Not My Nana’s Red Sauce and Jan’s Meatballs

My grandmother owned a red sauce Italian restaurant when I was growing up. I don’t mean the chain restaurant here in Massachusetts, Red Sauce, I mean a good, old fashioned Italian-American restaurant with those rough translations from southern Italian cuisine to the mid-twentieth century American idea of Italian food. And I loved it. To judge from the crowds in her restaurant, a lot of other people did as well. She served the best chicken parm, stuffies (it’s a Rhode Island thing, you’ll need to get your arse up here and try some to understand), clams casino, and, of course, red sauce. Her sauce was smooth and even a little thin, but it was perfection on the side of ziti that came with my inevitable chicken parm.

As I grew older, my understanding of regional Italian food grew, and I began to understand that the Italian food of my youth wasn’t “authentic” Italian food, though it is no less a part of the Italian-American experience, and is still rather beloved here in the States, even with our more sophisticated twenty-first century palates. My grandmother passed away when I was fifteen, but her husband, my step-grandfather, kept the restaurant going strong until just a couple of years ago. Before my step-grandfather retired, any time I had a need for the comfort of chicken parm, JR and I would head to “the restaurant”, as we called it. And long before JR arrived on the scene, all family events were celebrated there. My surprise sixteenth birthday party was held there, as was every subsequent birthday with the exception of those I was away at college, up through my mid-twenties. It was a home-away-from-home, and even if JR and I were just dropping in for take-out, the bartender, Kenny, who strongly resembled Rod Stewart – yes, the hair-do as well – would drop everything he was doing (sorry, bar patrons) to greet us, kiss my hand, and run around frantically to retrieve our food, as though we were royalty who might be angered by a wait.

Nowadays, my preference really is for regional Italian cuisine, but I am still comforted by the taste of chicken parm, the occasional meatball, and, of course, red sauce, though the version I make at home is chunky rather than smooth and clings to the pasta rather than coating it as though it were a salad dressing as did my Nana’s. My meatballs are an interpretation of my mother’s meatballs, which are – and I don’t say this lightly – the world’s best meatballs; super-moist and chock full of real bread – no bread crumbs for us, no-sir-ee. I do apologize for taking away props from your mothers’ and Nanas’ meatballs, but you’ll have to make these and then tell me you’re not convinced.

An Interpretation of Jan's Meatballs


    You know what? I can't believe I'm giving this secret recipe up this easily. I must really like you guys. And be forewarned: there's an awful lot of commentary in this recipe. It's Italian-American, after all, and as you can't see my arms waving around, I have to actually write rather than gesticulate.
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 pound ground meat - Jan uses beef. I use a blend of pork, veal, and beef. Go ahead and try turkey if you don't do red meat.
  • 5-6 slices white Italian bread - you want a soft bread for this, so supermarket varieties are fine. This is old-school Italian-American after all.
  • 1/2 cup milk (or less - you're using this to soak the bread, so you'll only need to use enough to douse the slices you use)
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano - yes, I will forgive you if you use already grated cheese, but please don't use the green jar of cheese if you don't have to.
  • 1/4 cup minced fresh parsley
  • 2 large eggs - this is the big secret. Which really shouldn't be a secret because you cook, so you know eggs add moisture. But I will share with you anyway: the extra egg renders the finished meatballs extremely moist.
  • pepper
  • salt


