Sal’s meatballs and red sauce

Red sauce is the constant of my childhood: I must have seen it made, eaten it, and made it myself hundreds (thousands?) of times growing up. As an adult, I’ve continued to make it often, following my own made up recipe that is a blend of my memory of the traditional sauce I grew up with and ingredients that are more adventurous and less authentic. I love red sauce with anchovies, for instance, and I really like cracked red pepper in the sauce for a bit of a kick. But neither of those ingredients are standard ingredients in my father’s pasta sauce. I recently took some time to get his recipe for spaghetti and meatballs, which couldn’t be simpler (or tastier). And by the way, we don’t call it ‘gravy’ like some Italians do.

Here’s the recipe:

Red Sauce and Meatballs Sal Style


  • 1 lb ground meat (beef/veal/turkey/pork all work)
  • 1 egg
  • 3-4 cloves of fresh garlic finely chopped
  • 1 big handful of fresh parsley
  • 1 big handful of Romano cheese (Parmesan also works)
  • 2-3 slices of white bread soaked in water and then squeezed dry
  • A pinch each of salt and pepper (I use less salt because the cheese is salty)
  • Olive oil (for frying)

Make them:

Combine all the ingredients so that everything is thoroughly mixed. If the mix feels too dry add more eggs. If it feels too wet add more bread and cheese. Form the mix into meatballs that are smaller than a tennis ball but bigger than a golf ball. Heat the oil over medium-high heat and then fry the meatballs turning regularly to ensure that each side gets browned. You can also skip frying the meatballs and instead cook them directly in the sauce – but this only works if you have a wide pot of sauce. Either way, you should add the meatballs to the red sauce after you’ve fried/not fried them.

This is what they look like cooking away:

Red sauce:

  • 6 cups crushed tomatoes
  • 3 cups tomato purée
  • 1-2 cups of water (depending on thickness of sauce)
  • 1 large onion
  • 5-7 cloves of garlic
  • Big handful of fresh basil
  • Big handful of fresh parsley
  • Beef and pork meat (on the bones)
  • Olive oil
  • 2-3 potatoes, peeled
  • Salt and pepper

Cook it:

Place a large pot over medium-high heat and add a big glug of olive oil (enough to coat the bottom of the pan lightly). Toss in the onion and some pepper. Saute for a few minutes and then toss in the meat pieces. My father uses a variety of different kinds of meat – anything will do really, but it is good to use meat which has some bones in it. I’ve seen him make it with pork or beef chops and I’ve seen him make it with sausage as well. You should use whatever you like. Whatever you use, you should brown it a bit with the onion and then toss in the garlic when the onion is starting to look translucent and when the meat is browning a bit. Saute the garlic for a minute or so and then add all of the tomatoes, the parsley and the basil.  Toss in the peeled potatoes (they soak up the acid from the tomatoes) and cook for about forty minutes-one hour. Watch the sauce carefully – do not let the bottom burn. Sal usually covers the sauce and turns it down to medium-low once it has bubbled a bit. He stirs often. You should add the meatballs after the sauce has bubbled away for about twenty minutes. Taste frequently and add salt and pepper as you go. Remember that you’ll probably serve with some grated cheese, so you don’t want to over salt (likewise, under seasoning is the kiss of death). The sauce is done when it has developed a nice round flavor – not too sharply acidic and not too flat. If the potatoes are soft, that probably means it is ready to eat.

The sauce bubbling away:

A meatball!

Cook up your favorite pasta (Sal uses spaghetti [which he calls macaroni] or angel hair) and toss with the red sauce. Serve with the meat and the meatballs. This business is super simple and super tasty. Don’t try to complicate things – simple, fresh and high quality products are the key to good Italian/Sicilian food.


Serve with a Chianti or a nice Barolo (if you’re feeling fancy).


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