You Don’t Have to Be Italian to Make Homemade Italian Sauce and Meatballs


I have always loved Italian food. The closest I came to authentic Italian food as a child was eating at my parent’s Italian-Argentinian friend’s home. Their lasagna was to die for. There was always pizza from the local Queens or Brooklyn pizzeria. Then there was the annual trek with my parents to the San Gennaro feast in Little Italy in New York City every September. We would eat Italian sausage and pepper sandwiches and greasy delicious zeppole (fried dough). But even San Gennaro did not answer my prayers for I continued to live in an Italian food deprived home and continued to be fed Italian sauce out of jars for many years to come. Especially coming from a Colombian home where Italian food was defined by: catsup used as a substitute for Italian sauce, canned tuna fish added to spaghetti with catsup (one of my abuelita’s favorite, not mine), Ellio’s frozen pizza, and where arroz and papas (rice and potatoes) ruled over pasta, oh, and if there was pasta it was in Hamburger Helper. Mamma Mia! What to make of my early culinary influences!

Fast forward to when I met my future mother-in-law who happens to be of Hungarian, Scottish, and German descent. When she married a 100% Italian American she learned to cook delicious traditional Italian meals and added these to her northern European cooking repertoire. When I first had Italian sauce and meatballs at their home I was surprised to hear them say, “Pass the gravy”. Italian Americans from New Jersey refer to their Italian sauce as gravy. I also learned that although my mother-in-law worked full-time back then, she always made her gravy from scratch. Why would she buy gravy in a jar if making it from scratch, was so easy, better tasting, and less expensive. It took me years to accept this axiom. During my working career years and before children it still made sense to me to just open a jar of Prego sauce. Then came the children with their finicky ways and we quickly learned that they only liked white pasta (no red sauce in it). Finally, two different forces collided in the universe: our children miraculously started eating “red” sauce, and I had a moment of culinary enlightenment. I could make a more nutritious sauce, hide vegetables like carrot in it, make it free of additives and preservatives, make it with less sodium and sugars, and in general better tasting and healthier. And henceforth I started making homemade Italian sauce. My recipe varies each time I make it. Sometimes I use “a little of this or a little of that”.  You are welcome to get creative with the recipe.  I sometimes make the meatballs or sauté some Italian sausages and add them to the sauce. Other times we go vegetarian and have the sauce with roasted vegetables or by itself. And perhaps, why not, I should add some Tonno (Tuna Fish) to it.  

Mangia e Buon Appetito!

My Italian Sauce and Meatballs
My Italian Sauce and Meatballs

Il mio Sugo di Pomodoro con Polpette di carne

English Translation: My Italian Tomato Sauce with Meatballs

New Jersey English: My Italian Tomato Gravy with Meatballs

Sugo di Pomodoro (Tomato Sauce/Gravy)

Making sauce is as simple as the two pictures below.

The Basic Ingredients
The Basic Ingredients
The herbs and spices
The herbs and spices

This recipe makes approximately 8 servings. I usually make the meatball recipe as well. I like to serve it to our family of four. This recipe makes excellent leftovers. I prefer to freeze the leftovers and enjoy another meal of Pasta with Tomato Sauce and Meatballs at a later date. When I freeze foods I make sure I use an airtight container and that I label the container with the description and date.

A note about tomatoes: If it is not tomato season (July & August in the northern hemisphere) then the next best option is to use canned (tinned) tomatoes. Canned tomatoes are stewed and canned when they are fresh. However, if you grew 15 tomato plants like my husband did three summers ago, and ended up with an 80 lb. harvest, then you’ll have to learn to stew and can your own tomatoes.


  • 2 Tbs Olive oil
  • 2 – 800 gm/28 oz cans plum tomatoes
  • 1 onion coarsely chopped
  • 2 to 3 carrots cut in ½ inch cubes or slices
  • 3 to 4 cloves of garlic minced (use more if you like garlic)
  • 1 red pepper diced (optional)
  • ½ to 1 Tbs dried oregano (can use fresh sprigs)
  • ½ to 1 Tbs dried basil (can use fresh sprigs)
  • 1 good handful of fresh Italian Parsley (flat)
  • 1 Bay leaf
  • 2 Tbs sugar (This is optional, but I feel that it balances the acidity of the tomatoes and you are still using a lot less sugars than store-bought jars)
  • ¼ tsp – ½ tsp red pepper flakes (optional)
  • ½ cup of red wine (optional) Use good wine, do not use cooking wine.
  • Salt and Black Pepper to taste


– Heat olive oil in large pot.
– Add onion, garlic, carrot, and red pepper to pan. Sauté on medium heat for about 5 minutes, then reduce to low, cover and cook for about 10 minutes. Sweat the vegetables.

