Classic spaghetti and meatballs

Updated 8th April 2024

This classic spaghetti and meatballs recipe is my absolute favourite. It’s made with an Old fashioned Sicilian and Southern Italian style marina sauce and super flavourful tender meatballs which are seared then finished off in the sauce. Searing the meatballs caramelizes the outer surface and lends a richer flavor to the finished meal.

Spaghetti Meatballs on a platter with one cut open

This sauce recipe is a variation of Giada De Laurentiis recipe and one I love using for spaghetti and meatballs because it is so flavourful and not overly acidic and goes so well with the tender delicious Italian style meatballs. It will require some chopping and simmering but this recipe yields a great sauce - which can be made days ahead of time if you want to prepare parts of the dish ahead this is a great option. The meatballs are super flavorful and so nice and fork-tender. I love them. My friend is married to an Italian and she ate my meatballs once and asked “how do you get your meatballs to taste so Italian?” Well the answer is ask an Italian how they make their meatballs and follow suit! This is a very basic meatball recipe. It’s also a very flexible one too. The ratio of bread and breadcrumbs can be altered to taste. Some people don’t like adding the Parmesan cheese to them and that is fine. And you can play up the herbs a little too. You could also add a third meat like many do. Often added is ground veal and or ground pork. So feel free to add it in or even do all ground beef if you don’t have the pork. This is the way I like mine. You could change and add things to your personal taste.

Spaghetti Meatball sauce ingredients

Marinara Sauce Ingredients

Of course this recipe can be made with any store-bought pasta sauce or marinara sauce like Rao ‘s but I like to make my own when I can. The sauce can easily be made a couple of days in advance. Here is what you will need for the homemade Marinara Sauce:

  • OLIVE OIL: I use extra virgin olive oil
  • SOFFRITTO: An aromatic mix of diced/minced onions, carrots, and celery. I also like to add garlic for more flavour.
  • BAY LEAVES: These add a subtle but distinct flavor that can enhance the overall taste of the sauce
  • CRUSHED TOMATOES: Get good quality canned crushed tomatoes or get canned whole San Marzano tomatoes and blend them.
  • SALT & PEPPER: Season with as much as you like
  • FRESH HERBS: I stir in some chopped fresh parsley or basil at the end - but feel free to add a sprig or two of each while the sauce simmers then discard when it’s done

How to make Spaghetti Marinara sauce

How to make Spaghetti Marinara sauce

Meatball Ingredients

These meatballs are nice and tender and full of flavour - a great Italian style meatball. They are made with a panade which is a milk-and-bread paste commonly incorporated into ground meats to keep them extra tender and moist during the cooking process. Here is what you will need:

  • BREAD CRUMBS: I always use dry plain bread crumbs with no added seasonings
  • MILK: I recommend using whole milk instead of water to soak the breadcrumbs, as whole milk adds more flavor and rich moisture than using plain water. But based on your dietary preference, you can also use almond milk, coconut milk, oat milk, or low-sodium beef broth to soak the breadcrumbs instead.
  • MEAT: Chuck ground beef is a good choice which has a large amount of fat and flavor, and ground pork/italian sausage are a great combo for juicy tender meatballs. Avoid using extra lean meats if at all possible. If I’m going lean I will simply go lean with the ground beef not extra lean. The fat is a core component in making the beef meatballs tender and juicy, in the same fashion as hamburger patties. If you are using different proteins keep that in mind like ground turkey or “meatloaf mix” (equal parts ground beef, pork and veal)
  • ONION & GARLIC: Many recipes call for sautéing these ingredients, but I personally find that so long as these aromatics are finely chopped or grated, they blend in just perfectly to the mixture.
  • EGG: You will only need 1 large egg for this recipe.
  • SPICES & DRIED HERBS: I like to use a blend of chili pepper flakes, dried oregano, dried basil and of course salt and black pepper. If you prefer to use Italian seasoning blend instead feel free to
  • PARMESAN CHEESE: Freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano is what I recommend for best flavor - I grate mine very fine so it blends well into the meatballs.
  • FRESH PARSLEY: You will need 1 tablespoon of finely minced fresh parsley. Use fresh parsley for best flavour but in a pinch you could substitute with 1 teaspoon dried parsley.
  • OLIVE OIL: I prefer to use olive oil bt you technically can use any other neutral oil for pan frying / searing the meatballs

