Polpette (Traditional Italian Meatballs) - CucinaByElena (2024)

Cucina by Elena Recipe Index Classic Italian Recipes

By Elena

Sep 10, 2020, Updated Apr 24, 2024

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5 from 25 reviews

The Best Meatballs Ever! (Italian Polpette Recipe)– are my nonna’s famous recipe. Made with simple ingredients and stewed in a delicious tomato sauce- these are melt in your mouth tender and flavorful.

Serve with Creamy Polenta and a simple salad.

Polpette (Traditional Italian Meatballs) - CucinaByElena (2)

Table of Contents

  • The BEST Meatballs
  • Homemade Meatball Ingredients
  • How To Make The Best Meatballs (step-by-step photo instrcutions)
  • Meatball Variations
  • Tip for Soft and Tender Meatballs
  • Storage and Freezing
  • FAQs
  • How to Serve Meatballs
  • More Italian Recipes
  • Best Meatball Recipe EVER (Polpette) Recipe

The BEST Meatballs

Why I Love this Traditional Italian Meatball Recipe…

These succulent Italian meatballs are a comforting dish that brings everyone to the table! These nutritious homemade meatballs are the perfect meal to make on a Sunday afternoon and freeze for weeks! Let your children take part in the recipe by having them roll the meatballs in their tiny hands.

This is another tried and true simple, flavorful, and mouthwatering recipe from my Nonna. I’ve sat at many kitchen tables and rolled these meatballs with her countless times. The smell of onion frying in olive oil, fresh tomatoes, basil, beef, and parsley brings me back to all those tables and conversations.You will love this recipe!

Polpette (Traditional Italian Meatballs) - CucinaByElena (3)

Homemade Meatball Ingredients

You only need a few pantry staples and fresh ingredients for these authentic Italian meatballs.

Polpette (Traditional Italian Meatballs) - CucinaByElena (4)

Meatball Ingredients

  • Ground beef
  • Stale bread
  • Milk
  • Parmigiano Reggiano
  • Egg
  • Parsley
  • Bread crumbs
  • Salt and black pepper to taste
  • 1 recipe for Sugo al Pomodoro (homemade tomato sauce)

How To Make The Best Meatballs (step-by-step photo instrcutions)

Making homemade meatballs is satisfying and rewarding. See the recipe card for the complete list of measuments and instructions.

Polpette (Traditional Italian Meatballs) - CucinaByElena (5)
Polpette (Traditional Italian Meatballs) - CucinaByElena (6)

Soak the bread in the milk in a small bowl, and set aside. In a medium bowl, combine the bread with the remaining ingredients and gently mix.

Polpette (Traditional Italian Meatballs) - CucinaByElena (7)
Polpette (Traditional Italian Meatballs) - CucinaByElena (8)

Creat a uniform mixture with the meat and filling ingredients.

Polpette (Traditional Italian Meatballs) - CucinaByElena (9)
Polpette (Traditional Italian Meatballs) - CucinaByElena (10)

Gently form into small balls. I like to use a spoon or fork to scoop and then roll in the meat mixture in the palm of my hand- just like nonna Laura taught me!

Polpette (Traditional Italian Meatballs) - CucinaByElena (11)
Polpette (Traditional Italian Meatballs) - CucinaByElena (12)

Make your tomato sauce and let the meatballs gently simmer in the sauce until perfectly tender.

Polpette (Traditional Italian Meatballs) - CucinaByElena (13)

From my cucina to your table- enjoy our traditional meatball (polpette) recipe for years to come! It will be the most popular dish from Italian cuisine in your household!

Polpette (Traditional Italian Meatballs) - CucinaByElena (14)

Meatball Variations

Switching up the traditional recipe with a few creative variations that still embrace the essence of rustic, high-quality Italian cuisine:

  • Turkey or Chicken Meatballs- Swap the classic beef or pork with ground turkey or chicken for a lighter version. Add fresh herbs like parsley and basil to boost the flavor. These are fantastic when paired with a light tomato or even a creamy pesto sauce.
  • Ricotta Meatballs– Incorporate ricotta cheese into your meatball mixture. The ricotta makes the them incredibly moist and tender. Combine with Parmesan for a lovely depth of flavor and serve with a classic marinara sauce.
  • Spicy Arrabbiata Meatballs– Add a kick by including chopped chili peppers or red pepper flakes into the mix. Serve them in a spicy arrabbiata sauce for those who love a bit of heat.
Polpette (Traditional Italian Meatballs) - CucinaByElena (15)

Tip for Soft and Tender Meatballs

Soak the bread for soft meatballs. Bread soaked in milk will puff up when cooked, creating little air pockets that soften the mixture.They are melt-in-your-mouth tender!

