Spaghetti & Meatballs: Back to School

I blame Ian Falconer. Author and illustrator of the Olivia stories, he inspired a constant craving by my children for spaghetti and meatballs. In the original Olivia story, Olivia visits the art  museum and becomes inspired by Jackson Pollock. When she gets home, Olivia decides to create her own “masterpiece” on her bedroom wall (visualize splattered paint everywhere). The story continues with: “Time out.” After that, Olivia has a nice bath, and sits down for a good dinner of spaghetti and meatballs. Starting at a very young age, both of my girls loved to gasp at the page where Olivia goes to work creating art on her bedroom wall (and I realize, we have inadvertently given them ideas), and then they began demanding spaghetti and meatballs. It’s not a dish I usually have time to whip up, so to speak. So, for the past few years, Sofia has requested them for her birthday dinner with the entire family, and I’ve been happy to oblige. And every year, about 80-100 meatballs later, I am usually wondering what I was thinking when I agreed.  

Well, my big girl went off to school this past week, and as she and her little sis have (as usual) been requesting spaghetti and meatballs for dinner, I decided that I would indulge them to celebrate the milestone of Sofia entering primary school. Even though it was a week night, and I was already running a bit behind schedule, I decided to just commit, and make it happen. Turns out, making meatballs doesn’t have to be such an ordeal when you just make one batch. It made for happy little eaters, and there were plenty of leftovers which I tucked into the freezer for a cold night this fall.

Spaghetti & Meatballs

recipe by Ina Garten Spaghetti, adapted by Stephanie Kunstle

Note: This is Ina’s recipe with a few changes. The biggest tweaks being the amount of sauce is doubled (I hate running out of sauce, and you will if you don’t make extra), and I add lots and lots of fresh basil which lifts this from a winter dish to something fresh and suited to late summer.

Ingredients for Meatballs:

  • 1/2 pound ground veal
  • 1/2 pound ground pork
  • 1 pound ground beef
  • 1  and 1/4 cups fresh white bread crumbs (4-6 slices from a rustic loaf, with a quick spin the food processor)
  • 1/2 tsp. dried oregano
  • 1/2 tsp. dried basil
  • 1/2 tsp. dried rosemary
  • 1/4 tsp. dried parsley
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg (use 1/4 tsp if you are using already ground nutmeg)
  • 1 extra-large egg, beaten
  • Olive oil

Ingredients for Sauce:

  • 1 tablespoon or so olive oil
  • 1 cup chopped yellow onion (about 1 onion)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons minced garlic
  • 1/2 cup good red wine
  • 1 (28-ounce) can whole plum tomatoes
  • 1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes with basil
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 3 teaspoons sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh basil
  • 1 lb. spaghetti, and fresh Parmesano Reggiano for serving


  1. Place the ground meats, bread crumbs, dried herbs, parsley, Parmesan, salt, pepper, nutmeg, egg, and 3/4 cup warm water in a bowl. Combine very lightly with a fork. Using your hands, lightly form the mixture into 2-inch meatballs. You will have 14 to 16 meatballs.
  2. Pour regular (not extra virgin) olive oil into a large (12-inch) skillet to a depth of 1/4-inch. Heat the oil. Very carefully, in batches, place the meatballs in the oil and brown them well on all sides over medium-low heat, turning carefully with a spatula or a fork. This should take about 10 minutes for each batch. Don’t crowd the meatballs. Remove the meatballs to a plate covered with paper towels. Discard the oil but don’t clean the pan.
  3. For the sauce, heat the olive oil in the same pan. Add the onion and saute over medium heat until translucent, 5 to 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 1 more minute. Add the wine and cook on high heat, scraping up all the brown bits in the pan, until almost all the liquid evaporates, about 3 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes, parsley, sugar, salt, and pepper.
  4. Return the meatballs to the sauce, cover, and simmer on the lowest heat for 25 to 30 minutes, until the meatballs are cooked through. Stir in the freshly chopped basil. Serve hot on cooked spaghetti and pass the grated Parmesano.
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8 Responses to Spaghetti & Meatballs: Back to School

  1. rita says:

    It is 5:30 in the morning and I am craving these meatballs! What a nice tradition for the begining of the school year. Plus, its always nice to freeze leftovers for later.

  2. Shandee says:

    So glad you are back to posting! Abby LOVES spaghetti and meatballs-have to give this one a try! Hope all is well!

  3. JH says:

    That looks sooo good. The combination of veal, beef and pork with oregano, basil and rosemary is fantastic. How about a Chianti Classico to go with it?

  4. My teen still loves this dish, as does KP – top comfort food. I’m not familiar with the Olivia book but it sounds fantastic – books like that are an important part of my girls childhood memories.

  5. Robert Dickerson says:

    Why wasn’t I invited to this “School Season Meatball Festival”? I know how delicious they are and I am envious.


  6. Stephanie says:

    Shandee — Thank you! It’s so nice to be back at it. Abby would love this recipe, and the rest of the family too. Be careful though, they might end up begging for spaghetti and meatballs on a weekly basis like my girls do!
    JH — I’m usually of the mind not to “mix meats” but in the case of meatballs, the combination is truly delicious. Tell you what, if you guys make the haul west, I’ll make these for you with a nice Chianti to boot!
    Sally — oh, you would just love Olivia. She’s a funny little pig with a mind of her own and lots of energy. Her mom says at the end of the story “You really wear me out, but I love you anyway.” Sums it up. I have a similar feeling about two small people in my house. Bet you can relate. I believe the original Olivia book was published in 2000, so pretty recently in the world of good children’s books.
    Pop — I’ve got more in the freezer! We’ll pull some out for you.

  7. Em says:

    Ah yummy! This looks so good! We’ll have to try it as we are Olivia and meatball fans. Combining three meats will be a first for me. Tonight I’m making your heirloom tomato pizza though!

  8. Mary Beth says:

    I LOVE the added extra basil – it makes all the difference. Thanks for the suggestion!
    And I’m taking your indirect suggestion – when I do make them, I’ll make several batches to freeze for later – always yummy and effortless every time but the first. :)

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