Spaghetti Meatballs Ingredients all layed out

How To Make Italian Style Spaghetti & Meatballs

  1. MAKE SAUCE: Saute the sofritto until the veggies are nicely tender and then add the tomatoes, broth and bay leaves and simmer for 1 hour. Stir in chopped fresh herbs to finish off sauce. (Marinara sauce can be stored in airtight containers in the fridge for up to 1 week or in the freezer for up to 6 months.)
  2. MAKE MEATBALLS: Combine the meatball ingredients, form into balls, sear and set a side
  3. SIMMER MEATBALLS: Gently place the seared meatballs into the low simmering sauce and simmer on low for 20-30 minutes or until meatballs are cooked through.
  4. COOK PASTA: Cook pasta til al dente according to package instructions save some pasta water before draining the pasta and putting pasta back in the pot
  5. COMBINE: Toss pasta in pot with a few ladle fulls of sauce, thin out with a little pasta water as needed - serve out pasta onto plates or bowls and top with meatballs and sauce

Spaghetti Meatballs step by step process part 1

Spaghetti Meatballs step by step process part 2

Spaghetti & Meatballs Tips

  • Mixing the meatballs: It’s important to not over-mix a meatball and to not form them too tightly. Use wet hands and roll the meatballs by hand until there are no cracks.
  • Don’t stir pot: Once the meatballs are in the pot try not to stir or move them around too much so they don’t break apart if you need to stir simply grab the pot and give it a gentle shake or swirl
  • Thicken sauce: With or without paste the sauce can be thickened by simply opening the lid to allow quicker evaporation. Conversely, to slow the thickening process keep the sauce pot fully covered.
  • Size: You can make the meatballs larger or smaller than suggested; just be sure to adjust cooking time as needed. Use a cookie scoop to keep the size consistent.

Spaghetti Meatballs close up on a platter

Spaghetti & Meatballs Make Ahead, Storage & Freezing

  • MAKE AHEAD SAUCE: Sauce can be made and cooled to room temperature then stored in airtight containers in the fridge for up to 1 week or in the freezer for up to 6 months. Thaw overnight in the fridge before warming up.
  • MAKE AHEAD MEATBALLS: You can refrigerate raw meatball mixture overnight and shape it the next day, or freeze the raw mixture for up to three months. Thaw in the fridge before shaping into meatballs if freezing.
  • STORAGE: The meatballs and sauce can be stored in the fridge for 2-3 days and reheated on the stove-top. If the sauce is a little too thick, just add a touch of water to loosen it up.
  • FREEZING SAUCE WITH MEATBALLS: The cooked meatballs can be frozen, in their sauce, for up to 3 months. When ready to serve, thaw overnight in the refrigerator and reheat on the stovetop until the meatballs are warmed through in the center.
  • FREEZING MEATBALLS WITHOUT SAUCE: Simply cook them as per regular instructions except cook them right through (not partially) and let them cool completely before storing them in an airtight container. They will be good for up to 3 months in the freezer. To serve, simply thaw them in the fridge overnight and reheat them at 350°F for 8-10 minutes in the oven or 3-5 minutes in the air fryer or warm through in sauce.

3 Spaghetti Meatballs in sauce on a plate close up

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Servings: Serves 4 (yields approx 20-24 small to medium meatballs)
Prep Time: 30 mins
Cook Time: 1 hour 20 mins
Total Time: 1 hour 50 mins



  • 1 pound spaghetti (16 oz)
  • 2-3 bottles of Marinara sauce (or homemade recipe below)

