photo by Aran Goyoaga, from my cookbook “Eating in the Middle”
I’ve been to eleven cities in Italy and lived in New York City for two years, where there’s some pretty fantastic Italian food. And out of all of the many red checker table-clothed mom and pop shops in Italy and the many famous restaurants, this recipe still makes the best meatballs and sauce.
The meatballs are as tender as can be. Soft and seasoned with oregano and…mint, the secret ingredient in my stepdad’s decades-old recipe. You’d never be able to pinpoint what that lovely flavor is, because it’s not overtly minty, it’s just subtlely fragrant and herbal.
PJ, my stepdad, has been making these for me and everyone we know and love forever. They’re by far the most requested meal in my [sometimes unbearably] large family — before parties, holidays, and most importantly, weekends when I come home to visit Massachusetts.
PJ’s sauce is rich, sweet, and garlicky. He cooks the meatballs right in that sauce, allowing them to retain their moisture, and giving the sauce even more flavor.
Trust me here. This is a recipe you’ll make over and over again!
PJ's Meatballs and Sauce
For the sauce:
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1/2 cup finely chopped onion
- 3-4 cloves garlic minced
- 1 28 oz can crushed or ground peeled tomatoes
- 1 6 oz can tomato paste
- 1 tablespoon dried oregano
- 3 tablespoons sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon pepper
For the meatballs:
- 1 lb ground beef 85% lean
- 1 egg
- 1/3 cup seasoned breadcrumbs
- 1 1/2 teaspoons dried mint
- 2 teaspoons dried oregano
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon pepper
- Heat the olive oil in a large stock pot over medium heat. Swirl to coat the bottom of the pan to coat. Add the onion and garlic and saute, stirring occasionally, until browned, about 7 minutes. Lower the heat if they begin to burn. The more color that develops on the onion and garlic, the more flavor they'll add to the finished sauce.
- Once the onions and garlic are tender and caramel in color, add the crushed tomatoes and the tomato paste and stir until the mixture is smooth and well combined.
- Add the remaining sauce ingredients (oregano through pepper), stir, and bring the mixture to a simmer. Reduce the heat to the lowest setting, cover the pot, and let cook for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally so that the bottom does not burn.
- Make the meatballs: Break apart the beef as best you can in a large mixing bowl. Lightly beat the egg in a small bowl and pour evenly over the top of the beef. Add the bread crumbs, oregano, mint, salt, and pepper and use your hands to mix. You do not want to overwork you beef, or it will yield tough meatballs, but you do want to incorporate all of the ingredients into the ground beef so that each meatball will have a bit of the breadcrumbs and herbs and spices.
- Shape the meat mixture into 12 balls, each about 1 ½ inches in diameter. Drop them into the sauce, stir gently so that they're all covered in sauce, and then let them cook, covered, for about 45 minutes to 1 hour over low heat, stirring occasionally to prevent burning. Serve over your favorite pasta.