Mamma Gina's Tomato Sauce with Meatballs

By Anna Francese Gass

Makes about 8 cups of sauce and 18 meatballs

Anyone who knows anyone Italian knows they will boast “My mother makes the best meatballs and red sauce!” With so many Italian friends trying to prove it to me, I have tried a lot of good meatballs in sauce… but none come close to my mother Gina’s. Just like my mamma, they’re perfect.

The sauce for this dish is the “bath” for the meatballs to cook in. Once the meatballs are removed, the sauce carries the aroma of the meat and tastes wonderful on pasta. Serve the meatballs to the side of the pasta, rather than on top. They are incredibly tender and delicious and break apart easily with your fork. 


10 fresh basil leaves
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, peeled and lightly smashed
2 teaspoons crushed red pepper (optional)
8 cups (two 32-ounce cans) crushed tomatoes
2 cups water
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

½ pound ground pork
½ pound ground veal
½ pound ground beef (85/15 blend)
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 eggs, beaten
1 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese
1 cup breadcrumbs, preferably Italian seasoned
½ cup milk
½ cup Brodo di Mamma, cooled

Tear 5 of the basil leaves in half; reserve the rest. In a small pan, combine the torn basil, olive oil, and garlic. (If you want a spicy brodo, include the crushed red pepper.) On very low heat, allow the basil and garlic to “steep” into the olive oil for 10 to 15 minutes, making the oil fragrant and rich with flavor. Don’t let the garlic burn or go beyond a toasty brown color. Remove from the heat, strain the aromatics, and set the oil aside.

In a large pot or Dutch oven, pour in the tomato sauce and water. Add the tomato paste, salt, and pepper. Pour in the reserved oil and stir to combine. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then immediately reduce to a simmer. If you’re making meatballs, remove ½ cup of the brodo and set aside to cool.

Partially cover the pot and allow the sauce to simmer.

In a large bowl, hand mix all the meatball ingredients. (This prevents overmixing.) The mixture will be very soft, but resist the urge to add more breadcrumbs; you’re making tender, melt-in-your-mouth meatballs. Once all the ingredients are combined, wet your hands, pinch ¼ cup of the  mixture, and roll into a ball. Place each meatball on a baking sheet and repeat until finished.

Carefully drop the meatballs into the sauce. If the pot seems to be full, simply shimmy the pot back and forth to make more room. If you stick a spoon in the pot you will break the meatballs. Just shimmy!

Let the meatballs and the sauce simmer together for 45 minutes or up to 2 hours. The longer it cooks, the better it tastes. When done, carefully remove the meatballs to a plate. Chop the remaining basil and sprinkle on top of the sauce. Serve with the pasta of your choice.

NOTE: Mamma Gina’s meatballs freeze exceptionally well. Freeze on the baking sheet and then transfer to freezer bags. They will keep up to a month. When ready to cook, make Mamma’s brodo and drop the frozen meatballs right into the sauce. Cook for 1 to 2 hours.


Recipe reprinted from Cherry Bombe Magazine Issue No.10


Learn more about Anna Gass' mission to preserve immigrant grandmother's recipes in the Yes, Chef issue, available now. 

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