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Polpette {Italian Meatballs In Rich Tomato Sauce}

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Polpette or polpette al sugo to be precise is a traditional Italian meatball recipe that has become a staple of Italian home cooking.

Every Sunday, nonnas all around Italy make a big batch of polpette.

Of course, everyone has their own recipe and refined technique. As you make them a few dozens of times you’ll develop a sense of perfect meatballs even without following a recipe.

But for now, if you follow this polpette al sugo recipe you’ll have the most juicy and tender homemade meatballs.

If you’re new to Italian cooking, let’s clear some questions you might have.

Polpette Italian Meatballs in a pan

What Is Polpette?

Polpette are Italian bite size, round-shaped nuggets made of meat (polpette di carne), ricotta (polpette di ricotta), different types of veggies. In this last case you would add main vegetable name to the frase “polpette di [vegetable name]”. For example: polpette di zucchine, polpette di melanzane (eggplant meatballs) and so on.

Quite often, Italians also make polpette to use left-over foods such as risotto, boiled meat or chicken breast and even stale bread (polpette di pane).

But unless you specify what kind of “polpetta” that is, when you mention this dish, by default everyone thinks of polpette as these classic Italian Meatballs in tomato sauce.

By the way, polpette is plural of polpetta. So it would be actually more correct to ask “what Are polpette”.

Etymology of the word polpetta is most likely coming from Italian word polpa which in translation means pulp.

This totally makes sense, since a mix you prepare to make polpette looks and feels like “pulp”.

5 Reasons Why You Should Make Polpette

  • You don’t have to spend hours in the kitchen! All you need is a few simple ingredients to make the most delicious Italian Polpette in a few simple steps.
  • They freeze great. Make a big batch and enjoy homemade Italian meatballs and enjoy them on demand.
  • There are 3 ways you can cook them: super healthy, classic or super fast AND actually healthy too! More about this in the recipe below.
  • Even though Italians don’t serve pasta and polpette together aka spaghetti and meatballs, when you make polpette you still can (MUST!) use the sauce to make delicious pasta with rich tomato sauce that has absorbed all flavors of the meatballs.
  • With just one recipe you have both first course and second course ready to serve, which keeps in the fridge for about 2 days.
Polpette Al Sugo - Italian Meatballs In Tomato Sauce

Polpette – Italian Meatballs Ingredients

Meat

Top quality ground beef or veal is on of the secrets to making the best, the juiciest meatballs in the world. I mostly use just that.

To the beef you can also add ground pork or  sausage meat. Keep in mind that the latter already comes with the spices, so you won’t need any extra from the below. Just use what’s listed on the classic recipe.

Spices/ Herbs

Classic spices for Italian meatballs (baked or fried) are nutmeg and oregano, but chopped parsley is also used very often. If you like you can also add some marjoram and fennel seeds.

Shallot, Onion, Garlic

I love using shallots for the meatballs “dough” as they have a milder flavor than onions plus they also have a hint of garlic flavor as well.

But you can use onion (any quality) instead of shallots.

Add garlic clove to taste. I use it only in the tomato sauce (you’ll see in the recipe).

Bread or Breadcrumbs

Both work really well. If using fresh bread remove the crust. If using fresh or stale bread make sure to soak it in milk first.

Some say meatballs make with soaked bread come out tender than with breadcrumbs. I think it’s a matter of a personal preference.

Other Italian Meatballs Ingredients

You might have come across some Italian meatball recipes or even tried one with pine nuts and raisins – that’s called Italian Meatballs Neapolitan Style.

That’s the next meatballs I’ll be making. But for this recipe, stick to classic ingredients – you’ll be worth it!

Meatballs Size

In this case, size does NOT really matter. As long as they’re of the same size in the batch, which helps meatballs to cook evenly, you’re off to a good start.

You can make them tiny as olives or huge as a tennis ball. JK. Probably you don’t want to go THAT big 🙂

I love keeping it sweet and right in the middle. Size of a walnut in a shell tastes perfect to me.

But a lot of people love making them somewhere between a walnut and an apricot size. Another good and PRACTICAL visual is a medium size cookie scoop. Read more tips about the below.

Some also like to flatten then out slightly with the palm of the hand saying that they’ll cook faster. It didn’t really make a huge difference for me. And round meatballs look certainly more appetizing to the eye, but again, it’s more of a personal preference/belief at this point.

