned tomatoes - it's not a crime!

Don’t be afraid to use canned tomatoes in your cooking. For 40 some weeks of the year, they’re better than fresh!

Why whole tomatoes? You may be thinking that chopped or puréed tomatoes would be easier to work with than whole, canned tomatoes. And you would be right. Why whole, then? Well, for two main reasons: 1) Tomato seeds are bitter by nature, use chopped or puréed tomatoes and the bitterness blends into the final dish. 2) It goes to reason that the more processed a food is, the less it actually tastes like itself. Whole, canned tomatoes are the least processed of the options available. Hence, they taste more like tomatoes. Simple!

Aside from the most obvious ingredient, tomatoes, we need both aromatics and spices/herbs to add depth to our sauce. As well as time for them to infuse said depth. I like onions and garlic in my tomato sauce as much as the next guy, along with a bit of carrot and celery. As of late, I’ve taken to throwning in a bit of fennel seeds or star anise for a bit of depth and anise kick to the sauce. A bit of basil would be nice as well, fresh if you can get it. While you’re at it, maybe some thyme and a little more red pepper flake or chili. Depending on how spicy you like it.

To add even more complexity and layers of flavors to the sauce, we’re gonna need to throw in a few more ingredients. Bitterness and sweetness alike, along with an added tomato boost, we can get in the shape of a bit of concentrated tomato paste. Acidity and sourness we might as well get from a generous shot of balsamic vinegar (not the terribly expensive stuff, mind you!). For added fruitiness, a more mellow acidity and even more depth, try adding a glass of wine. Tomatoes contain beautiful flavor compounds that are only released in the presence of alcohol and the wine adds a nice touch on its own. Go with white wine, though, maybe a nice Italian Chardonnay. It adds sweeter, more subtle and fruity flavor profile and I often feel the tannins of red wines wreck havoc on the delicate balance of flavors in a tomato sauce.

chablis white wine

Pro tip: Use white wine for your tomato sauce for a more fruity and aromatic, less tannic sauce.

As for that illusive umami touch. Uh, well, you might not like it, but a true Italian would probably instruct you to add a couple of anchovies to the equation. They’ll melt completely into the dish and add nice complexity and depth along with no fishiness altogether. And before you go jump ship on me, listen here… If anchovies is not your thing, try a couple of drops of fish sauce instead, it’s essentially the same thing and will taste even less fishy. Still not buying it? Your old pal Worcestershire sauce will set you free once more!  If even that is too much, try soy sauce for a bit of the same effect.

Obviously, since we’re starting with top quality tomatoes, we’ll want the rest of our ingredients to be of some quality as well. We’ll also want to add them in a particular order and allow quite some time for the ingredients to mingle, reduce down, and intensify in flavor and aroma. The particular order of things as well as the general quantity of ingredients, we will examine shortly. As hinted before, despite the relative simplicity of the setup, this is no quick sauce and you will probably have to allow at least two hours from start to finish. Three would probably be better. But that should, indeed, give you plenty of time to make the meatballs and cook the pasta as well. This, incidentally, is where that open bottle of wine you need for the sauce comes in handy.

Oh and one final note before we get to the much anticipated recipe: If you’re going to make this dish, remember that this recipe is tailored to my liking and the preferences of myself and my friends. Ingredient amounts should be seen as general approximations. And please do bear in mind that your taste buds may not exactly agree with mine so keep some extra vinegar, a little wine, sugar, salt, Worcestershire sauce and maybe a sprinkle of heat around so that you can taste and adjust to your liking before serving. And please don’t let this final step scare you. Tasting and adjusting is part of the joy of cooking!

Spaghetti and Meatballs: A (Pseudo) Italian Classic?

The ultimate recipe for Spaghetti and meatballs, an “Italian” classic invented and perfected by immigrants in 20th century New York City
Course Main
Cuisine American
Prep Time 30 minutes
Cook Time 3 hours
Total Time 3 hours 30 minutes
Servings 4
Author Johan Johansen


For the meatballs:

  • 300 grams ground beef 8 – 16 % fat
  • 300 grams ground pork 8 – 16 % fat
  • 1 medium onion very finely chopped
  • 1 garlic clove equally finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1 egg lightly beaten
  • 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 pinch salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 50 grams fresh bread crumbs or 25 grams of dried ditto

For the sauce:

  • 2-3 cans whole canned tomatoes about a kilo total
  • 50 grams tomato paste
  • 1 medium-sized onion chopped
  • 1 celery stalk chopped
  • 1 medium-sized carrot chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves chopped
  • 1 star anise pod
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon dried thyme
  • 1/2 teaspoon of dried oregano
  • 1/2 red chili seeds removed, chopped finely (add more or less to taste)
  • 100 ml balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 glass dry white wine Italian Chardonnay or similar

For the pasta:

  • 400 grams pasta the best you can get
  • 4 liters water
  • 40 grams salt yes, 40 grams of salt!

To serve:

  • 2-3 handfuls freshly grated Parmesan cheese the good stuff!


