June 18, 2024
Learn how to make perfect meatballs for spaghetti with classic, regional, and healthy alternatives. Plus, discover the history of this Italian-American comfort food.


Spaghetti and meatballs are a classic comfort food enjoyed by many, but making perfect meatballs that are not dry, hard, or bland can be a daunting task. Whether you prefer traditional Italian meatballs or healthier alternatives, this article will provide you with easy-to-follow recipes and tips to guide you through the process, as well as explore the history and evolution of this dish.

Classic Italian Meatballs for Spaghetti

For classic Italian meatballs, you will need:

  • 1 pound ground beef
  • 1 cup breadcrumbs (fresh or dried)
  • 1/4 cup milk
  • 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 large egg
  • Salt and pepper to taste

To make the meatballs:

  1. In a large bowl, combine the breadcrumbs and milk. Mix well and let it sit for a few minutes until the breadcrumbs absorb the milk.
  2. Add the ground beef, parmesan cheese, parsley, garlic, egg, salt, and pepper to the bowl with the breadcrumb mixture. Mix everything together with your hands until well combined.
  3. Scoop a tablespoon of the mixture and shape it into a small ball. Repeat until all the mixture has been used.
  4. Heat olive oil in a skillet over medium heat and cook the meatballs for about 8-10 minutes or until they are browned on all sides and cooked through, rotating them gently as they cook to get an even brown crust.
  5. Add your cooked meatballs to your favorite spaghetti or marinara sauce and let them simmer in it for a few more minutes to allow the flavors to blend in and cook for another 5-6 minutes more.

Some tips to achieve perfect texture and flavor:

  • Don’t overwork the mixture, as this will make the meatballs tough and chewy.
  • Use fresh breadcrumbs for the best texture.
  • Don’t skip the milk, as it helps to keep the meatballs moist.
  • If you want richer-flavored meatballs, substitute the milk with heavy cream, and add more grated cheese.
  • For a crispier and golden crust, cook the meatballs in a hot skillet with a generous amount of oil. To avoid overcooking the meatballs, don’t crowd them in the skillet; otherwise, they won’t brown well.

Different Types of Meatballs for Spaghetti from Different Regions of Italy

Italy has regional variations of meatballs, each with its distinct flavors, shapes, and ingredients. Here are some of the most popular meatballs from different regions of Italy:

Neapolitan Meatballs (Polipetti)

Neapolitan meatballs, or polipetti, are small, tender, and soft meatballs traditionally made with chopped beef or veal mixed with breadcrumbs, milk, parsley, and Pecorino cheese. To add a more interesting texture and flavor to polipetti, chopped squid or octopus is added to the mixture. Neapolitan meatballs are typically served in a tomato-based sauce, like marinara or puttanesca.


  • 1 pound ground beef
  • 1/2 cup breadcrumbs
  • 1/4 cup milk
  • 1/4 cup Pecorino cheese, grated
  • 1/4 cup parsley, finely chopped
  • 1/2 lb squid or octopus, finely chopped (optional)
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • Salt and black pepper to taste


  1. In a large bowl, mix the ground beef, breadcrumbs, milk, Pecorino cheese, parsley, chopped squid (if using), salt, and pepper.
  2. Form mixture into small meatballs, the size of a ping-pong ball.
  3. In a hot skillet over medium heat, add oil and cook meatballs until browned on all sides and cooked through.
  4. Add the meatballs to your favorite tomato sauce and simmer for an additional 5-6 minutes to allow sauce to incorporate flavors.

Sicilian Meatballs (Polpettine)

Sicilian meatballs are smaller than most meatballs and are typically made with a combination of beef and pork. They may also include raisins or pine nuts, among other ingredients. Sicilian meatballs often are served in a sweet and sour tomato sauce with capers that complements the savory notes of meat and spices.