Polpette - The BEST Italian Meatballs In Tomato Sauce

3 Ways To Cook Meatballs

Baked (Healthy)

Baked meatballs is a super healthy alternative to the classic Fried Italian Meatballs. I also used baked meatballs when doing prep for the freezer.

See recipe below for details.

Fried (Classic)

Classic Italian Meatballs are definitely fried. Possibly in extra virgin olive oil. But since more most of us that’s a luxury, make sure you use good quality and generous amount of vegetable oil. Peanut oil is my best choice, since it has a very high “smoke point” (450F).

Nonna Way (Fast AND Healthy)

I learned this trick from my mother-in-law aka nonna. And honestly, it’s the best of all worlds. Simple, fast and healthy.

Basically you add raw meatballs to the pan to cook together with the sauce.

Here’s how you do it:

  • In a large pan add a generous splash of extra virgin olive oil.
  • Add garlic (shallot or onion) add toss in a pan for a few minutes.
  • Add raw meatballs
  • Cover with tomato sauce and herbs.

Can you freeze homemade meatballs?

Short answer is – absolutely!

Freeze them on a tray after baking in the oven, then transfer in a freezer bag. When needed remove from the freezer and cook in the sauce as described in the recipe (no need to defrost).

My best advice however is to freeze them together with the sauce. This way you will not loose that delicious juiciness from the meat and hence flavor.

Plus you don’t have to make the sauce from scratch, you are essentially freezing a ready-to-consume meal.

Isn’t that a Meatballs Heaven? 😍

Extra Tips

  1. Use a cookie scoop, also known as ice cream scoop or melon baller to make, perfect, all the same size meatballs.
  2. Double the ingredients and make a double portion. These meatballs taste even better the next day.
  3. Save any leftover sauce and make pasta. Soooo good!

How To Make Italian Meatballs – Step By Step

  • In a large bowl add ground beef and crumble it with a wooden spoon or simply using your fingers (photo 1).
  • Add finely chopped shallot. I like to use a microplane grater as it extracts all the juices to go with the meat and minces the shallot really well (photo 2).
Polpette Recipe Steps 1-3
  • Add ground nutmeg, breadcrumbs, egg(s) and Parmesan cheese (photos 3-6).
  • Mix everything well with your hands.
Polpette Recipe Steps 4-6
  • Slowly pour in the milk. Mix again until smooth and even texture (photo 7).
  • Add salt and pepper.
    TIP: If the mixture feels too dry add some more milk, if way too soft, almost liquid-y – add more breadcrumbs.
    An ideal meatball mix should be moist, easy to roll in your hands and hold the shape.
  • Preheat oven to 400 F.
  • Pinch of about an ounce of meat and roll it between the palms of your hands giving it a smooth round shape with no cracks (photo 8-9).
    With an ounce of meat you’ll have medium size meatballs, about size of a walnut.
    NOTE: Make your meatballs smaller or bigger, depending your preference.
  • Place rolled meatballs on a baking sheet. Line with parchment paper to avoid extra cleaning.
    Bake in the oven for 15-20 minutes.
    See recipe notes if you’d like to FRY them instead of baking.
Polpette Recipe Steps 7-9
  • In a large skillet pan add a generous drizzle of extra virgin olive oil (photo 10.
  • Add baked meatballs, tomato pure.
    Clean the can/bottle with about a quarter cup water and add to the sauce (photos 11, 12).
Polpette Recipe Steps 10-12
  • Add garlic cloves crushed with a flat knife, handful of fresh basil leaves and generous drizzle of dried oregano (photos 13-15).
  • Bring to simmer and cook on low heat for 15-20 minutes.
Polpette Recipe Steps 13-15

What do you serve with meatballs?

In English-speaking world Spaghetti and meatballs is the most classic version.

But it’s not how Italians serve it.

You might be surprised that Italians NEVER serve meatballs with pasta (probably excluding few little known regional recipes from the South).

Instead, they cook and serve pasta (spaghetti including, but most commonly penne pasta) with rich meatballs sauce. And THEN, they serve meatballs as “secondo” or main course.

Meatballs are covered in tomato sauce, topped with freshly grated Parmesan cheese and some chopped parsley.

