Once upon a time, Brooklyn, New York was not a cool place to live. Back in those days – the late seventies, actually — in an unhip and unironically aluminum-sided neighborhood known as Borough Park, in the windowless basement of a plain row house with a concrete yard and a Madonna in the living room, a 95-year-old Sicilian woman named Vitina Turano toiled at a stove, four burners blazing. She was my great grandmother. Four and a half feet tall, clad in house dress, slippers, and homemade apron, bent of spine and hairy of chin, Great Grandma Turano was busy making meatballs.
A horde of us were gathered, as we did once or twice a year, at an enormous table covered in floral-print oilcloth that ran the length of an entire wall, a long wooden bench on one side, a humming furnace at the end. My parents and brother, my Aunt Patty and Uncle Julian, a few of my mom’s cousins and second cousins, none of whom I ever really got to know but all of whom had names like John and Sal and Paul and Mary and Anthony and Tony and… Anthony and Tony. (There was even a girl named Toni, no joke.) The men would all sit, drinking Gallo from a green jug, as the li’l matriarch did her thing, with an assist from the younger Turano women, until it was time to eat – at which point, steaming platters of food would magically appear before us, exist for a few perfect moments, and then be devoured.
Great Grandma Turano died when I was seven years old, so my memories of her, and of these epic dinners, live on now only in glimmers and shards: her heavily accented English, utterly baffling to my untrained ears; her basement lair; her folding lawn chair out back, where she would sit and motion for me to come over – “cuh me-uh,” she’d say, curling a crooked finger at me, “cuh me-uh” — so she could hug and kiss me, which in retrospect was a small thing I should have happily given in to, but in the moment felt kind of scary and to be resisted at all costs, despite my mother’s prodding.
And her meatballs. I do remember those meatballs. Though it’s hard, this far on, to say whether I remember the ones she made specifically, or the ones my mother made for us – using Great Grandma Turano’s recipe, of course, which she had been forced by her family to commit to paper before she passed away – pretty much once every couple weeks for the first eighteen years of my life. Talk about a staple of your youth: This was mine. Pasta and meatballs with a green salad and some crusty bread? Damn. I can picture those nights perfectly now, the pot of extras simmering on the stove, waiting to be pillaged for seconds. We’ve managed to keep the tradition going strong in our house, too, busting these badboys out on Sunday nights in the fall and winter for the past almost twenty years. Hell, they even made it onto our recipe door. The kids have gotten into the act lately, too — Phoebe performed half the work on the batch you see here, rolling the balls by hand, and helping to brown them. Five generations and counting…
Grandma Turano’s Meatballs Recipe
For the sauce:
1 large onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
Red pepper flakes
1 small can tomato paste
1 tablespoon sugar
2 15-ounce cans tomato puree (or diced tomatoes, or fresh tomatoes)
2 tablespoons oregano
Few pinches fennel seeds
Small handful thyme or basil
In a Dutch oven, saute onion and garlic and a few red pepper flakes in olive oil over medium low heat until onions are soft and just starting to turn golden. Add tomato paste and sugar and stir, mashing paste and onion mixture together, about 1-2 minutes. Fill empty tomato paste can with water and add to pot, stirring until mixed, another 1-2 minutes. Pour in tomatoes, oregano, fennel, and thyme or basil, and stir. Simmer lazily over low heat, uncovered, for as long as you want: the longer the better. If the sauce gets too thick, add a little water.
For the meatballs:
2 pounds ground beef (or, I hate to even own up to this, but we have been known, in an effort to be healthy, to use ground turkey)
1 cup Italian bread crumbs (my great grandma and my mother used Progresso; if you don’t have Italian bread crumbs, you can just add oregano and some salt to regular bread crumbs)
1 cup shredded Parm
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup chopped flat leaf parsley
Few pinches fennel seeds
2 teaspoons salt
Freshly ground pepper
In a large bowl, combine meat, bread crumbs, eggs, Parm, parsley, fennel, salt and pepper. Mash together with hands until thoroughly combined. Roll into balls (the size of golf balls) and set aside on a plate. In a large skillet, add a big glug of olive oil. Begin browning meatballs, in batches, over medium high heat, turning frequently. Remove when browned on all sides. When all the meatballs are browned, add to sauce, and continue cooking over low heat for at least 30 minutes. Serve over pasta, pile high with cheese.
Great-grandma’s meatballs are the best, no?! My husband’s Little Gram lived to be 105 so I was able to meet her, and when our son was born she actually sent us a batch to get us through the rough early days. They were ethereally light, much better than the ones I make using her recipe. We keep some (made by me) in the freezer at all times, along with Little Gram’s Sauce.