Prepping the meatballs:

  1. In a bowl combine all the ingredients for the meatballs, mix well and stash in the fridge till needed.

Starting the sauce:

  1. Place a large colander in a bowl, and pour the tomatoes into the colander, juice and all.
  2. Using your fingers, pry the tomatoes open one by one and remove the seeds, dumping the seeds into the colander and placing the seeded tomatoes in a separate bowl.
  3. Once all the tomatoes are seeded, leave the seeds and the juices in the colander to drain into the bowl below.
  4. Put a pot over medium-low heat, add a tablespoon or two of olive oil then the onion, garlic, carrot, celery chili, thyme, oregano and the star anise pod
  5. Fry mixture a few minutes over medium-low heat till soft and fragrant.
  6. Add the tomato paste and continue to cook for another minute or so.
  7. Add all the drained tomato juices from the bowl to the pot along with the balsamic vinegar and the sugar. Discard the tomato seeds from the colander.
  8. Boost heat till medium high and reduce to liquid to about a fourth. Keep an eye on things in the unlikely event that things reduce too far and start to caramelize and burn.
  9. Add the wine and boil for a couple of minutes, then back the heat down to medium.
  10. Remove the star anise pod.
  11. Stir in the tomatoes and heat for a good minute or so till warmed through, then back the heat all the way down to medium-low and simmer for about an hour until the tomatoes basically fall apart.

Cooking the meatballs:

  1. When you’ve got about a half hour left on the sauce, remove the meatball mixture from the fridge.
  2. Use an ice cream scoop or similar to portion the meatballs, then carefully roll them in your hands to create uniform, smooth meatballs. Uniformity matters more than size here.
  3. Grab a large sauté pan or similar and place it over medium-high heat, add a generous splash of olive oil and allow the pan to heat through.
  4. When pan is hot fry the meatballs on all sides/surfaces until uniformly brown. Work in batches if you must, taking care not to crowd the pan.
  5. When the meatballs are nicely browned, remove them from the pan, set them aside and then deglaze the pan with another splash of wine or a little stock if you have it around. If not, use water.
  6. Add the meatballs back to the deglazing liquid and tasty bits left in the pan, kill the heat while you wait for the sauce to finish.

Finishing the sauce:

  1. When you sauce has finished simmering, hit it with a stick blender and blend till smooth and creamy.
  2. Pour the blended tomato sauce into the sauté pan with the meatballs, turn on the heat to medium-low cover the pan with a lid and allow them meatballs to simmer in the sauce for another half hour or so over gentle heat.
  3. If the balls are not completely submerged in the sauce turn them a couple of times during this last step of the cooking process

Cooking the pasta:

  1. To a large pot add at least one liter of water per 100 grams of pasta you intend to cook, then add ten grams of salt per liter of water.
  2. Bring the pot to a boil over high heat – be advised that for larger portions, this may take longer than you expect.
  3. When the water is at a rolling boil, dump in your spaghetti and stir gently to break the strands apart.
  4. Lower the heat slightly and cook for a minute or so less than the package indicates, stirring frequently but gently.
  5. When you’re getting near the indicated cooking time on the package, carefully fish out a strand of spaghetti and bite it. You want it to be firm with some resistance but not raw and doughy.
  6. If you’re not quite happy with the texture, boil for another minute then test again. If you’re still not happy, repeat the process as needed.
  7. When your pasta is to your liking, quickly drain the pasta thoroughly and get ready to serve.


  1. Ladle a couple of spoonfuls of sauce into the pasta and mix well, also add a good handful of Parmesan cheese and mix again.
  2. Put the pasta on a serving platter or on individual plates. Top with meatballs and more sauce, then add a generous sprinkling of Parmesan.
  3. Serve immediately with a side salad and plenty of Italian wine.

Spaghetti and metaballs: The final verdict?

Let’s just forget for a minute here, that this dish is in no way, shape or form authentically Italian. If we can accept that, we can probably start to appreciate the fact that it is, at the very least, Italian in nature. We can probably also reason that if treated with the same amount of respect for ingredients, attention to detail, and uncompromising care in preparation as true Italian dishes are, we can probably create an end result as nuanced, fragrant and flavorful as if it were, in fact, Italian.

spaghetti and meatballs

Such a beautiful dish…

And that’s a pretty good thing indeed! The flavors of this dish, when properly prepared are certainly as good as any Italian comfort food classic: rich, meaty, saucy, spicy, tomato-y, acidic sweet and herbal. The textures both soft and chewy, firm and velvety, crunch and even ever so slightly powdery if properly sprinkled with freshly Parmesan as tradition dictates.

Sure, it’s a little unusual in terms of appearance and texture, but not at all in an off-putting or uncomfortable kind of way, and the combination of flavors really are to die for.

Pseudo-Italian my ass!

2 thoughts on “Perfect Spaghetti and Meatballs: A (Pseudo) Italian Classic?

  1. Avvocato says:

    Johan, In Abruzzo, yes Italy, they have a traditional dish of pasta served with meatballs. It is called Chitarra alla Teramana. Chitarra is their version of a spaghetti. The meatballs are small polpetinni. So yes “spaghetti and meatballs” in this version does come from the heart of Italy.

    • Johan says:

      Hello! Well, this is certainly an interesting bit of additional information. I’ll have to look into that and consider changing up my story… 🙂 Thanks a bunch for chiming in!

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