Italian Meatballs

For many years Jerri and I have been stopping at a supper club in Trego, Wisconsin on our way to the cabin. While I was still working, we enjoyed the Friday fish fry at least once a month and occasionally we would treat ourselves to a prime rib dinner which is The Prime’s specialty, as you might infer from the name.

With more flexible schedules today we sometimes find ourselves driving through Trego during the middle of the week. One late Wednesday afternoon we decided to stop for dinner in Trego on our way back to New Richmond.

The nightly special was spaghetti and meatballs. Jerri chose the senior size, which was two meatballs plus pasta. I opted for the regular meal with three meatballs.

When the waitress brought out a plate the size of a platter with three baseball-sized meatballs perched on a mound of spaghetti, I knew I had misjudged the generosity of the chef. I also learned that the meatballs and sauce were as good as any I have made at home.

I hate to admit it, but I have wasted restaurant food by leaving it on my plate from time to time. However, I have never asked for a “doggy bag” until that evening. The third meatball and a large serving of spaghetti tasted nearly as good the next day for lunch.

With this recipe for meatballs and sauce, you will make a spaghetti and meatball dinner better than you can buy at most restaurants and you won’t have to ask for a doggy bag. Just put the leftovers in freezer containers and save them for a night when you want a quick dinner. They will keep for two to three months.

I call them Italian meatballs because I mix Italian sausage with the hamburger and use a generous amount of chopped parsley, which is a common ingredient in Italian-style meatballs. Many recipes use stale bread instead of cracker crumbs and some omit the milk or the pork, but they all are versions of a great way to stretch the meat a little with less expensive ingredients. The sauce also is a flavorful salute to Italy.

As you may know, in Italy meatballs are usually served as a separate course. Americans like meat with a meal, so Italian chefs apparently began serving meatballs with the spaghetti sometime early last century in New York City. The National Macaroni Manufacturers Association published the earliest known recipe in the 1920’s.

Anyway, if you are looking for comfort food, it’s hard to beat this recipe.


For the meatballs:
3/4 lb. Italian sausage
3/4 lb. hamburger
1 clove garlic
1/2 c. chopped parsley
1 large egg
1 c. cracker crumbs
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. pepper
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup fine bread crumbs
1 – 2 T vegetable oil

For the sauce:
16 oz. plus 8 oz. can tomato sauce
1/3 tsp. fennel seed
3/4 tsp. dried basil
3/4 tsp. dried oregano
1/4 tsp. garlic powder
1/8 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1/4 tsp. sugar
1/4 cup dry red wine
2 tsp. olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste.


Start by making the sauce. Crush the fennel seeds in a mortar or with a spoon in a cup and combine the tomato sauce, spices, wine and olive oil in a pan large enough to hold the finished meatballs. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and allow the sauce to simmer while you make the meatballs. Taste and adjust the seasoning before you add the meatballs to the sauce. If the sauce is too thick, add a little water or tomato juice.

Using a fork (or your fingers), mix the sausage with the hamburger, garlic, parsley, cracker crumbs, salt and pepper in large bowl. In a small bowl beat the egg until lemon colored, mix with the milk and pour it over the meat. Mix thoroughly.

Put the bread crumbs on a plate. Take about two heaping tablespoons of meat at a time and form the balls. Roll them in the bread crumbs and set them aside on a plate.
Heat a tablespoon of vegetable oil in a skillet and brown the meatballs over medium heat on at least two sides. They do not have to be cooked through as they will finish cooking in the sauce. Drain the meatballs on paper towels, then put them into the sauce. Simmer the meatballs in the sauce for about 25 minutes. Serve with a green salad and good bread.

NOTES: In the United States meatballs are usually served with spaghetti, but they go fine with penne rigate or farfelle when like me you forget to check the spaghetti supply ahead of time. Pass some grated Parmesan or Romano cheese at the table.

You can substitute anise seed for the fennel. You can also substitute four cups of fresh or frozen chopped tomatoes for the tomato sauce, add a six ounce can of tomato paste and a quarter teaspoon of salt, then follow the recipe above to make a delicious sauce. Simmer it for an extra thirty minutes or so.

You can bake the meatballs instead of browning them in a skillet.  Preheat the oven to 400º and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.  Place the balls an inch apart on the sheet and bake them for twenty to twenty-five minutes.

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