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Meatball pasta bake. When grandmas cook

Meatball pasta bake: is it a Carnival joke? Apparently, pasta with meatballs is an American invention not belonging to the Italian food tradition. We would normally associate it to Fettuccine Alfredo, Pepperoni pizza (if you order pepperoni pizza in Italy you would get a pizza with peppers, peperoni in Italian), chicken parmigiana (we make eggplant parmigiana, sometimes with zucchini, squash or artichokes, never with chicken!), and garlic bread… Apparently, this dish that is so representative of the Italian-American cuisine, which has been immortalized in the Disney cartoon Lady and the Tramp, cannot boast a Italian birth certificate. Apparently.

To tell the truth, though, I’ve eaten my share of pasta with meatballs since I was a child.

Grandma would make it on special occasions. Grandma Marcella, who was born and bred in Tuscany and with Etruscan roots, according to her believes, learnt this recipe from Aunt Valeria, her sister-in-law, a very good home cook from Basilicata. The meatballs in this case are tiny, as big as hazelnuts. Grandma would often go to Siena to help Aunt Valeria in the kitchen: she had five children who soon began to show up at home on Sundays with boyfriends and girlfriends.

The table doubled, the chairs grew in number and the amount of meatballs in the tomato sauce gradually increased. They meatballs, even according to their Southern tradition, had to be small, so that everyone could get some. They would wet their hands and start rolling these tiny meatballs with quick and expert gestures. They would spend the morning chatting over the ground meat, while in the meantime the tomato sauce would simmer away on the stove with a beef braciola in it, to gain an even deeper flavour.

Meatball pasta bake

On special occasions the tomato sauce with meatballs would be layered in between pasta sheets to make sagn ‘a lu fuorn, a rich Southern pasta bake which would feature also hard-boiled eggs, a spicy lucanica sausage and cheese. On a normal Sunday, though, they would just toss it into a bowl of short pasta, like penne or fusilli, and this would be enough to turn a family gathering into a feast.

Even Tommaso, grown up in Florence but fed with the hearty cuisine of his mother Lucia, who was born in Salento, Puglia, has memories of simmering pots with meatball tomato sauce to season the orecchiette. Have you ever eaten pasta with meatballs or have you ever met it outside of Lady and the Tramp?

Meatball pasta bake

Meatball pasta bake

Recipe developed with Luciana Mosconi

Luciana Mosconi asked me to use her garganelli mignon for a Carnival recipe. My mind immediately run to Aunt Valeria’s pasta, isn’t it a Carnival joke to find meatballs with your pasta? It is also the best way to celebrate that time of the year when you were allowed to indulge in the sensual pleasures of meat and cheese before the restrictions imposed by Lent.

Make the tomato sauce with meatballs in advance, you’ll only need half of it. The rest can be tossed in a bowl of pasta or, better yet, you can freeze it for when you need some love in the kitchen. What better than a tomato sauce with meatballs to recreate that feeling of warmth, contentment and protection that only a grandmother cooking can give?

Season the pasta with the meatball sauce, add the mozzarella torn into small pieces and a few tablespoons of grated cheese: I used Parmigiano Reggiano, an aged ricotta salata from Puglia and a spicy provolone from Campania, three savoury and pungent cheeses. Bake it until the mozzarella is melting and the grated cheeses has created a nice golden crust on the pasta.

A dish like this feels immediately like Sunday.

Meatball pasta bake

Meatball pasta bake
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5 from 4 votes

Meatball pasta bake

Course Main Course
Cuisine Italian
Preparation time: 1 hour
Cook time: 1 hour 30 minutes
Total time: 2 hours 30 minutes


Ingredients for the tomato sauce

  • 2 eggs
  • 50 g of grated Parmigiano Reggiano
  • 1 tablespoon of chopped parsley
  • Salt
  • A few rounds of black pepper
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 slices of beef top round, about 300 g total
  • 1 white onion
  • 1,5 l of tomato sauce
  • 300 ml of water

Ingredients for the meatballs

  • 900 g of ground beef
  • 1 tablespoon of chopped parsley
  • 1 egg
  • 100 g of grated Parmigiano Reggiano
  • 2 teaspoons of salt
  • A few rounds of black pepper
  • Breadcrumbs
  • 500 ml of extra virgin olive oil , or vegetable oil for frying

Ingredients for the meatball pasta bake

  • Half of the sauce you have just prepared
  • 400 g of garganelli mignon, or any other short pasta
  • 100 g of grated cheese, a mix of Parmigiano Reggiano, spicy provolone and aged dry ricotta
  • 200 g of fresh mozzarella
  • Extra virgin olive oil


Let’s start preparing the meatball sauce. You can even begin the day before and store it in the fridge once ready.

