Mama’s Meatballs & Ragu

Mama’s Meatballs & Ragu

It’s one of my most vivid childhood memories: Mom teaching me the recipes as I stood on a stool and peeked up at the stove. As a lefty, she would tease me for the way I did things- stirring the wrong way or bumping her with my elbow. After all the lessons growing up and no matter how hard I try, I can’t get the recipe exactly like hers. She claims I’m following it “to a tee,” and that the difference is in our hands. I think that’s what’s most interesting and special about flavor. Just the way you work the meat or stir the pot can dramatically affect the outcome of the meal. It’s putting your own personal twist on it- even if it’s subconsciously. Having said that, I’m convinced she’s still leaving something out!

What I learned at a young age is that in order to develop flavor, you can’t take short cuts.  If you want a deep flavor of sauce and meatballs, you have to be patient. You can’t just turn up the heat and cook them faster. Sunday dinners are a tradition that I can’t wait to pass down to my son- to teach him not just the recipe for slow-braised ragu and meatballs, but the recipe for bringing the family together.



(Serves 8-10)

    • ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
    • 2 celery stalks with leaves, chopped
    • 1 medium onion, chopped
    • Kosher salt & freshly ground pepper
    • 1 ½ lbs (6-8) meaty, bone-in-pork spareribs, rinsed
    • 1 ½ lbs (6-8) sweet Italian sausage with fennel seeds, pierced all over with a fork
    • 1 garlic clove, chopped
    • 1 cup red wine
    • 3 (35 oz.) cans tomato puree
    • 1 handful fresh basil leaves


  • Warm olive oil in a large, heavy-bottom pan over medium heat.
  • Add celery and onion, season with salt and pepper, and sauté, partially covered about 5 minutes until golden and soft.
  • Add meats and raise the heat to medium-high. Sauté, turning occasionally until browned all over.
  • Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the wine and cook until it evaporates, 5 minutes.
  • Add tomato puree, basil, salt and pepper. Partially cover, bring to a boil, and reduce heat. Let it simmer 1 ½-2 hours.


  • 1 small loaf stale Italian bread  (about 8 thick slices) torn into 2 1/2” chunks
  • 2 lbs. 80% lean ground beef chuck, broken up
  • 5 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
  • ½ cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten
  • 1 ½ cups grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Grana Padano
  • kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • canola oil for frying


  • Put bread in a bowl and add enough warm water to cover. Let stand for 5 minutes, turning to moisten evenly. Gently squeeze out excess water.
  • Add beef, garlic, parsley, egg and ¾ cup of Parmigiano to the bread and combine. Season with Salt and pepper. Knead the mixture for at least 5 minutes with your hands, until uniformly combined and smooth.
  • Pinch a tablespoon of meat into your palms and shape into a ball. Place on a baking sheet and continue with the rest of the mixture.
  • Fill a 10” skillet halfway with canola oil and heat over high heat. When strands form along the bottom, lower 8-10 meatballs at a time into the oil. Do not overcrowd. They should be ¾ submerged in oil.  Reduce the heat to medium and fry for 6-7 minutes each side, turning only once.
  • Remove the meatballs from the oil and turn the heat back up to high before starting the second batch.
  • 20 minutes before serving, add the meatballs to the simmering ragu.



Donatella Arpaia

Donatella Arpaia is a chef, restaurateur, entrepreneur, and mother. She has built an empire of successful restaurants drawing on the skills, passion, methods, and love for food she learned from her family.

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