mama’s meatballs

So because my last post was about our beloved Sunday gravy, I thought it was important to do my very next post on our equally beloved meatballs. I’m hoping some of you are going to try my Sunday gravy, and if you do (just between you and me) you really should make Mama’s meatballs to go with it.

“Mama” refers to my Grandma Caruso, my Dad’s mom, who I told you a little bit about here. My Dad and the rest of his siblings used to refer to her as “Mama”, never mom or mother. And when my Dad spoke to her directly, she was always,“Ma”.

This reminds me of the letters that my Dad sent home from Germany, where he was stationed in the army, to my grandparents in Chicago. They saved them and my brother put them all into a big black binder for us.  Every so often I re-read a few of them because it’s my Dad’s voice and they’re special, and some of them are also very funny.

Here is part of one letter that I think you might like.  It’s written in pencil, in perfect cursive. My Dad was 22 years old.

Munich, Germany
Aug 3, 1952

Dear Ma,

Well, I finally got the 2 packages, Ma. I got them a few days ago. It took them 22 days to get here. Everything got here OK except the salami that was in your package. It was spoiled so bad that you could hardly stand the smell, so I threw it out. But the provolone was in good shape. Me and a few of the other guys really cleaned it up fast, Ma. It really tasted good Ma after not having it for so long. The piece of salami that was in Mary Jane’s package didn’t spoil, it was still good. I still have some stuff left, every night before we go to bed, a few of the boys come in my room and we have a midnight snack before going to bed. I got the 2 cigars you sent Ma from when the baby was born. I smoked one last night. I really want to thank you a million for the package, Ma and tell Mary Jane I said thanks, too. I really appreciate it with all my heart. Ma, you don’t have to bother sending me another package right away. Wait a few more months when it gets cooler. Well, so long for now, Ma. Take good care of yourself. May God bless you always and don’t forget to write soon, Ma.

Love, your son Frankie

Yes, he called her “Ma” alright.

Of course Mama’s care packages to her Frankie contained salami and provolone. I love how he tells her to wait until it’s cooler before she sends more, so his salami won’t spoil next time. Even so, 22 days?!  Is that by boat? I wonder if Mama ever sent him her meatballs.

Anyway, we  ate a lot of pasta on Sundays, and my mom always made meatballs. She would start her gravy early on Sunday morning, and while most of my friends were waking up to the smell of coffee brewing or bacon frying, we’d wake up to garlic and meatballs frying.

Yes, we fry our meatballs. If you’ve read my gravy post, you know all about browning meat and how much flavor that creates. Well, the same goes for meatballs.

I’ve heard that some people plop their meatballs right into the gravy raw and let them do all of their cooking there. We brown our meatballs first in a sauté pan so they get nice and crispy and tasty. My mom says this also really seals in the juices. I feel if you drop them into the gravy raw, they are missing all of that extra flavor they could be getting by browning them first.

Not to mention, who can resist a fried meatball?

I can’t. My brother can’t.

Growing up, when my mom finished frying the meatballs, she would give us each a fried meatball on a napkin, sprinkled with a little salt. They are so deliciously crispy, moist and juicy right out of the pan like that.

This was meant to tide us over until dinner, but it became a special treat and we all watched and waited for those first few meatballs to finish frying. Even today, I can’t resist eating a fried meatball or two, right out of the pan on a napkin with a sprinkle of salt while they are still warm and juicy.  And now, of course, our kids can’t either.

You can, and should, throw some of these into your delicious gravy as it simmers away all day. These can later be put on to the meat platter along with the neck bones (or ribs) and Italian sausage that come out of the gravy.

But make sure to leave some of your meatballs out of the gravy, in a separate bowl. Some of us prefer them simply fried as we call them, meaning without gravy.

I love meatballs both ways, but our meatballs have a lot of flavor and when you eat them without the gravy, you can really taste that crispy outside and then that moist and juicy middle full of garlic, cheese and fresh Italian parsley.