  • 1/2 lb ground beef
  • 1/2 lb ground pork
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 cup breadcrumbs
  • 1/4 cup raisins
  • 1/4 cup pine nuts
  • 1/4 cup parsley, chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1/2 teaspoon paprika
  • Salt and black pepper to taste
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil


  1. In a bowl, combine the beef, pork, egg, breadcrumbs, raisins, pine nuts, parsley, garlic, paprika, salt, and pepper, stirring the mixture until well-combined.
  2. Scoop up about a tablespoon or so of the mixture and roll it into a meatball, repeat rolling until all the mixture has been used.
  3. Heat olive oil in a large pot over medium heat, add meatballs to the pot, and brown them on all sides, cooking for about 6-7 minutes.
  4. Add the tomato sauce to the pot, and let the meatballs cook for another 5-6 minutes, or until cooked through.
  5. Serve meatballs with spaghetti.

Healthier Alternatives to Meat Meatballs for Spaghetti

Whether you’re a vegetarian, vegan or just trying to reduce your consumption of meat, you can still enjoy meatballs for your pasta with these alternatives.

Mushroom and Lentil Meatballs

These vegan meatballs use mushrooms and lentils for their base, resulting in a hearty meatless dish perfect for a meatless dinner or weeknight meal. They are packed with protein and flavor and are easy to make.


  • 2 cups mushroom, finely chopped
  • 1 1/2 cups cooked lentils
  • 1/2 cup breadcrumbs
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped onions
  • 1 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/4 cup parsley, chopped
  • 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, grated (optional)
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
  • Salt and black pepper to taste
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil


  1. Preheat your oven to 375°F (190°C) and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
  2. In a bowl, mix the mushrooms, cooked lentils, breadcrumbs, onions, garlic, parsley, grated Parmesan cheese (if using), dried oregano, salt, and black pepper until well-combined.
  3. Shape the mixture into 1-inch meatballs and place them on the baking sheet.
  4. Bake the meatballs for 20 to 25 minutes or until they are golden brown and crisp on the outside.
  5. Remove from oven and add to your favorite tomato sauce to cook for a few minutes more.

Ways to Serve Meatballs Aside From Spaghetti

Meatballs are incredibly versatile. Here are some other ways to serve them that are not spaghetti:

Meatball Sliders

Meatballs sliders are a fun and easy snack or party food. Tuck a meatball inside a mini brioche bun, and top with some marinara sauce and sliced cheese. Toast the sliders in the oven or on a frying pan until the cheese melts and the bread is toasted.

Meatball Subs

Serve your meatballs in a sandwich, toasted or untoasted, using a warm, crusty baguette or a soft, chewy sub roll. Top with shredded mozzarella cheese and marinara sauce, and broil until the cheese is melted and bubbly.

History of Spaghetti and Meatballs in the United States and Italian Emigration

The origin story of spaghetti and meatballs is complicated. While both meatballs and spaghetti can trace their origins to Italy, there is no evidence to suggest that Italians have combined them as a dish.

Instead, the dish is an example of how Italian immigrants adapted their culinary traditions to the United States. According to food historian Simone Cinotto, the dish first appeared in New York City’s Little Italy at the turn of the 20th century after the massive migration of Southern Italians to America. In Italy, meatballs are often served as a second course, pasta courses are traditionally served before meat courses, whereas in the US, they were combined into one dish.

The meatball-and-spaghetti combination became more commonplace after World War II, thanks to soldiers returning from Italy with cravings for a dish they tasted locally. As Italian cuisine became more mainstream in the US, spaghetti with meatballs became a favorite comfort food, and it has been a menu staple in many American homes and restaurants ever since.


Spaghetti and meatballs can be a simple, delicious meal that everyone enjoys. By mastering the classic recipe, you are free to explore different flavors and textures from different regions. These healthy alternatives and serving ideas will inspire you to come up with unique and tasty combinations.

Now that you have read this article, you have all the tools and inspiration you need to prepare meatballs for spaghetti like a pro! Don’t be afraid to experiment, and remember that the best part of cooking is enjoying the results and sharing the love.

For further reading or exploration of the topics covered in this article, you might want to check The Encyclopedia of Pasta by Oretta Zanini De Vita, The Italian Kitchen Bible: 100 Classic Regional Recipes by Kate Whiteman, or The Food of Italy by Claudia Roden.

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