Food of Gods!

The BEST Italian Meatballs In Tomato Sauce {Baked or Pan-Fried}

Did you make this recipe or any other recipe on the blog?
I’d love to hear how it went! Please comment and rate it below 🙂

Polpette Italian Meatballs in a pan

Polpette – Italian Meatballs In Rich Tomato Sauce

Polpette Al Sugo or classic Italian Meatballs are soft, juicy bite-size nuggets cooked to perfection in rich tomato sauce.
Print Pin Rate / Comment
Prep Time10 mins
Cook Time35 mins
Total Time45 mins
Course: Main Course
Cuisine: Italian
Servings: 4

Ingredients

Meatballs:

  • 1 lb ground beef
  • 1 shallot , grated or finely chopped
  • 2 tbsp breadcrumbs
  • 2 small eggs or 1 medium/large
  • cup Parmesan cheese , grated
  • ½ tsp nutmeg
  • ¼ cup milk + more if needed
  • Salt , pepper to taste

Tomato Sauce:

Instructions

Prepare meatball mixture

  • In a large bowl add ground beef and crumble it with a wooden spoon or simply using your fingers.
  • Add finely chopped shallot. I like to use a microplane grater as it extracts all the juices to go with the meat and minces the shallot really well.
  • Add ground nutmeg, breadcrumbs, egg(s) and Parmesan cheese.
  • Mix everything well with your hands.
  • Slowly pour in the milk. Mix again until smooth and even texture.
  • Add salt and pepper.
  • If the mixture feels too dry add some more milk, if way too soft, almost liquid-y – add more breadcrumbs.
  • An ideal meatball mix should be moist, easy to roll in your hands and hold the shape.

Roll and cook meatballs

  • Preheat oven to 400 F.
  • Pinch of about an ounce of meat and roll it between the palms of your hands giving it a smooth round shape with no cracks.
  • With an ounce of meat you’ll have medium size meatballs, think walnut size.
  • Of course you can make your meatballs smaller or bigger, depending your preference.
  • Place rolled meatballs on a baking sheet (see notes!).
    Line with parchment paper to avoid extra cleaning.
    Bake in the oven for 15-20 minutes.

Cook meatballs in tomato sauce

  • In a large skillet pan add a generous drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.
  • Add baked meatballs, tomato pure (clean the can/bottle with about a quarter cup water and add to the sauce).
  • Add garlic cloves crushed with a flat knife, handful of fresh basil leaves and generous drizzle of dried oregano.
  • Bring to simmer and cook on low heat for 15-20 minutes.

Notes

Can I fry meatballs instead of baking them?
Yes, you can! Fry meatballs in extra virgin olive oil or a mix of butter and extra virgin olive oil. Then add the tomato sauce and proceed with the last steps of this recipe.
Can I freeze meatballs?
YES, you can! Freeze them on a tray after baking in the oven, then transfer in a freezer bag. When needed remove from the freezer and cook in the sauce as described in the recipe (no need to defrost).
Liked this recipe?Follow @italianrecipeb for more!

Looking for a piece of rustic bread to go with the meatballs?

Try one of these favorite Italian Homemade Breads!

Homemade Ciabatta Bread

Pagnotta {Italian Round Country Bread}

Buon Appetito!

italian meatballs collage

Do you have you favorite polpette recipe or Italian Meatballs recipe? Perhaps, the recipe your mom or nonna always made on Sunday?

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Recipe Rating




Avril Paterson

Sunday 25th of April 2021

Am definitely going to make this, sounds amazing. Only thing is, is it tinned tomatoes or tomato puree???

Italian Recipe Book

Monday 26th of April 2021

Hello Avril, you will need tomato puree to make these polpette. Let me know how you like or if you have any other questions.

Haz3nMommie

Sunday 25th of April 2021

Just like our family recipe my grandmother brought from Naples written on parchment. Absolutely wonderful; thank you for sharing. I love your idea of using a microplane for the shallots. Genius!

Italian Recipe Book

Monday 26th of April 2021

Thank you!! I'm so happy you enjoyed the recipe, especially that it brings such good memories!

Meatball Sub Stuffed Burgers – Beckie's Blog

Monday 4th of March 2019

[…] I got to work. I made the meat with this meatball recipe I found on […]

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