Polpette (Italian Meatballs)

published Sep 5, 2021
Polpette Recipe

Similar to classic Italian-American meatballs, polpette are tender and made with a mixture of meats, but are typically smaller.

Serves8 to 10

Makes25 to 30 meatballs

Prep45 minutes

Cook2 hours 30 minutes

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A bowl of Polpettes (the Italian word for "meatball", which is ground meat rolled into a small ball with seasoning and other ingredients, such as egg and breadcrumbs, added). In the background there is a small bowl of red sauce and a smaller bowl of grated parmesan cheese.
Credit: Meleyna Nomura

My Italian-American mother-in-law, Nancy, is known for her meatballs. Lovingly known as her “pot of sauce,” it’s an enormous pot of homemade meatballs, sausage, and braciole that simmer away all day before the whole family comes over for dinner. It’s all poured over cavatelli, and bowls of extra sauce are passed around the many tables set up to accommodate everyone there.

While I adore this tradition, it’s definitely not something I grew up with. So when I make meatballs at home, I don’t even try and compete with hers. Below is my best recipe.

What’s the Difference Between Meatballs and Polpette?

The short answer? None!

The longer answer is that polpette means meatball in Italian, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re what you’d expect to see perched on top of a mound of spaghetti at your local red-sauce restaurant. Italian polpette can be similar to the Italian-American versions we’re used to, made with a mixture of meats and stretched with aromatic vegetables and bread. But they can also be made of poultry, fish, or even veggies, making them more akin to croquettes. Polpette also tend to be on the smaller side in contrast to the tennis ball-sized balls often seen in Italian-American homes and restaurants.

Polpette can be cooked in sauce, but it’s not a necessity. This recipe simmers them in a light tomato sauce until just cooked through, rather than a day-long cooking situation on the stovetop. A little fennel and lemon zest keeps things bright without being overwhelming.

How Do You Keep Meatballs Tender?

Overmixing meatball ingredients is the most common reason for tough meatballs. Here are tips to avoid it.

  • Add all of the filler ingredients to the bowl and mix very well before adding the meat. This will minimize the amount of mixing you’ll need to do before incorporating the meat.
  • Once the meat has been added, use your hands — not a spoon or spatula! — to mix everything quickly and thoroughly, using your fingertips to bring up the ingredients from the bottom of the bowl to fold them into the meat.
  • When you can feel the cold meat and the room-temperature fillers reach the same temperature, you’ll know it’s well-combined.

What Do You Serve with Polpette?

Meatballs in Italy are not typically served on top of spaghetti (all covered with cheese!). If they are served alongside pasta, they’re most often their own distinct dishes. I love to eat these polpette alongside braised greens like kale or a big green salad. Polenta would also be delicious, and a basket of garlic bread is never a bad idea!

Credit: Meleyna Nomura

Can I Make These Ahead?

Polpette are a perfect make-ahead dish. The recipe can be made in its entirety up to three day ahead of time and reheated gently on the stovetop to serve. You can also break it up into steps, making the sauce and forming the polpette the day before you’d like to serve them. Brown the polette and add them to the sauce before you’re ready to eat. 

Polpette can also be frozen on their own or in the sauce. This recipe makes quite a lot. Eat half now and freeze half for later!

Polpette Recipe

Similar to classic Italian-American meatballs, polpette are tender and made with a mixture of meats, but are typically smaller.

Prep time 45 minutes

Cook time 2 hours 30 minutes

Makes 25 to 30 meatballs

Serves 8 to 10

Nutritional Info


For the sauce:

  • 2

    large yellow onions

  • 10 cloves


  • 1/4 cup

    olive oil

  • 2 teaspoons

    dried oregano

  • 3/4 teaspoon

    kosher salt, divided

  • 1/4 teaspoon

    red pepper flakes

  • 2 tablespoons

    unsalted butter

  • 2 tablespoons

    tomato paste

  • 2 (28-ounce) cans

    whole peeled tomatoes

  • 1

    bay leaf

For the meatballs:

  • 1/2 loaf

    soft Italian bread

  • 1 1/2 cups

    whole milk

  • 1/2 small bunch

    fresh parsley

  • 1/2 cup

    packed finely grated Pecorino Romano cheese (about 2 1/2 ounces)

  • 1/2

    medium lemon

  • 3

    large eggs

  • 1 tablespoon

    tomato paste

  • 2 teaspoons

    kosher salt

  • 1 teaspoon

    fennel seeds

  • 1/2 teaspoon

    freshly ground black pepper

  • 1 pound

    ground beef (85% lean)

  • 1 pound

    ground pork

  • 2 tablespoons

    olive oil


Make the sauce:

  1. Coarsely chop 2 large onions and place in a food processor fitted with the blade attachment. Add 10 cloves garlic and pulse until finely chopped, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed.

  2. Heat 1/4 cup olive oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add the onions, garlic, 2 teaspoons dried oregano, 1/2 teaspoon of the kosher salt, and 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes. Cook, stirring occasionally, until most of the liquid from the onions is evaporated, 10 to 12 minutes. (Reduce the heat if the onions begin to take on any color.)

  3. Reduce the heat to medium and cook until the onions are soft and look shiny, 4 to 5 minutes. Transfer half of the cooked onions and garlic to a large bowl and set aside while you finish the sauce.

  4. Add 2 tablespoons unsalted butter to the pot and stir to combine. Cook until the onions have reduced in volume, are very soft, and begin sticking to the bottom of the pot, 8 to 10 minutes. Add 2 tablespoons tomato paste and stir to combine. Cook until darkened and fragrant, 2 to 3 minutes. Add 2 cans whole tomatoes with their juices, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pot. Add 3/4 cup water to each can and swirl to release tomatoes from the sides of the cans. Add the tomato-water mixture to the pot and stir to combine.

  5. Using an immersion blender, pulse the tomatoes until you reach your desired texture. (Alternatively, use a potato masher or wooden spoon to break up the tomatoes into small pieces.)

  6. Add 1 bay leaf and the remaining 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt to the pot. Bring the sauce up to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, stirring occasionally, while you prepare the meatballs.

Make the meatballs:

  1. Tear the inside of about 1/2 loaf Italian bread into small pieces to get 2 cups loosely packed bread pieces and add to a medium bowl. Pour 1 1/2 cups whole milk over the bread.

  2. Prepare the following, adding each to the reserved bowl of onion-garlic mixture you complete it: Pick and coarsely chop the leaves from 1/2 bunch fresh parsley until you have 1/4 cup. Finely grate 2 1/2 ounces Pecorino Romano cheese (about 1/2 cup). Finely grate the zest of 1/2 medium lemon (about 1 1/2 teaspoons).

  3. Add 3 large eggs, 1 tablespoon tomato paste, 2 teaspoons kosher salt, 1 teaspoon fennel seeds, and 1/2 teaspoon black pepper to the onion-garlic mixture. Squeeze as much milk as possible out of the torn bread as you can, then add the bread to the onion-garlic mixture. Discard the milk.

  4. Stir the bread mixture with a wooden spoon or fork until combined. Add 1 pound ground beef and 1 pound ground pork, breaking the meat into smaller pieces with your fingers as you add it to the bowl. Using your hands, gently mix until combined.

  5. Using damp hands to prevent sticking, form the mixture into 25 to 30 golf ball-sized meatballs (a little less than 2 ounces each) and place on a baking sheet or large platter. Refrigerate 1 hour.

  6. Heat 2 teaspoons olive oil in a 12-inch skillet (preferably nonstick) over medium heat until shimmering. Add enough meatballs so that they’re spaced out about 1-inch apart (about 10). Cook until browned on two sides, flipping halfway through, 5 to 6 minutes total. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate. Repeat cooking the remaining meatballs.

  7. Using tongs, add the meatballs one at a time to the sauce and gently push down on them so that they’re mostly submerged. Cover and simmer until cooked through, 10 to 15 minutes.

Recipe Notes

Storage: The meatballs and sauce can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 4 days, or frozen for up to 3 months.