Homemade Tomato Sauce & Meatballs

Homemade Tomato Sauce & Meatballs

Homemade Tomato Sauce & Meatballs

When I first migrated to LA back in the late 70’s, I moved into one of those sprawling apartment complexes in the San Fernando Valley. It housed transplants literally from all over the world. Young people who came seeking fame and fortune and hoping to get their big break, and people like me who were just looking to escape the cold, brutal weather of the east coast. I came with nothing but a suitcase and $400, so moving into a furnished apartment meant I could live with some of the comforts of home. It was a lovely place really, gold shag carpeting, plaid sofas and avocado colored formica counter tops. It had all the warmth and coziness of a Motel 6, but it was home.

I remember those first months living in LA all by myself so well. It was lonely and exciting all at the same time. Everyone at this complex was very friendly. We all seemed to be in the same boat; without family, little money, and crappy jobs, but very intoxicated by the perpetually blue skies, balmy weather and swaying palm trees. (You didn’t see many palm trees in Philadelphia.) My neighbors across the hall were a brother and sister team from North Jersey named Theresa and Anthony. He called her “Tree” and she called him “Ant”.  I guess being east coasters we connected. Every night they saw me come home from work with a McDonald’s bag in hand, so they decided to teach me how to make Tomato Sauce and Meatballs. I’m not sure they were necessarily very good cooks, but I’ve been making their sauce (or gravy as they called it) and meatballs ever since.

Homemade Tomato Sauce & Meatballs

Homemade Tomato Sauce & Meatballs

Homemade Tomato Sauce 

  • 3 cans (28 ounce) crushed tomatoes – I used San Marzano
  • 5 large basil leaves
  • 3 sprigs thyme
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt (or to taste)
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter


  1. Empty the 3 cans of crushed tomatoes with the juice into a large stock pot. I used a deep pot because tomato sauce splatters like crazy. If you have a splatter shield, now’s the time to bring it out.
  2. Add the basil leaves, thyme sprigs, salt, brown sugar and butter, and heat on medium until the mixture comes to a boil.  Reduce the heat to low, and stir until the butter is melted.  You’re going to cook the sauce low and slow for about 2 hours, stirring every 15 minutes or so. When sauce is ready, pull out the basil leaves and thyme sprigs and discard.
  3. As the sauce cooks it will begin to reduce, so you will have to add some water to it to get your desired consistency. I wanted a smooth and creamy sauce, so at the end of cooking I used my immersion blender for about a minute or two. You could also pour it into a blender for a smoother consistency.


  • 3/4 pound ground beef
  • 3/4 pound ground veal
  • 1/4 cup bread crumbs
  • 3 tablespoons fresh parsley, minced
  • 1/4 cup grated romano cheese
  • 1/2 small onion, pureed in food processor
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon fresh ground pepper
  • 1 egg, plus 1 egg yolk


  1. Place your onion in a food processor and process until it’s finely minced. (I used my mini food processor). Put the onion and all the other ingredients into a large bowl and mix with your hands. Make sure to incorporate all the ingredients evenly throughout.
  2. Form into balls, a little bit larger than a golf ball. Don’t work the meat too much, because you don’t want the meatballs to be dense (like golf balls).
  3. Put about 2 tablespoons of oil in a skillet on medium heat, and brown the meatballs just til you get a nice crust to form on the outside. You are not cooking them through in the skillet.  When the meatball is a little crusty, then pop it into the pot of sauce, and let all the meatballs cook for about 30 minutes on a very low heat. The meatballs will flavor your sauce as it cooks, and then it will taste awesome!
Homemade Tomato Sauce & Meatballs

Homemade Tomato Sauce & Meatballs

Mama’s Tips:

Cooking the meatballs in the sauce is what gives the sauce it’s amazing flavor.

This recipe makes enough meatballs (about 30 – golf ball sized) and sauce, that you can have some now and freeze the rest for another meal.  Just place in an airtight container.

Meatballs don’t always have to be served with pasta. I make these as an appetizer all the time. Put the meatballs on a dish with a fancy toothpick through them, hit them with a dollop of sauce and sprinkle with fresh grated parmesan cheese.

For Friday night dinners with the kids, I get some good Italian rolls and make some awesome meatball sandwiches.

Fresh Minced Parsley

Fresh Minced Parsley

Recipe: Intermediate

49 Comments on “Homemade Tomato Sauce & Meatballs”

  1. This looks so yumm! And great photos !

  2. There’s nothing better than a plate of homemade meatballs and sauce, I think. I bet a lot of people can identify with your story of moving so far from home and family with little money, but ready for a big adventure. How nice that so many of your neighbors were in the same boat and to have Theresa and Anthony share their recipe with you is pretty neat memory. 🙂

  3. sabine says:

    I totally agree with the underline of your post: It´s the story behind the recipe that makes it even more special, and such a warm memory is always a wonderful ingredient to a dish! thanks for telling us.

