The best authentic and traditional Sicilian meatballs (prupetti) recipe is without a doubt my mom’s! These meatballs are soft, moist, cheesy and not at all dry. Simmer them in a fragrant tomato sauce that you will serve tossed with pasta and enjoy the meatballs as a second course for the ultimate, perfect Sunday lunch. I’m sharing all my mom’s tips for the perfect meatballs!
I am certain that for most of you of Italian origin the preparation of meatballs triggers many wonderful memories from your youth. The aroma and sounds of making meatballs brings me back to Sunday mornings as a child with my mom in the kitchen preparing the sauce for lunch. These are what we call prupetti in the Sicilian dialect or meatballs!
The bright, green scent of chopped parsley, the strong nutty aroma of freshly grated Parmigiano and Pecorino Romano cheeses, sharp garlic and the sound of the cheese grater which my mom uses to grate her day old bread into crumbs. Then there’s the sizzle of tiny meatballs in the skillet frying up for us to snack on while we wait for lunch. And finally the bubbling meatballs nestled in the tomato sauce. Is there anything better than this?
Of course, everyone thinks that their mother’s meatballs are the best. But let me explain why my mother’s meatballs were and still are the best!
The Best Sicilian Meatballs:
- The best Sicilian meatballs are actually not only about the meat but about the breadcrumbs. Not just any breadcrumbs, but the freshly grated breadcrumbs from a loaf of day old Italian bread soaked in milk. These fresh breadcrumbs, as opposed to dry breadcrumbs, is what gives these meatballs their wonderful soft and moist texture.
- Why is the meat not necessarily the main even you might ask? This is quite logical when you consider that in post war Sicily meat was hard to come by and therefore stale bread was used to stretch out meatballs. In fact my mom makes meatless meatballs that, in my opinion, are just as good as these!
- But speaking about the meat, my mom always uses a combination of beef, veal and pork ground meat for a total of 500 grams of ground meat. If you can’t find all three varieties, definitely use 2 varieties combined for more flavor.
- My mother’s meatball recipes has quite a bit of cheese in it. You’ll notice 1 1/4 cups of combined Parmigiano and Pecorino Romano cheeses in this recipe. This is not an error. You can definitely taste the cheese in these meatballs!
- Another distinguishing characteristic of most Sicilian meatballs is their shape. Instead of being perfectly round, you’ll notice they are more oval shaped and are slightly flattened. I was thrilled to hear from many readers who shared that their Sicilian moms also made oval meatballs!
- The best meatballs also simmer in tomato sauce for a long time. They will definitely be done within an hour of simmering, however after 2-3 hours they will be even tastier, softer and add much more flavor to your sauce.
Baked vs Fried Meatballs
There is much debate out there as to the authenticity of baked vs fried meatballs for the Sunday sauce. Indeed, in the old days my mother browned the meatballs in a skillet before adding them to the sauce. And luckily for us, she always made a few tiny meatballs for us to snack on!But even my mom has become more health conscious with time and now bakes the meatballs for about 15 minutes before adding them to the sauce. And they are truly just as tasty!
However, if you prefer, you may brown the meatballs in some olive oil on all sides before adding them to the sauce. The idea here is not to fully cook them but simply brown all sides therefore adding flavor.
So without further ado, let’s make meatballs!
The following are step by step instructions with images to guide you through this recipe. Please scroll to the end of this post for the detailed, printable recipe card.
For the meatballs:
- 500 grams of ground meat trio: a combination of ground beef, veal and pork. This trio of ground meat gives the meatballs lots of flavor.
- Fresh breadcrumbs from Italian day old bread: in a pinch can be replaced with white sandwich bread
- Milk: for soaking the bread in
- Combination of Parmigiano and Pecorino Romano cheeses: if you had to choose only one, use Pecorino Romano cheese for it’s pronounced flavor
- Garlic: finely minced
- Fresh parsley
- Salt and pepper
- Olive oil
For the tomato sauce:
- Onion: finely diced
- Garlic: finely minced
- Olive oil for sautéing
- Red pepper flakes: for a little spicy kick (optional)
- Tomato paste
- Tomato passata: tomato purée
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- Fresh basil leaves: if available. I often freeze whole basil leaves from my garden in order to add to sauce throughout the winter months.
Step by Step Instructions
Prepare the fresh breadcrumbs:
Remove the crusts from a loaf of day old Italian bread. Tear up the crumb into small pieces with your fingers or add to a food processor and process until you have coarse crumbs.
Soak the breadcrumbs in milk: place the crumbs in a bowl, add milk and toss to coat. Set aside while you prepare the remaining ingredients.
Combine the remaining ingredients in a large bowl: add the ground meat; grated Parmigiano and Pecorino Romano cheeses; minced garlic; parsley; eggs; salt and pepper and olive oil. Gently squeeze most of the excess milk from the breadcrumbs and add to the bowl.