I may have mentioned this before, but I LOVE LOVE LOVE Italian flat-leaf parsley. Especially in meatballs.  I go a little crazy with it, almost to the point that my  meatballs look green when they’re raw. You can alter this to your own taste, but parsley gives them a freshness that I feel is key to great tasting meatballs.

Cheese is also really important in making great meatballs. We’ve always used Romano cheese in our cooking, not parmesan so much. I, of course use my favorite, Pecorino Romano. I love the salty sharpness of it.

About the bread. Some people use breadcrumbs in their meatballs. I don’t.  I’m not making meatloaf, and I don’t want them cake-like, dense or heavy. I want them light and moist and meaty tasting. I like to use bread chunks. I use a good-quality white bread, like a freshly baked loaf of Tuscan country bread. I cut off most of the crust, and then cut it into slices and then tiny chunks.

I recently read in one of my Cook’s Illustrated magazines that their favorite way of adding the bread element to meatballs is to soak chunks of bread in buttermilk and then mash it all into a paste so there are “no recognizable bread chunks”.


I love the little recognizable bread chunks my meatballs have! When fried, those little bread chunks that you can see get all golden brown, crispy and delicious.  I can’t imagine making a paste and losing that.  Next to the parsley and garlic, it’s one of my favorite things about meatballs.

So when you are making your meatballs, put the wooden spoon down and use your hands.  Clean hands, of course. My Dad had this old joke that he told every time he made meatballs. When he was finished making them, he’d hold his hands up in the air and say, “Look at how clean my nails came out!”


We are a very clean bunch (I’m almost a fanatic about it when it comes to cooking) and of course this was a joke, one my mother did not love. My Dad on the other hand really got a kick out of himself over it and would tell it every time he made meatballs to everyone staying for dinner.

So while you are using your clean hands, don’t overwork the meat. Don’t knead the meat or roll the meat to form perfectly shaped meatballs.  You want to gently combine the ingredients and then gently shape it into balls.

Put some meat into the palm of your hand and gently pat it into a little ball. Don’t make them too big, about the size of a golf ball. Bigger is not better when it comes to meatballs. You don’t want them taking forever to cook through when you’re frying them.

I like to make a double batch of these and freeze some for later. At any given time, I have a couple of containers of meatballs and some frozen gravy in there somewhere. It’s nice on a busy weekday to make some pasta in 20 minutes and quickly heat up homemade gravy and meatballs.

And then you also have plenty of meatballs for meatball sandwiches the next day. Hadley especially loves those.

I hope you love these as much as we do. Don’t forget to eat one right out of the pan, on a napkin with a little salt.

Ah, happiness.

Mama’s Meatballs
Inspired by Mama Caruso and Mama C (Mom)
Makes approximately 12 meatballs

1 lb. ground chuck
1/2 lb. ground pork
2 large slices of good quality white bread, crusts removed, cut into tiny squares (resembling small croutons)
1-cup fresh Italian flat-leaf parsley, chopped
2-3 large garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cup fresh Pecorino Romano cheese, grated
1 egg
1 tbsp olive oil
1 teasp Kosher salt or sea salt (don’t use table salt)
freshly ground pepper, a couple of good grinds

Put the ground chuck and ground pork in a med-sized bowl and add the salt. Gently combine the meat using your hands. Add the rest of the ingredients, except the oil. Gently mix to combine, using your hands, until evenly mixed. Do not knead.

The mixture should be slightly wet and workable, not too sticky.

Using your hands, gently form meat into golf ball-sized balls. Don’t worry if they are not perfectly round, but try to make them all uniform for even cooking. Don’t roll them over and over. Be gentle.

Add the olive oil to a sauté pan and heat on medium heat. Add all the meatballs to the pan (approx. 12) and leave them sit until they are brown on one side. Shake the pan to loosen the meatballs and then turn each one with tongs to brown the other side. Keep turning with tongs until they are completely and evenly browned.  Don’t give up too quickly, you want that crispy browned exterior.