Polpette (Traditional Italian Meatballs) - CucinaByElena (16)

Storage and Freezing


Cool: Let the the dish cool to room temperature. Store: Place in an airtight container and refrigerate for up to 3-4 days.


Cool: Allow the dish cool completely. Portion: Divide into meal-sized portions if desired. Package: Use freezer-safe containers or bags, removing as much air as possible. Label: Mark with the date; freeze for up to 3 months. Thaw & Reheat: Thaw in the fridge overnight and reheat gently on the stove.

Polpette (Traditional Italian Meatballs) - CucinaByElena (17)


What is the beat meat to use?

This recipe (and also the way my nonna made them) is with one pound of 80-85% lean ground beef. Add half-ground beef, half-ground pork, or even Italian sausage with the casing removed if you like. Try this recipe that uses Italian sausage-Italian Sausage Meatballs Recipe (In Sauce).

Can you cook raw meatballs in tomato sauce?

YES! This recipe does exactly that. It saves you time in baking them first and dirtying more pans. The raw meatballs will cook in tomato sauce and come out tender and scrumptious. The juices will flavor the tomato sauce, and the tomato sauce will flavor the meatballs. This is the traditional way we do it in Italy!

Can You Make This Recipe Gluten Free?

You can make a gluten-free version by adding a slice of gluten-free bread of your choice. Instead of the breadcrumbs, you can use a gluten-free variety!

Can these meatballs be fried or baked?

Yes, you can cook the meatballs any way you like. I highly suggest cooking them in the sauce because the flavor is outstanding!

Can I omit milk in this recipe?

Yes, you can skip the milk. But, you still need some sort of liquid to help bind the meatballs together. Water or broth are easy substitutes.

My favorite part about all my Nonna’s recipes is the simplicity and authenticity of the fresh ingredients. It’s about highlighting the natural flavors of the food, and this recipe exemplifies just that.Read more about my nonna and her meatballs.

How to Serve Meatballs

You can toss the meatballs with spaghetti or any pasta of your choice, or you can enjoy with delcious bread!

More Italian Recipes

  • Spinach and Ricotta Lasagna with Tomato Sauce
  • Italian Sheet Pan Sausage, Potatoes, and Tomatoes
  • Pesto Smashed Potatoes and Roasted Tomatoes (video)
  • Orzo Pasta with Shrimp, Sun-dried Tomatoes, and Artichokes


Polpette (Traditional Italian Meatballs) - CucinaByElena (18)

Best Meatball Recipe EVER (Polpette)

5 Stars4 Stars3 Stars2 Stars1 Star

5 from 25 reviews

Print Recipe

These nutritious homemade meatballs are the perfect meal to make on a Sunday afternoon and freeze for weeks to come! This is another tried and true simple, flavorful and mouthwatering recipe from my Nonna.

  • Total Time: 55 minutes
  • Yield: 4-6 1x



Polpette (meatballs)

  • 1 pound of 80-85% lean ground beef
  • 2 slices of stale bread
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1/2 cup parmigiano reggiano, finely grated
  • 1 egg
  • 3 tablespoons fresh minced parsley
  • Optional: 1 tablespoon fresh minced garlic
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Breadcrumbs (for rolling the meatballs by hand)
  • Extra parmigiano for serving

Sugo (sauce)

  • 1 large can (28 oz) good quality crushed tomatoes
  • 1/2 an onion, diced
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 5 fresh basil leaves, whole


Make Sugo:

  1. Pour extra-virgin olive oil into a large frying pan and brown the onion (about 7 minutes on medium heat). Add canned tomatoes and simmer, 10-15 minutes. Turn off heat and cover with lid.

Make Polpette:

  1. Place bread and milk in a large mixing bowl, and let sit for 2 min, until soft.
  2. Add egg to bread and milk mixture and mix to combine
  3. Add ground meat, parsley, parmigiano, salt, and pepper (and garlic if using). Mix WELL with your hands.
  4. Take a spoonful of the meatball mixture and gently roll it between your hands to form 1 1/2-inch meatball. Use breadcrumbs to prevent sticking. Set prepared meatballs on a cookie sheet and cover with plastic wrap.
  5. Plunge your meatballs into the pot with the tomato sauce. Turn on the heat to medium-low. Cook for 20 minutes or until meatballs is fully cooked in the center. Once finished cooking, add the basil and cover with a lid. Turn off the heat.

Cook your favorite pasta or gnocchi, as directed by the package, to serve with meatballs. You can also eat without the pasta and serve it on yummy bread. Try with Easy Polenta Recipe. Generously top with parmigiano and serve hot!


Make Meatballs Ahead of Time

I always make a double batch of the meatballs and freeze them for a busy weeknight.

To freeze meatballs:Place them on a baking sheet in one layer so they aren’t touching, and place them in the freezer. Once frozen, transfer to a freezer-safe container with a tight lid. Freeze for up to 2 months. Add frozen meatballs to the broth when ready to use and simmer until warm. You can also add them to homemade tomato sauce.

