My great-grandmother, Michelina Parrinello, immigrated to the US from Sicily in the 1920’s, with her husband Antonio and my Great-Aunt Anne. She lived to be 102, long enough to meet my kids, and, to be honest, I don’t know a lot about her life. I know she was a seamstress, that she raised four kids, and that she was an amazing cook, but she was pretty old even when I was young. What I remember about her most is, I think, what everyone in the family remembers about her, which is that every meal at every family gathering, for as long as she was able, included pasta with her meatballs. And look, I’m not impartial, but they really are the best meatballs.
Of course, Nana made everything by hand, according to taste and smell and memory, so there wasn’t a codified recipe until my Aunt Judy took the time and effort to put measurements to Nana’s methods. I’m fortunate that she took the time to teach me, and now I’m happy to pass them on to you.
2-3 TB olive oil
1 good-sized bell pepper, chopped
1 medium-large yellow onion, chopped
3-4 cloves garlic, minced/crushed
12 oz. tomato paste
1 1/2 – 2 tsp dried basil
1/2 – 1 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp fennel seeds
1-2 bay leaves
(optional: 1/2 – 1 tsp dried oregano)
2 28 oz. cans crushed tomatoes
salt and pepper to taste
(optional: season to taste with grated Romano cheese or leftover cheese rind)
1. Heat the oil in a large saucepan. Sauté the pepper and onion until softened but not browned. Add the garlic and saute until fragrant.
2. Add the tomato paste and spices and cook for a few minutes until heated through.
3. Add the crushed tomatoes, and one can of water per can of tomatoes including paste (so, 68 oz.). Season with salt and pepper (as always, with canned tomatoes, you can add sugar or lemon juice to get the tomato flavor you prefer). Simmer the sauce for at least 45 minutes; the longer it simmers, the better it tastes.
Nana with (some of) her four generations of descendants
Makes about 30
1 lb. ground beef (80% lean if you can find it)
3-4 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 cups mixed grated Parmesan and Romano cheeses
1 cup breadcrumbs with Italian seasoning
salt and pepper to taste
at least 2 TB milk
1. Preheat the oven to 350° F. Mix all the ingredients except the milk gently but thoroughly. Add enough milk that the mixture is pretty squishy.
2. Roll the meat into walnut-sized balls, square top and bottom slightly and place on baking sheet. Indent the tops with your thumb to keep them from puffing up too much in the oven.
3. Bake until the meatballs are lightly browned on the bottom, about 8 minutes. Turn them over and bake for another 8 minutes or so, until lightly browned on both sides.
4. Remove the meatballs to the simmering sauce and let stand until you’re ready to eat.
Notes: The sauce recipe makes a lot of sauce. If you’re just making a pound of pasta, you could probably halve it. Also, I usually use a little less water, but if you want to be a true Nana, you have to at least swish some water in the tomato cans to get every bit of tomato out. Note the fennel seeds, which are there to make it taste a little sausage-y, even though there’s no sausage in it. I usually add red pepper flakes, too.
For the meatballs, The recipe calls for ground beef, but you can also use ground pork, or double the recipe and use one lb. of each. If you prefer, you can pan-fry them instead of baking them. You can also just simmer them in the sauce until they’re cooked. Of course, you can make them bigger or smaller, just adjust the cooking time accordingly.
If I have some on hand, I like to add some chopped fresh parsley to the mix. Also, the recipe calls for at least 2 TB of milk, but I usually need 1/4 to 1/2 cup to get the right squishiness.
In order to make sure the meatballs were properly seasoned, Nana would taste some of the raw mixture. I don’t recommend doing that! Fortunately, my Aunt Judy came up with a modern solution, which is to pinch off a little bit and microwave it until it’s just cooked through, then taste it.