I had an Italian great-grandmother like that on Long Island, whom we only saw a couple of times. But I can still taste her homemade pizzas that appeared magically from her basement abode. Thanks for the memory! Wonder what my kids will say? Happy Holidays!
yummy. great grandma recipes are the best. I am going to try this one tomorrow. My great grandma was from North Carolina and made wonderful southern food. How well I remember her little farm kitchen deep in the country and the great smells that came from there. I was from Chicago, so the trip and the food were special to that time and place.
I’m drooling as I read this recipe. I’m making it this week! Thanks
What a family heirloom- thank you for sharing. I wish I had gathered some of my cherished childhood recipes from my late- and great- grandmother before her passing. You are lucky to have this!
I love this post – I can totally picture your great-grandma, chin hairs and all. I am not from a family of cooks, so I always feel a little twinge of jealousy when I read about people’s passed down recipes. We are meatball lovers here though – eat them usually once a week. So maybe my great-grandchildren will someday remember my meatballs with fondness. And I’m already growing chin hairs, so I am sure that will be part of their memory as well. 🙂
I am totally hung up on the pic…the child on the left in the striped shirt looks so much like my brother and I when we were young…
First time commenting…on any blog! The power of nostalgia. I am also from strong Brooklyn-Italian roots. This post brought back many fond childhood memories of my Sundays at Grandma’s with a half a dozen or so Anthonys and Tonys, and I thank you for that. My grandmother added raisins and pignoli to her meatball mixture. I hated it as a kid (she would make some without for those who didn’t like it). But, I learned to love the savory, sweet, nutty flavor as my taste buds matured. I’m trying to keep the meatball tradition alive here in Paris but the meat/tomato sauce combination doesn’t really go over well with my French husband. Quel dommage.
I always love to hear the stories about family recipes passed down through the generations. Thanks for sharing yours. I didn’t grow up with homemade meatballs, and have never found a recipe that’s perfect for me. I will have to bookmark yours. Thanks.
Brilliant. Blindingly brilliant. I had that haircut and that shirt.
Meatballs are finishing in the sauce now. Wife warned me that I will most likely be making this a lot… just based on the smells. Thanks for this.
These were outstanding! My kids made the meatballs while I handled the sauce & stove operations. Made for the best Sunday dinner in a while! Thank you!!
Grandma Turano’s meatballs were a huge hit in our house this week. Used vermicelli for the pasta and it was perfect! Have plenty of leftovers to freeze.
This recipe is truly fabulous! I just made it for family dinner in Slovakia..and everyone (mother in law included) kissed me :). Thank you for sharing this recipe.. looking toward to try more of your recipes. Have a beautiful day…! Happy days…
I’m in the process of fixing this for dinner; I just taste-tested the meatballs….so delicious! I can’t wait for dinner now! Love your blog…keep the recipes coming!
Yum. Will break these out for the long Thanksgiving weekend as a break from turkey sandwiches. I always brown my meatballs in the oven, though. One batch and much less hands on time.
I finally got around to making these, years after I ripped out the page from Cookie Magazine (the pork in milk is a standard around here)…they are very tasty. We’ll see what the family thinks tonight! My only comment is that the sauce is pretty sweet and seems to cry out for salt. I added some. Also next time I will puree the sauce with a hand blender as to better disguise the presence of onions. Thanks again for the recipes!
“I read your newsletter, do I win the Jane Marvel tote?”
Oh, those look good! I’m going to give them a try — thanks for sharing!
P.S. I read your newsletter, do I win the Jane Marvel tote? 🙂
“I read your newsletter, do I win the Jane Marvel tote?” I also preordered your cookbook two weeks ago and can’t wait to get it. It’s my own mothers day present to myself!
My wife made this for dinner tonight. It was wonderful.
Thank you for sharing.
These. Are. Awesome.
Just made a triple batch for the next two weeks, though we might eat them every night until they are gone. Thank you for sharing
What a great post. This really made me miss my grandmother and all her great dishes! Grandma recipes are really the best. We also have these family specialties passed from generation to generation and are always served during special occasions. Thank you for sharing this recipe. I will certainly have this a try. I am pretty sure y family is going to love it!
Phoebe looks just like you this picture with Tony and your grandmother. I knew your mother’s family was Italian, but I didn’t realize that they were Sicilian. Brilliant. Earlier this year I visited my great-grandparents home town, in Sicily. Amazing!
Keep sending Grandma Turano’s recipes. They are welcome along side my great-grandmother’s.
These meatballs are fantastic! As are most things I find on this blog.