  4. bakeritalia says:

    Yum, they look great!

  5. flippenblog says:

    Real comfort food and such a nice story.

  6. Your photographs are gorgeous! Love this simple recipe. Sigh, wish I had a little white plate of your homemade tomato sauce & meatballs right now!

  7. What a great story behind a wonderful recipe. This reminds me of my mom’s sauce (not gravy in our part of Jersey). I guess because she had six kids and little time my mom would omit the browning of the meatballs and plop them right into the sauce. Thanks for the warm embrace this story gave.

  8. You know, I never had a real meatball until I was in my 20’s. Growing up, the only ones I ever had were the ones in the can of Spaghettios. Sad, right? To this day, really good meatballs are still a special treat for me. This recipe just makes me happy! 🙂

    • You made me laugh. As a kid, my brother’s and I were mad when my mother made “real” meatballs. We wanted the Spaghettio’s too! Why would you want something homemade when you could have it out of a can! At the time, it seemed like a good idea!

  9. cloverleaf says:

    What a great story, Sheryl! Can’t wait to make this! 🙂

  10. It’s a really good simple recipe, so good! I love your story, must have been nice having neighbors all in the same situation, do you stay in contact with any of them? Nothing like a big bowl of spaghetti and meatballs.

  11. Now I’m starving! Thank you… 😉
    Awesome meatballs, Sheryl!

  12. Your story resonates with me. I remember the days when I was in a big city far from home, pinching pennies and making my way. This recipe has special spices of sweet nostalgia, and it looks hearty and tasty, particularly with the blend of meats and spicy, sweet and acidic elements. Meatball poor-boys (apropos!) or an elegant appetizer both sound lovely, Sheryl.

  13. These look so delicious! I love a classic tomato sauce, and the addition of meatballs is never a bad thing 😉

  14. So may I say that is a big jump from Mc Donald’s food, isn’t it? your dish seems to be amazing!

  15. chef mimi says:

    This looka beautiful!

  16. After reading your story, I felt a great sense of warmth and comfort with the recipe. It just goes to show how much great memories and food are so intertwined. Thank you for sharing both!
    ~ Melissa

  17. These delicious meatballs have me craving the weekend, just so I can make the ultimate meat all sandwich. I loved hearing your story on how you arrived in sunny California, suitcase in two and $400 dollars. How marvelous if Tree & Ant, were to happen upon this musing/recipe too.

    To be brave and to have the drive to go it alone is one of the biggest, boldest adventures one can have! It seems forever ago that I came to Sydney to start my big adventure 🙂

  18. I can’t even imagine how nerve wracking it is just picking up and moving to a new city. I envy you for your gumption! Anyhoo, the food here looks delicious as always! I love warm and comforting meals like this.

  19. This looks beautiful!

  20. This looks delicious my elder daughter loves meatballs and your story is so sweet and touching. The photography is beautiful as usual. love it.

  21. This story reminds of all my 20’s 🙂 and these look delicious.

  22. I am forever experimenting with tomato sauce, and I’m looking forward to trying this one.

    Thanks for the tip re: meatballs. I didn’t know that you should finish cooking them in the sauce, but that makes perfect sense!

    Also, I loved your story about moving to LA into an apartment with gold shag carpet. That is quite a move for a young gal – all the way from Philadelphia!

  23. df says:

    I loved reading about your California beginnings Sheryl (and Oh My Gosh we could do with your sunshine and warmth right now!). There is honestly nothing else in the world like spaghetti and meatballs, what a reassuring and tasty looking take on this old standby!

  24. Loved your story. {And you know I love a good story!} Craving a side of pasta now…

  25. naomimgruer says:

    I’ve been wanting to make my own sauce. Thanks!

  26. yummy 🙂 Hi 🙂 I used to cook meatballs in many tastes 🙂 will post some pics later … ciao

  27. I love the simplicity of homemade sauce. I need to simmer the meatballs in it the sauce way you do. That’s such a great idea. Spaghetti is comfort food for my family and my hubby’s favorite 🙂

  28. How sweet of Ant and Tree to rescue you from endless nights of McDonalds food! This dish looks wonderful. Just reading the list of ingredients, I can tell how flavourful and delicious it is. Beautiful photos too, Mama. I love the idea of putting the meatballs into rolls for sandwiches!

  29. Carolyn Chan says:

    I’ll bet you think about Ant and Tree each time you cook this dish – what a lovely story and what a yummy recipe ! And I know it’s kind of obvious, but thanks for the tip that you don’t have to eat the meatballs with pasta !

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