  • Prepare the two beef involtini, which will cook in the tomato sauce before adding the meatballs, making the sauce even tastier. Beat the eggs with the Parmigiano Reggiano and the chopped parsley, add salt and pepper and prepare an omelet.
  • Divide the omelet in a half, place each half onto a slice of beef. Wrap the beef slices onto themselves to form two rolls and secure the involtini with a piece of butcher’s twine. Set them aside.
  • Chop finely an onion and scrape it into a large thick-bottomed pot. Pour in a few tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil and season with a pinch of salt, which will help to cook the onion without letting it burn.
  • When the onion begins to sizzle, add the two beef involtini in the pot and brown them on each side, over medium heat.
  • Pour in the tomato sauce and dilute it with the warm water. Stir well and move the pan over low heat. Cover the pot and cook undisturbed for about an hour, checking from time to time that the tomato sauce is not sticking. If you see that the tomato sauce is thickening too fast, add some more water. Taste and adjust the salt.
  • While the tomato sauce is simmering away on the stove, prepare the meatballs.
  • Collect the minced meat in a bowl, then add the chopped parsley, the beaten egg, the grated Parmigiano Reggiano, then season with the salt and a few grinds of black pepper. Mix the ingredients with your hands until smooth.

Now it's time to make meatballs. An extra pair of hands will be helpful now.

  • Arrange on the table a tray generously dusted with breadcrumbs. Prepare also a bowl of water: you will have to wet your hands from time to time, as this will help you to shape smooth tiny meatballs.
  • Make the meatballs with a teaspoon and roll them on the palms of your hand until as round and big as a hazelnut. Roll in breadcrumbs and leave them in the tray.
  • When all the meatballs are ready, heat the frying oil in a medium-sized frying pan. Fry the meatballs in 4 or 5 batches, for a few minutes, turning them often, until golden. As they are ready, move them into a large dish lined with kitchen paper to absorb the frying oil.
  • When you have fried all the meatballs, and you've tasted some, I know you, it's time to add them into the pot with tomato sauce.
  • Remove the involtini from the tomato sauce, you won’t need them now, but you’ll have lunch ready! Pour the meatballs into the tomato sauce, stir well and add half a cup of hot water if you think the sauce is too thick. Taste and adjust the amount of salt again.
  • Cook the meatballs in the tomato sauce for about 10 minutes, then turn off the heat and set the sauce aside. You can use it immediately for the pasta bake or leave it to the next day. For the pasta bake you will only need half of it. The other half can be frozen, or used to season a bowl of spaghetti.

Now it is time to prepare the pasta bake.

  • Heat the oven to 200°C.
  • Cook the garganelli mignon in a pot of boiling salted water and drain al dente.
  • Season the pasta with the tomato sauce with meatballs, half of the grated cheese and the mozzarella torn into small pieces with your hands.
  • Scoop the pasta in a greased baking dish in a 5 cm layer. Sprinkle with the remaining grated cheese, drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and bake for about 20 minutes, or until the mozzarella and the cheese have melted and the pasta is browned here and there.
  • You can serve it immediately, or, even better, let it rest and reheat before bringing it to the table.
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 Meatball pasta bake

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This Post Has 12 Comments

  1. Ciao Gulia, Confused by tomato sauce recipe ingredients. 2 egg & parmigiano cheese in tomato sauce????? Please clarify.

    Many thanks


    1. Ciao Linda, yes, if you keep on reading you’ll see you need those to make the beef involtini that will cook in the sauce to give it body and flavour!

  2. 5 stars
    This is comfort food!! What a dish full of flavor and yes calories but every now and then it is worth it to splurge!! I never had meatballs with pasta growing up – it just wasn’t done. But Lady and the Tramp was a cute cartoon.

  3. Hello, I’m going to make this in a minute, can one use bottled passata for the sauce?

      1. 5 stars
        Well, it was delicious! We had the involtini for lunch, as suggested, froze half the sauce for later and enjoyed the pasta and meatball bake for supper. With a glass of Chianti. Pity my husband is a vegetarian! Never mind, I don’t mind eating a plate of this for the rest of the week.

  4. 5 stars
    Hi from New Jersey!
    I can associate with this posted recipe. While my Dad’s parents immigrated from Genoa and while there were little veal meatballs in my soup, I can’t remember ever eating “Tomato pasta sauce” at their house but my Mothers step mom was Sicilian and that’s all I ate when there! To me it was all good and I never worried about the rights and wrongs of each, I just associated it with ?. It’s nice to find a kindred spirit across the pond that also was showed as much unbiased food love as I. ???

  5. Hi Juls

    Just out of curiosity, do I cook the egg like an omelette then place 1/2 the cooked omelette on top of one slice of uncooked beef and tie it together with twine? Just want to make sure I haven’t misread your instructions. It sounds like a divine sauce but the omelette part threw me a bit (haha).

    Thank you.

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