  • Author: Elena
  • Prep Time: 15 minutes
  • Cook Time: 40 minutes
  • Category: Savory
  • Cuisine: Italian


Polpette (Traditional Italian Meatballs) - CucinaByElena (2024)


What's the difference between Italian style meatballs and regular meatballs? ›

Italian-style meatballs often include additional ingredients such as milk, olive oil, ground pork, fresh parsley, red pepper flakes, Italian herb seasoning, and sometimes a combination of ground beef, veal, and pork [2].

What does polpette in Italian mean? ›

If you look up the word polpette in an Italian dictionary, you'll see that it roughly translates to “meatball” in English. While polpette is technically meatballs, it doesn't use the same recipe as a traditional meatball.

Is it better to fry or bake Italian meatballs? ›

Overcrowding can prevent the meat from browning properly, so it's best to work in smaller batches rather than trying to squeeze them all into the pan at one time. Baking will result in meatballs with a crunchy exterior, though the caramelisation achieved from frying will be superior.

What is the secret of a tender meatball? ›

They are super flavorful but what makes them so so tender and moist is this: Plain Greek Yogurt. The lactic acid from the yogurt tenderizes the meat while adding subtle flavor. The addition of egg and parmesan cheese help keep the meat together so that you get delicious weeknight meatballs in minutes.

What do Italians eat meatballs with? ›

Although meatballs cooked in tomato sauce and served with pasta is likely what most Americans first imagine when they think of them, this meatball preparation is virtually nonexistent in Italy. In most regions, meatballs are just fried and eaten as is—enjoyed as a snack or served as a second course without any sauce.

Is it better to bake meatballs at 350 or 400? ›

For 1-2 inches of beef, pork, or turkey meatballs without any pre-cooking, use these guidelines for your wall oven:
  • 350°F wall oven:
  • 8–14 minutes for 1-inch meatballs.
  • 14–18 minutes for 2-inch meatballs.
  • 400°F wall oven:
  • 6–10 minutes for 1-inch meatballs.
  • 10–14 minutes for 2-inch meatballs.
  • 425°F wall oven:
Aug 16, 2023

Should I bake my meatballs before putting in sauce? ›

Some people like to drop the raw meatballs directly in a pot of Italian tomato sauce and let them simmer. Some people like to cook the meatballs in the oven first and then put the browned meatballs in the tomato sauce.

Do meatballs get more tender the longer they cook in sauce? ›

The longer the simmer, the more tender and succulent the meatballs become. 3. Concentration of Flavors: Simmering at a low temperature for an extended period also encourages the sauce to reduce and thicken.

What not to do when making meatballs? ›

5 Mistakes to Avoid When Making Meatballs
  1. Not seasoning the meat.
  2. Not adding any moisture to the meat.
  3. Over-mixing the meat.
  4. Not shaping the meatballs correctly.
  5. Not forming evenly-sized meatballs.
May 1, 2019

Do they put meatballs on spaghetti in Italy? ›

While spaghetti and meatballs is not a meal served in Italy, the origin of the meal started with Italian immigrants coming to the U.S. in 1880-1920.

What is spaghetti with meatballs called in Italian? ›

However, combinations of pasta with meat date back at least to the Middle Ages, and pasta (including long pasta) dishes with tomato sauce and different types of meatballs are documented in certain Italian regions and in modern Italian cookbooks as maccheroni alle polpette (translated as 'spaghetti with meatballs') and ...

What's the difference between American and Italian meatballs? ›

American meatballs are the biggest in size, with Italian and Swedish meatballs following on the depth chart. Italian meatballs call for seasonings like grated parmesan and oregano, while Swedish ones use seasonings like nutmeg and allspice. While it doesn't sound like a huge distinction, you'll notice it in the taste!

Why are my Italian meatballs hard? ›

Usually if meatballs are dense or heavy then it is because the meatball mixture has been handled too much and the minced (ground) meat has become compacted. It may help to use beef with a slightly higher fat content, as the extra fat will provide a little extra moisture.

What's the difference between regular meatballs and Swedish meatballs? ›

The major difference between Swedish and Italian meatballs is what they're accompanied with. Swedish meatballs are traditionally topped with a creamy gravy and served with mashed potatoes and lingonberry sauce to cut through the richness, similar to how they're cooked at the two-Michelin-starred restaurant, Aquavit.

Should Italian meatballs be pink in the middle? ›

To be sure all harmful bacteria are destroyed, cook all ground beef products to an internal temperature of 160 °F throughout. Ground beef can be pink inside after it is safely cooked. The pink color can be due to a reaction between the oven heat and myoglobin, which causes a red or pink color.

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