When everything looks pretty brown, cut into one of them to test for doneness.

Transfer the meatballs to a paper towel to drain. Now is a good time to grab one or two, a napkin and some salt.  YUM, YUM.

Throw a few of them into your big delicious pot of gravy to serve on your meat platter with dinner. Put the rest of them into a bowl and serve as fried meatballs.

Make your favorite pasta, some garlic bread and a salad.

Or, you can just enjoy a big plate of delicious meatballs with a good bottle of red like I do.

13 comments to mama’s meatballs

  • avatar rebecca

    my mouth is watering for those meatballs… and the gravy!! cannot wait to prepare next week!! here is a cooking question for you that we have pondered for several weeks… when chopping parsley, is it 1 cup of parsley after chopping or 1 cup of parsley before chopping? would love your thoughts on this! love your blog!!!!

  • avatar Judi

    Rebecca-Thanks for the compliments!
    About your question…..I assume that when we see an ingredient in a recipe, for example:

    1 cup of fresh Italian-leaf parsley, chopped

    we are supposed to consider the preparation first. So chop it FIRST, then make a cup out of it.

    Think about if it was potatoes and the recipe stated:

    2 cups of potatoes, diced.

    You wouldn’t stuff a potato into a measuring cup. See what I mean?
    That’s my guess and what I do. And if you are making any of MY recipes follow it that way.

    Hope this helps! Thanks for reading and let us know how your meatballs turn out! I know you’ll love them.

  • avatar Angel

    When I looked , I said those Meatballs looked just like my grandmothers! When I read the recipe I saw that they were! Of course you have to fry them first! LOL!

    Thank you, reading this post made my night!

  • avatar Judi

    These meatballs are so simple and basic, but SO delicious! Grandmothers are smart ladies!
    Thanks for reading, and I hope you stick around for more of our family recipes!

  • avatar Me

    This one brought a tear to my eye………..

  • avatar Judi

    Mom (Me)-
    Did you tear up because I stopped using breadcrumbs? ;-)
    Sorry, but I just don’t think they need them.

    I know, the memories are great, aren’t they?

    Mama would be happy to see her recipes are being passed along.


  • Isn’t it amazing how many memories food conjurs up? I love the way you incorporated your family traditions into the post. And now I’m really craving a fried meatball for breakfast.

  • And that is why, my friend….You are my little clove!
    I feel so lucky knowing I have enjoyed Sunday dinners, leftovers, kisses from your dad and all of his love, meals from your mom and all of her love..I can hear him now….Hol, C’mon….Have some…and the aunts….Have a SLIVER…
    LOVE U, love your MA, love your brother, love you! I know your dad is looking down on little clove and so PROUD….He’s probably telling all of his buddies about it.

    PS….I can’t believe how much that picture of your dad looks like____?
    Oh my!

  • avatar Judi

    livingston (Hol)-
    Did you have to make me cry before 9am? You are so good at that. :-) XO

  • avatar Judi

    Funny you say that, I had meatballs for breakfast the day after I made these! Why not?!

  • avatar Jane

    Hi, Holly sent me the link to this story. I loved it, thanks so much for sharing the story about your dad, it touched my heart. It made me think of where my own father was during the war (London) and photos of him at that time. I have one of a group of young soldiers learning morse code and they look like young boys (well I guess they were..) How wonderful your grandmother saved all those letters!!
    Best, Jane
    ps loved the recipe too- lol almost forgot!

  • avatar Judi

    When it comes to family recipes, don’t they all have a story? Food to me is love and comfort and family. Making a meal for someone is an expression of love, even if it’s mac’ n cheese on a Tuesday night. My grandma sent salami and provolone on a 22 day trip to her son so he could have a taste of home. I love that. Too bad it spoiled!
    It was nice of Holly to send this to you and I’m glad you enjoyed it. I hope you’ll stick around for more family recipes!

  • avatar Katherine Galliani

    mama’s meat bolls ( in a chicago accent ) See you soon… your food isalways delish!!!