Gently combine all ingredients with your hands. Do not overly squeeze the ingedients together, you want soft meatballs not dense and tough ones
Shape the meatballs: In order to shape into 24 meatballs, divide the mixture into 4; then divide each quarter into 6 pieces. Pat each piece into an oval shape and flatten slightly. Transfer to a parchment paper lined baking sheet. You may shape into the traditional ball shaped meatballs if you prefer.
Bake or fry the meatballs:
To bake: place in a 400 degrees F preheated oven for 15 minutes, until lightly browned.
To fry: brown all sides of the meatballs in a skillet with a little olive oil.
Prepare the tomato sauce:
While the meatballs are baking (if you choose this method), heat olive oil in large sauce pan, add a finely diced onion and sauté for about 5 minutes.
Add minced garlic and red pepper flakes (optional) and cook, stirring, 2 minutes longer. Stir in tomato paste and cook for another minute.
Add the tomato passata, then pour 2 cups of water into the jar. Swirl it around to gather all the excess sauce in the jar, then pour into the sauce pan. Bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer. Season with salt and pepper and basil leaves.
When the meatballs are out of the oven (or frying pan), gently nestle them in the tomato sauce. Simmer for 2 – 2 1/2 hours partially covered. Adjust seasoning as needed.
How to serve this recipe
Contrary to the popular North American way of plopping meatballs on top of a bowl of spaghetti, in Italy (as well as my home) meatballs are served as a second course. The fragrant tomato sauce that the meatballs simmered in is tossed with pasta as the first course.
We enjoy our meatballs as a second course along with a salad and/or other vegetable sides such as sautéed rapini with garlic.
Tips and suggestions:
Can meatballs be frozen?
Yes, either before or after they are simmered in the tomato sauce.
After baking them, let cool and place in a freezer safe container or freezer bag for up to 3 months. Defrost overnight in the refrigerator and add to the simmering tomato sauce as directed in this recipe.
If freezing after they are added to the sauce, let cool. Pour the sauce along with the meatballs in a large freezer safe container. Let defrost overnight in the refrigerator then place in a large sauce pan to completely defrost and heat through.
What types of ground meat can be used for making meatballs?
I am partial to the combined trio of ground meats including beef, veal and pork which add lots of flavor. However, you may use only 2 varieties of ground meat if you prefer or if you don’t have access to all three varieties.
Can dry breadcrumbs be used in place of fresh breadcrumbs?
Yes, but the results will simply not be the same! Fresh breadcrumbs soaked in milk offer a soft and moist texture to these meatballs which can not be replicated with dry breadcrumbs.
Can other meats be added to the sauce?
Definitely! Along with meatballs other common additions to the Sunday sauce include a few sausage links; pork ribs and perhaps even braciole.
If you give this recipe a try, please let me know how much you enjoyed it by rating it in the recipe card below. Feel free to Pin it for later. Buon appetito!
Here are more meatball recipes for you to check!
- Italian Meatless Meatballs (polpette di pane)
- Zucchini Ricotta Meatballs
- Eggplant Meatballs
- Sicilian Sweet and Sour Meatballs
- Pastina Soup with Tiny Meatballs
- Italian Meatball Stew with Potatoes and Peas
For the meatballs:
- 3 cups bread crumbs from day old bread
- 1 cup milk
- 500 grams combined ground veal, beef and pork
- 1 1/4 cups grated combined Parmigiano and Romano cheeses
- 1/2 cup fresh chopped parsley
- 1 clove garlic finely minced
- 2 eggs lightly beaten
- 1 tbsp. olive oil
- 1/2 tsp salt
For the tomato sauce:
- 1 small onion finely diced
- 2 garlic cloves finely minced
- 3 tbsp. olive oil
- 2 tbsp. tomato paste
- 1 jar tomato passata 720 ml
- red pepper flakes optional
- fresh basil leaves
- salt and pepper to taste
For the meatballs
- Place the bread crumbs in a medium sized bowl, pour milk over them and toss to combine. Set aside.
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
- In a large bowl combine the ground meat, cheese, parsley, garlic, eggs, olive oil, salt and pepper.
- Squeeze excess milk from the bread crumbs and add to the meat mixture. Use your hands to gently combine all the ingredients.
- Shape into 24 meatballs and place on the prepared pan.
- Bake for 15 minutes.
For the tomato sauce
- Meanwhile prepare the sauce. In a large sauce pan, heat olive oil on medium heat, add onion and cook for 5 minutes. Add garlic and and red pepper flakes. continue cooking for 2 minutes.
- Stir in tomato paste and cook for 2 minutes before pouring in the tomato purée. Pour about 2 cups of water in the jar to rinse out remaining sauce and add to the sauce pan.
- Add salt and pepper, to taste and basil leaves. Bring to a simmer and nestle the baked meatballs in the sauce. Let simmer partially covered for 2-21/2 hours, stirring occasionally.
- When ready to serve, transfer the meatballs to a large bowl. Boil your favorite pasta, toss with the tomato sauce and serve as a first course. Serve meatballs as a second course with tossed salad and/or side vegetable dishes.