How to Make Spaghetti and Meatballs Better Than an Italian Restaurant
Make this classic Italian-American dish from scratch with expert tips from our Test Kitchen. Buon appetito!
By Nicole Doster, Digital Associate Editor and James Schend, Food Editor
I didn't have an Italian grandma who cooked big pasta dinners, but I had the next best thing. I worked in an old-school Italian restaurant in Baltimore's Little Italy. There, the Firenze-born owner would generously whip together meals for the staff between shifts. My favorite was spaghetti and meatballs. Though it wasn't the most authentically Italian dish on our menu, it was the ultimate comfort food. He'd dish out piles of homemade noodles smothered in a thickened sauce with a few hearty polpette (meatballs) on top. (Looking for lighter pasta dishes? Check out our recipes.)
Now that I'm long past the days of slinging plates, I daydream about that comforting Italian dish. Thanks to the Taste of Home Test Kitchen, I'm able to make something very similar from scratch. And guess what? It tastes even better. Read on to learn what it takes to make spaghetti and meatballs as good as (if not better than) what's available at your favorite Italian restaurant:
Buy a Good Pasta
No, you don't have to make the noodles from scratch. But it's important to choose a high-quality pasta if you're buying premade. Read the ingredients on the package to ensure the list is short. The best pastas contain just a few ingredients: semolina, eggs, water and salt. (You can also use zoodles to reduce carbs or make the dish gluten-free and paleo-friendly! Learn how to make 'em, with or without a machine.)
Cook It Al Dente
Al dente is Italian for "to the tooth." Softened yet still firm, many consider this the perfect texture for pasta. Test for doneness by using a fork to remove a single strand from the boiling water. Rinse in cold water, then taste. The texture should have some bite, similar to a stick of gum. Test often to avoid overcooking.
Be Patient with the Sauce
Though it's tempting to heat up a jar of premade spaghetti sauce, pulling it together from scratch will make it extra wow-worthy. Our sauce takes a couple of hours to cook, but friends and family will beg you for the recipe...you'll see.
Get Your Hands Dirty
The best tools for making meatballs are your own two hands. To a newbie, it may seem weird (or even a little gross), but mixing and shaping the meat requires a gentle touch. Trust us: It's easier to measure and roll meatballs with your hands than with a scoop or a spoon.
Choose the Right Recipe
Our Test Kitchen tried out hundreds of recipes before landing on this spaghetti-dinner winner. Keep reading to learn how to make the best-ever spaghetti and meatballs.
How to Make Spaghetti and Meatballs
For the sauce:
2 tablespoons olive oil
1-1/2 cups chopped onions
3 garlic cloves, minced
3 cups water
1 can (29 ounces) tomato sauce
2 cans (12 ounces each) tomato paste
1/3 cup minced fresh parsley
1 tablespoon dried basil
1 tablespoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
For the meatballs:
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 cups soft bread cubes (cut into 1/4-inch pieces)
1-1/2 cups milk
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
3 pounds ground beef
2 tablespoons canola oil
2 pounds spaghetti, cooked
Step 1: Create the base for your sauce
First thing's first: Hit "play" on the Dean Martin playlist. (I say "Mambo Italiano" should happen at least once while you're cooking.) Now that the mood is set, let's get down to business.
Begin by heating the olive oil in a Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onions and saute until softened. Then add the garlic and cook for 1 minute more, until fragrant. Stir in tomato paste and cook 3 to 5 minutes longer.
Test Kitchen tip: Be sure to give the tomato paste those few minutes on the stove before adding any other ingredients. The extra cooking time allows the sugars in the paste to caramelize, giving the sauce a flavor boost.
Step 2: Add remaining sauce ingredients and simmer
Add the water, tomato sauce, parsley, basil, salt and pepper to the pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, pop a lid on the pan and let the sauce simmer for 50 minutes. Don't worry; you don't have to sit around as it cooks. Set a timer and move on to the next step.
Test Kitchen tip: Simmering helps meld and amplify the flavors of the sauce, so don't skimp on the simmering time.
Step 3: Combine ingredients for the meatballs
The best time to make the meatballs is while the sauce is simmering. In a large bowl, combine the first seven meatball ingredients. Then gently tear the ground beef into small sections and add it into the mix. Take care not to squish the meat as you break it up.
Step 4: Mix ingredients together by hand
Here's where it helps to get hands-on. With clean hands, gently combine the ingredients. It's important not to compact the meat as you work.
Test Kitchen tip: Resist the urge to squeeze! Your meatballs will thank you for it.
Step 5: Shape the meatballs
We think this is the fun part. Shape the meat mixture into 1-1/2-in. rounds, roughly the size of a Ping-Pong ball. (P.S. This is a great task for the kids to help with.)
Test Kitchen tip: Wet your hands before rolling to keep the meat from sticking to your fingers. Re-wet them every 2 or 3 meatballs; keep a bowl of water nearby so you don't have to keep walking to the sink.
Step 6: Brown the meatballs
Let's add some color to those polpette. In a large skillet, heat the canola oil over medium heat. Then add the meatballs, browning on each side until they no longer look pink. Brown the meatballs in batches to avoid crowding the pan; drain.
Test Kitchen tip: Another method for browning the meatballs is to place them on a baking sheet and roast in a 375° oven for about 20 minutes.
Step 7: Add meatballs into the sauce and cook
Add the browned meatballs the sauce that's been simmering on the stovetop. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover and simmer again for about an hour more, stirring occasionally. This will help the flavors blend as the meat cooks through. (Prefer slow cooking? Cook on low for 5 to 6 hours.)
Now's a good time to cook the spaghetti and enlist some help to set the table—and maybe make a quick side salad.
Step 8: Mangiamo (let's eat!)
Pasta perfetta! Your spaghetti and meatballs are done. Dollop onto hot cooked spaghetti and enjoy.
Test Kitchen tip: If you'd like to save this dish for later, skip making the pasta for now. Place the meatballs and sauce in freezer containers and freeze; they'll be easy to reheat for meals throughout the week. Just be sure to cover the meatballs with sauce to prevent them from drying out.
Can't get enough Italian food? Say "ciao" to our favorite Italian dishes.