My wife is an ardent follower and now has me hooked. I’ve got to say as a family of two working parents with a 4 year old and 10 year old, this is the best food resource I’ve found. We have a million cookbooks (that we use pretty regularly) and plenty of standbys, but when we’ve tried to integrate new meals into our busy schedule they’ve usually failed (either too time consuming or kids won’t eat). We’ve tried meal planning service web sites, but your site is better than any we’ve found, both for utility and entertainment.
Thank you for being awesome!
First time cooking something from your lovely blog and this bad boy has gone straight to the “Keepers” file. Believe I found you via the excellent Shutterbean and I think that sticky pomegranate chicken number will be coming up next….
Yum, these sound great! Having been a vegetarian and vegan for the past 13 years, I’m learning to cook meat for the first time now and love finding good classic recipes like this one.
As for the turkey instead of beef–good news! Especially if it’s grassfed, beef is a lot more nutritious and the healthy saturated fats in it can’t be found more concentrated elsewhere (CLAs, Omega-3’s…) and it’s lower in polyunstatured and monounsaturated fats (so it oxidizes at a higher temperature, less likely to be damaged). Here are just a couple references on that! http://primaldocs.com/opinion/grass-fed-beef-far-exceeds-poultry-in-nutrient-density/ and http://paleodietlifestyle.com/which-meat-to-choose/
i cannot bring myself to brown the meatballs in oil. can’t i just put them in a 400* oven for 15 minutes to brown?
I love your book – got it for Christmas and can’t put it down. Before reading it, I dreaded fixing dinner because it was always at 5:00 that I was trying to come up with what to make. So nice to have a plan for the week now!
For this recipe, would there be anything wrong with browning the meatballs ahead of time (while the kids are in school) and then starting the simmer process (30 minutes in the sauce) before dinnertime? Thanks so much!
Great recipe. I don’t like meatballs, but I’m printing this one off!
As a college student in my first apartment, I currently lack my own stockpile of recipes, and so I have been searching for recipes for things I like to eat. This is by far the best meatball and sauce recipe I have come across! I plan on impressing my parents with it when they come to visit. Thank you so much for sharing!
Made these meatballs for the first time last night and they were well received by my family – toddlers and all. But, at the risk of being a pest, could I ask why the written recipe is different than the one on the white index card or your recipe cabinet?
Your original cookbook is great and one of the first I’ve enjoyed _reading_ – not just using the recipes. So I started from the beginning and saw the images of the cards and the resulting cabinet door. Aside from differences I can reason for cookbookery reasons (1 small onion instead of 1/4 c chopped onion), the sauce recipe differs by tomato paste and diced tomato quantities by what seems like a significant amount. Should the recipe made with the 15 oz can or 6 oz can of tomato paste? 2 cans of water or just one and more as needed?
Will definitely be making again but wondering if these little differences could be game changers from crowd pleaser to crowd favorites. Thanks!
Shook my memories of that time.Thank you , kind regards Christine☺No Im not Italian
These were a hit in out house! I used organic ground turkey from Costco. Browned the meatballs and cooked them in the sauce in a slow cooker on low for 6 hours. Served them over polenta with a side of broccoli.. Delicious! Thank you!
My family loves this receipe! Thank you! I’ve made the meatballs twice in our slow cooker with the red sauce and they turned out great. I was wondering if these would work as mini meatballs stuck with cocktail sticks for a potluck? It seems like they would be a delicious and easy “main” potluck dish. Thank you!
Stumbled across these meatballs about 6 months ago, we now eat them at least once a month and EVERY ONE who tries them loves them. Much love and good food to you and your family. Thanks so much for passing this delightful recipe on!
Hi Andy ~ I would just like to thank you for the beautiful story about your Great Grandmother! She sounds wonderful. I came online to find a great meatball recipes and I am sure I have found it. I’ll be making your Meatball recipe very soon. I have tried for years..omg..I have had such disasters…lol.
I’ll be sure to let you know how much we have enjoyed them…
Thanks again Andy..
These have been on my list for a while, and I finally made them last night for my husband, myself, and a friend we had over for dinner. What a hit! I ended up baking them in the oven (400 degrees for 20 minutes) which isn’t typically my favorite way to prepare meatballs (I love the crunch that frying them provides), however, due to time and space constraints, I decided to bake them. SO easy, and still so delicious! Just wanted to throw that out there for anyone who might be wondering about baking vs. frying. Next time, though, I will definitely fry them to get the “true” traditional taste 🙂 Thanks for a wonderful recipe!
I just made these and decided to halve the recipe. Dumb, dumb, dumb. I used half beef and half pork and otherwise followed the recipe exactly. So good!