Grandma’s Sicilian Meatballs in a Spicy Tomato Sauce

Photo by James Ransom
  • Prep time
    5 hours 45 minutes
  • Cook time
    2 hours 45 minutes
  • Serves
    6 to 8
Author Notes

Growing up Sicilian-American in Texas, I remember eating the food my great-grandmother and grandma prepared at big family gatherings. But I never once had my grandmother’s meatballs until my 20s (I had always been a vegetarian, like my dad). When I finally made them with her, I was not disappointed—it was like I had been given a long-lost birthright. The recipe makes a pretty spicy meatball, so if you have a low tolerance for spice you might want to bring it down a notch. A note: I like to make the meatballs the day before and let them chill overnight; they’ll hold their shape better and all you’ll have to do the next day is pop them in the oven, or fry them in a pan, before they take a swim in your arrabbiata sauce. —Anthony Falco

Test Kitchen Notes

This recipe is featured in the story, My Grandmother’s Spicy Italian Meatballs Are Anything But Standard, sponsored by Lagostina. —The Editors

  • Test Kitchen-Approved

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Grandma’s Sicilian Meatballs in a Spicy Tomato Sauce

  • For the meatballs:

  • 2

    slices stale white bread, crusts removed and roughly chopped

  • 1/3 cup


  • 1/4 cup

    fresh flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped

  • 1 1/2 teaspoons

    kosher salt

  • 1/4 teaspoon

    freshly ground black pepper

  • 3/4 teaspoon

    dried, crushed Calabrian chili

  • 1/2 teaspoon

    fennel seed

  • 2 pounds

    ground beef

  • 1/3 cup

    rendered beef fat

  • 1 cup

    Pecorino Romana, grated

  • 1/2 cup

    Grana Padano, grated

  • 1/4 cup

    unseasoned breadcrumbs

  • For the sauce:

  • 2 tablespoons

    extra-virgin olive oil

  • 1

    large white onion, finely chopped

  • 4

    garlic cloves, thinly sliced

  • 1

    fresh red chili (Birdseye or similar), stem and seeds removed and finely chopped

  • 1 teaspoon

    dried, crushed Calabrian chili

  • 48 ounces

    tomato passata

  • 2 teaspoons

    kosher salt, or more as needed

  1. Make the meatball mixture: Add the bread to a medium bowl and pour the milk over top. Soak for 15 minutes, then tip off any excess milk. Add soaked bread to a food processor along with the parsley and a pinch of salt, and pulse until a smooth paste forms. Set aside.
  2. Add 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, Calabrian chili, fennel seeds, and 1/4 teaspoon black pepper to a spice grinder and grind until a fine powder forms.
  3. Line the bottom of a large baking dish with parchment paper. Using a large mixing bow, add the ground beef, beef fat, Pecorino, Grana Padano, soaked bread mixture, ground spices, and bread crumbs. Gently mix with your hands until fully combined. Roll meat mixture into 1-inch balls and arrange in a single layer in the prepared baking dish. Cover and refrigerate for at least 5 hours, or up to overnight.
  4. Make the sauce: Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan set over medium-low heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened and lightly browned, about 6 to 8 minutes. Add the garlic, fresh chili, and dried Calabrian chili; cook, stirring often, until fragrant, about 2 to 3 minutes.
  5. Add the tomato passata and salt; bring to a boil, then lower the heat to low, cover the pan, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until thickened, about 2 hours.
  6. Cook the meatballs: Preheat the oven to 250° F (take the baking dish out of the refrigerator and let rest at room temperature while the oven preheats). Transfer the baking dish to the oven and bake until meatballs are firm enough to handle, but still rare on the inside, about 20 minutes. Gently transfer the meatballs to the sauce. Cover and simmer, gently stirring once or twice, until cooked through, about 20 minutes. Taste, and add more salt, if needed. Serve hot.

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