For the Marinara Sauce

  • ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 small onions, finely chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 2 stalks celery, finely chopped
  • 2 medium carrots, peeled and finely chopped
  • ½ teaspoon sea salt, plus more to taste
  • ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste
  • 2 (28-ounce) cans crushed tomatoes
  • 2 dried bay leaves
  • 1 small bunch of fresh basil (whole)
  • 1 cup chicken broth or water plus more if needed
  • Chopped fresh parsley and/or fresh basil leaves (optional)

For the Meatballs

  • ⅓ cup dry plain bread crumbs
  • ⅓ cup whole milk
  • 1½ lb ground beef (or mix of ground beef, ground pork, ground veal)
  • ¼ medium onion finely diced or grated
  • 2 cloves garlic minced or grated
  • 1 large egg beaten
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt or to taste
  • ½ teaspoon black pepper
  • ¼ teaspoon chili flakes/ red pepper flakes
  • ¼ teaspoon dry basil
  • ¼ teaspoon oregano
  • ¼ cup parmesan cheese preferably
  • Parmigiano-Reggiano
  • 1 tablespoon fresh parsley or 1 tsp dried parsley
  • 1½ tablespoon olive oil to fry meatballs plus more if needed


For the sauce

  1. In a large stock pot or heavy bottom pot/dutch oven, heat the oil over a medium-high. Add the (soffritto) onions and garlic, celery, carrots, and salt and pepper. Reduce heat to medium and saute until all the vegetables are soft, about 15-20 minutes. Adjust heat as needed to ensure they don’t burn - edges can be golden though.
  2. Add the crushed tomatoes, broth, small bunch of basil and bay leaves, and simmer covered over low heat until the sauce thickens, about 1 hour.
  3. Remove and discard the bay leaf and basil. Season the sauce with more salt and pepper, to taste. Feel Free to stir through some fresh basil or parsley. (The sauce can be made 1 day ahead. Cool, then cover and refrigerate. Rewarm over medium heat before using.) If you prefer a smooth sauce feel free to pass the sauce through a food mill or I prefer a blender or food processor.

For the meatballs

  1. In a large bowl, add bread crumbs and milk. Combine well and set aside while preparing the other ingredients, for at least 5 minutes.
  2. Add ground beef, onion, garlic, egg, salt, black pepper, parmesan cheese, dried and fresh herbs and spices to the breadcrumb mixture, and mix with your hands until just combined. Do not overmix the meat mixture.
  3. Portion onto the prepared baking sheet (using a cookie or ice cream scoop will make it easier- golf size meatballs approximately 1 ½ inches in diameter ). Wet your hands with water if needed, and roll meatballs.
  4. Heat 1 ½ tbsp olive oil in a large non stick fry pan over medium high heat. Add the meatballs and brown all over - about 3 - 4 minutes.
  5. When they are browned but NOT cooked through, carefully transfer them onto a plate.
  6. Place the browned meatballs in the sauce and cook for 20-30 on low heat to allow the meatballs to absorb the flavor of and braise in the sauce.
  • Baking Directions: Preheat the oven to 400°F (200°C) and line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a baking mat. Bake for about 15-20 minutes, or until the meatballs have reached an internal temperature of 165°F (74°C) or just under if adding to sauce as they will finish cooking in the sauce. Remove from oven and drain off any excess fat. Serve with your favorite sauce and enjoy!

For Spaghetti

  1. Add 1 pound dried spaghetti to the boiling water in large pot and cook spaghetti noodles according to package instructions until al dente. Reserve ½ cup of the pasta water, then drain the pasta. Return the pasta to the now-empty pot off the heat. Add a few ladlefuls of sauce from the pot of meatballs and toss to coat, adding the reserved pasta water a tablespoon at a time as needed to loosen the sauce and coat the pasta.
  2. Transfer the pasta to individual shallow bowls or plates and top with the meatballs and more sauce. Serve garnished with the remaining Parmesan cheese and chopped parsley or basil.

Recipe Notes

  • Some recipes call for pan frying the onion and garlic for the meatballs in a little olive oil before adding them to the meatball mixture. I don’t really find that necessary especially if the onions and garlic are minced but feel free to do so if you would like.

Adapted from Giada De Laurentiis

Spaghetti Meatballs half eaten on a plate with some bread dipped in