  1. Heat oil in a skillet over medium heat; add the diced onion and minced garlic and saute until onion is just translucent approximately 3 minutes, being careful not to burn the garlic. Remove from heat and set aside to cool.
  2. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
  3. In a large mixing bowl, press the ground meat around the bottom of the bowl making a flat little plateau for the bread to lay upon. Lay 2-3 pieces of bread over top (as many as you are able given the size of your mixing bowl) and drizzle milk over bread until bread is soaked through. Mash soaked bread into meat with a fork or your hands. Don't be afraid to get dirty. That's part of the fun. Maybe play some Pavarotti loudly and let your kids mash the meat up with their hands (washing them before and after, of course). Repeat with 2-3 additional pieces of bread. Add parsley and parmigiano and mix into meat mixture with a fork or your hands. Add the onion and garlic, combining well, then add the two eggs, one at a time. Pepper to taste. You will have a very wet mixture on your hands. This is what you want, trust me.
  4. Lightly oil a large baking sheet. We don't fry meatballs at my house. We bake the bad boys.
  5. Using your hands, form the mixture into rounds that fit comfortably in your palms. They'll be between two and three ounces - a perfect serving size - or a half a serving size, depending upon how you look at it. Place them in rows of three across the baking sheet - you should have between 12 and 15 meatballs when all is done.
  6. Bake meatballs on the middle rack for 35-40 minutes, or until meatballs are lightly browned. Sprinkle a bit of salt over top of the meatballs and either drop them into the sauce for a couple of minutes (not all of them, though - you aren't making enough sauce for 15 meatballs unless you double the recipe. You'll see.), place them atop the spaghetti and top both with sauce, or keep them for some other meatballish use. There's no way you won't love them. I promise.

Not My Nana’s Red Sauce


  • 2-3 tablespoons olive oil, or enough to coat the bottom of your sauce pan
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • 1 stalk celery, diced
  • 1 medium carrot, diced or grated using a box grater
  • 2 whole garlic cloves, peeled
  • 2 tablespoons thyme
  • 2 tablespoons oregano
  • 1 tablespoon anchovy paste (available in the Italian section of the market, or nearby the canned tomatoes or jarred tomato sauce)
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • (1) 28-ounce can of crushed fire-roasted tomatoes (such as Muir Glen, or use a good-quality regular tomato, such as San Marzanos)
  • salt and pepper


  1. Heat oil in a large sauce pan over medium-low heat. Add onion, celery, carrot, and garlic and cook slowly to meld the flavors. This could take between twenty and thirty minutes - you want to have the vegetables combine such that their colors begin to blend together - this is a version of what Italians call "soffritto".
  2. Once your soffritto is sufficiently orange-y (this is the color it most resembles when cooked down. I will get you a picture of it soon, I promise), add the thyme and oregano, and stir to combine. Next, add the anchovy paste (we discussed this yesterday - don't go getting all wiggy on me, you can't taste anchovy in the finished product) and tomato paste. Stir to combine.
  3. Add the tomato, stir well, and let sauce simmer for about twenty minutes on medium heat. Salt and pepper to taste, drop some meatballs in if you so desire and let simmer a few minutes more, then dole it all out over whatever maccheroni (that's Italian for macaroni, ok?) you choose, though I recommend spaghetti for this classic. Top your mountain of meatballs, sauce, and pasta with some additional grated parmigiano, and set it down on a red and white checkered tablecloth in your dining room, crank up the Pavarotti, and there you are in an Italian restaurant circa 1978. Buon appetito!

Dinner tonight: Baked Rigatoni with Untraditional Bolognese Sauce. Estimated cost for two: $3.65. The Bolognese was $8.29 for 8 servings. We’ve had 4 servings so far, so that leaves half, for which we round up the half-cent and call $4.15. The rigatoni was $1.79 for a one-pound box, and we’re using all of that. The mozzarella cheese was $4.11 for the portion being used tonight, and we get at least 6 servings out of it. I’m going to use some of the last-day-of-the-garden lettuce for a simple salad, so that’s an additional 30-cents based on the cost of the plants when I bought them. We haven’t any dessert hanging around, but I do have one sad looking banana, which I will make into something resembling Bananas Foster using butter, cinnamon, nutmeg, brown sugar and some dark rum which has been hanging around in my liquor cabinet/dustbin for over five years since we hosted our friends’ Caribbean-themed wedding shower. Clearly, we’re big rum lovers. Clearly. But we do need to go over Bananas Foster sometime soon because it is so easy and is a good alternate use of bananas which would otherwise be destined for bread. I’m thinking you don’t need to use rum only, and I didn’t flambe the version I made the other night, yet it was still scrumptious. And far less dangerous than with flame. I’d be frightened of me flambe-ing, let me tell you!

One Comment to Not My Nana’s Red Sauce and Jan’s Meatballs

  1. Cindy says:

    No wonder you are such a great cook! You have it in your blood. Thanks for sharing with easy, delicious recipe.

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