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  • Writer's pictureGalen Warden

The Story of Spaghetti

As a child in a very dysfunctional home with a very unstable mother I was blessed to have the wonderful responsibility of cooking dinner every Wednesday. I was only 11 so I had to make something easy and I chose spaghetti. We had an electric non-stick pan and I browned the beef and added the sauce while the noodles cooked. I loved it.

I married, at 20, a half Italian half Irish man whose Irish mother learned to cook meatballs from her mother-in-law. Likewise, my husband asked that I learn to make meatballs from his Irish, Italian-educated, mother. One of my proudest moments was my sister-in-law’s comment, “I love mom’s sauce,” when grabbing a taste passing through my mother-in-law’s kitchen, where my meatballs were simmering in the sauce I’d made on her stove.

I no longer have the husband, but his Italian grandmother’s meatballs and sauce live on. One of my very favorite meals. Like heaven. Here is my recipe. I learned from my mother-in-law about 40 years ago, so I may have adjusted what she showed me. But this is my tried and true approach and it never fails to win praise (and ágida from eating too much!).

Image of three meatballs in a dish on top of spaghetti.
Italian Meatballs and Gravy over spaghetti. Pasta bowl by Norma Messing.


Serves 4

Prep time: 20 minutes. Cooking time: a little over 2 hours


  • 1 jar of your favorite pasta sauce (I use Classico brand Tomato Basil – Grandma’s favorite)

  • 1 large can of plain tomato sauce or crushed tomatoes (I use Tuttorosso brand)

  • 1lb ground beef (or combo of beef/turkey or beef/pork)

  • 2 Tb olive oil

  • ½ onion chopped fine

  • 1 clove garlic (1 large or two small) finely minced

  • 1 cup fresh bread crumbs (instructions below)

  • 1 large egg

  • Grated Parmesan cheese (in a jar – the powdery kind)

  • Salt & pepper

  • One package of high-quality Italian spaghetti noodles


Add olive oil to the bottom of a large, heavy pot. Add ½ of the chopped onions and garlic (it’s not much, I know) and stir for a couple of minutes over medium heat.

Add both the jar and the can of tomato sauce to the pot. Add a few Tablespoons of parmesan cheese. Stir well, turn up the heat until it begins to bubble, then reduce to Low and cover with a spatter screen and put the lid on only halfway, so there’s plenty of room for steam to escape. The spatter screen will balance the lid. If you don’t have a spatter screen, just leave uncovered.

Take a big mixing bowl and make your cup of bread crumbs in it, thusly:

· Hold tightly several ends or ends and slices of bread (I prefer whole grain) and grate on a cheese grater. Continue grating until you have a cup of fresh crumbs in the big bowl.

Add to the breadcrumbs:

The egg, the remaining small amount of minced garlic and onion, a handful (2 Tablespoons) of the Parmesan cheese, some salt and pepper.

Mix well.

Add a large spoonful or two of the sauce on the stove to this mixture. You want the bread and egg mixture to be wet and to stick together – think of it as the same consistency as raw ground meat. Add more sauce until you get this consistency. Your bread mixture should be only slightly less than the volume of your meat.

Add ground meat and mix with your hands thoroughly, squeezing the mixture through your fingers until it’s thoroughly combined. You can add more salt & pepper if you didn’t add much before. (I use a “peppercorn medley” grinder that has just a little allspice in it.)

If it seems dry, add a little more sauce. You want this mixture to be soft and easy to work with.

Form 1.5” meatballs and line them up on a cutting board so you can see that they’re all consistent. Adjust sizes if necessary. You should get about a dozen meatballs from a pound of meat, that’s three each for four people.

Stir the sauce on the stove and drop the raw meatballs in all around the outside. You should see the tops of the meatballs, so you know where they are and make sure they’re not on top of each other. Next fill in the middle of the pot with the remaining meatballs. Now you can see all of your meatballs are spaced nicely. Very gently push them down under the surface of the liquid with a spoon, being careful not to move them or alter their shape.

Simmer them (uncovered, or with the lid halfway on the spatter screen) for about 15 minutes.

Now your meatballs are cooked enough to withstand some stirring and you can gently stir your sauce around your meatballs, pulling it up from the bottom.

Simmer on low just like this with gentle, occasional bubbling – only half covered – for about two hours, stirring every fifteen minutes or so, to keep the gravy on the bottom from burning. You’ll see grease start to form on the surface if you have fatty meat. That’s ok, but feel free to skim a LITTLE off. The grease adds substantially to the flavor, so you don’t want to remove all of it (I didn’t remove any when I used my lean, grass-fed beef yesterday). If you feel your gravy is getting too thick, you can cover most of the way with the lid.


You really want good pasta with this meal, so splurge on imported Italian medium spaghetti and cook according to the instructions when your meatballs and gravy are ready. I find the most success with adding a little olive oil to the drained pasta, and putting it into the dish plain with meatballs and gravy added on top. Don’t mix gravy into the noodles before you serve. It soaks the liquid from the gravy and changes the texture.

Serve with a buttered roll or bread, for that last drop of gravy in the bottom of your dish.


· All measurements are estimates. My mother-in-law didn’t have a recipe and didn’t write anything down. She just showed me. Eying everything has worked out well for me over the years, so I try to describe what it should look and feel like to help you do the same.

· If you’re only serving two, and eating half of the meatballs, then only cook half of the pasta. Make fresh pasta for the leftovers – which will taste even better, even microwaved, in the next day or two.

· If you’re doubling the meat, double the meatball ingredients - breadcrumbs, etc. - and add one more big can of Tuttorosso tomatoes to your gravy.

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