Recipe Review

Is the Rao’s Family Meatball Recipe As Good As Their Sauce? I Tried It to Find Out

published Feb 22, 2020
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Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk; Design: The Kitchn

Rao’s New York, a one-room Italian restaurant that opened in 1896, is one of the oldest and most exclusive restaurants in the city. The Rao’s family has since opened locations in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, and has their own product line with sauces, soups, and pasta. Their marinara sauce is pretty much the only one we’ll buy and we also love their boxed spaghetti.  So when it came time to battle off popular meatball recipes in our celebrity recipe showdown, I knew I had to include the Rao’s family recipe.

The recipe I used is slightly adapted from Rao’s Cookbook, published in 1998, and the first thing I noticed as I skimmed it is that it reads a bit like a grandma wrote it — which makes sense considering how long this recipe has been around. Otherwise, there were no unexpected ingredients or techniques; the only real differentiator was that they recommend making the meatballs a bit bigger than what the other recipes called for.

Could this generations-old meatball recipe really beat out recipes from some of the best chefs in America? Read on to find out.

Get the recipe: Rao’s Meatballs

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk; Design: The Kitchn

How to Make Rao’s Meatballs

Rao’s recipe is pretty no-frills in terms of details. The mixing is broken down into three parts. First, you combine the ground beef, pork, and veal. Next add the eggs, cheese, parsley, garlic, salt, and pepper and use your hands to mash together. Lastly, you mix in the breadcrumbs. At this point the mixture will be really dry. The recipe calls for adding water one cup at a time, at which point the mixture will be incredibly wet. 

You’re given the option of forming the meatballs into 2 1/2 to 3-inch balls. Fry the meatballs in hot oil until browned on all sides and transfer to a paper towel-lined plate. There’s no sauce recipe provided, but it calls for adding the meatballs to a simmering tomato sauce for 15 minutes before serving. Of course, I used Rao’s marinara.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

My Honest Review of Rao’s Meatballs

I was cautiously optimistic that these meatballs would give me a taste of what it’s like to eat at the restaurant, but I hate to say that I was sorely mistaken. I can’t get over how bland these meatballs tasted. The recipe calls for half a small clove of garlic and a pinch each of salt and pepper for seasoning two pounds of meat. While the cheese added some saltiness, it wasn’t enough to make up for the scant amount of salt and pepper.  

The other issue I had with these meatballs was the excessive amount of water. Once the water was added, the mixture became something akin to the texture of cat food (sorry, but it’s true), and it became nearly impossible to form them into balls. I tested both 2 1/2 and 3-inch balls to see if that made any difference. While the smaller size stayed more intact, they were still a gloopy mess. The wetness made frying a disaster — the meatballs wouldn’t stay round, and bits kept falling off and sticking to the pan and burning.

My suggestion? Stick to their sauce and find another meatball recipe.

Credit: Alexis deBoschnek
Rao's Meatballs

If You’re Making Rao’s Meatballs, a Few Tips

If you must make these meatballs, here’s a few things to keep in mind. 

  1. Boost the seasonings: Triple the amount of parsley, garlic, salt, and pepper to get a meatball with more flavor.
  2. Use less water: Two cups of water made these meatballs far too wet. Scale back to one cup to start, and add a few extra tablespoons if the mixture looks too dry, making sure not to go over 1 1/2 cups. 
  3. Smaller is better: The 3-inch meatballs fell apart, and the 2 1/2-inch were only slightly more stable. Stick with a standard 2-inch meatball to ensure the meatballs stay together when frying.  

Rating: 5/10

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk; Design: The Kitchn