Sweat the vegetables.

– Open cans of tomatoes, pour into onion/carrot/garlic mix. Note: Break up tomatoes with your hand as you pour them in or pour them and then break them up with a wooden spoon.

– Make a bouquet garni (bundle of herbs) with the bay leaf and fresh parsley. If you are using fresh basil and oregano sprigs add them to the bouquet garni.  Place in the sauce.  If using dried herbs add them to the mix.  Add Sugar. Add the wine and red pepper flakes. Add salt and black pepper to taste.

Add bouquet garni, herbs, sugar, salt, and pepper.

– Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover, and simmer for 30 minutes

Cool for 10 minutes.

– Use immersion blender or blender to blend until smooth. If you like your sauce with some chunks, just blend part way.

Blend smooth
Blend smooth

– Keep sauce in pan. Make any corrections for seasoning.
– Make meatballs. See recipe below.

Polpette di Carne (Meatballs)

Makes approximately 28,  1 ½-inch to 2-inch meatballs.


  • 2 lbs of ground meat – I like to mix 1 lb of ground beef with either 1 lb of ground turkey or ground pork.
  • 2 eggs
  • ½ to 1 cup parsley coarsely chopped
  • 4 cloves of garlic cut in half
  • 2/3 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
  • 2 tsp salt
  • ½ tsp ground black pepper
  • 1 cup of breadcrumbs


– Add to a food processor: eggs, parsley, garlic, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, salt, and black pepper. Blend and make a purée. The reason I started making a purée was to hide all the herbs and garlic from our children when they were little. I still make the purée because I find it so much easier to blend the ingredients together with the meat.

Making puree of egg, cheese, parsley, and garlic.
Making puree of egg, cheese, parsley, and garlic.

– Place the ground meat in a large bowl and break up.

– Add the egg parsley purée.

– Add the bread crumbs

Add the puree and breadcrumbs to meat.
Add the puree and breadcrumbs to meat.

– Mix together gently.

Mix together gently.
Mix together gently.

– Assemble the meatballs. When you assemble the meatballs, handle the meat gently, and keep the meat loose. Don’t squish together the meat to form hard compressed balls. That will toughen the meatballs.

Assemble the meatballs gently
Assemble the meatballs gently

And here is where my recipe varies from others. I do not bake or fry the meatballs. I drop them raw into the red sauce and allow them to cook in the sauce. This saves preparation time and imparts additional flavors to the sauce.

– Bring the Tomato Sauce back to temperature and drop the meatballs into the sauce. Make sure they are covered in sauce.

Bring sauce to temperature, and drop the raw meatballs in the sauce.
Bring sauce to temperature, and drop the raw meatballs in the sauce.

– Bring to boil, reduce heat, and simmer for 1 hour to 1½ hour. The longer you let the sauce simmer the more flavorful it will become.

Simmer for 1 hour
Simmer for 1 hour

– Serve over a bowl of spaghetti or your favorite type of pasta

For further reading: About San Gennaro feast in New York City:

Great Italian food website my husband discovered:

Before the food network was popular we watched cooking shows on PBS. One of our favorite Italian chefs was Mary Ann Esposito, on the show Ciao Italia, which celebrates its 23rd year this year, making it the longest running cooking series in America.

For some history of Italian food:

10 thoughts on “You Don’t Have to Be Italian to Make Homemade Italian Sauce and Meatballs

  1. It looks delicious! You have answered my question, “what am I making for dinner this weekend!” I will lt you know how it turns out. I remember watching cooking shows on PBS too, specifically Lidia of Italy. I know she has a restaurant in NYC, but I just found out there is one in Pittsburgh as well. Keep your recipes coming, I love them!

  2. Ariadne, I make my meatballs in a similar way but add a secret ingredient – unflavored gelatin. (Now it won’t be a secret any more after posting on your blog!) Test Kitchen tried a number of recipes and found that gelatin helped make the meatballs moist (and it sure does). I also add yogurt and milk. The other ingredients are the same as yours. Try it and see what you think. My friends and family rave about my meatballs. I make extra and freeze them so we can have a quick meal during the week.

    Thanks for the post. I love to cook and find recipes.

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