The Best Sauce for Spaghetti and Meatballs

If you’re looking for the best sauce for spaghetti and meatballs, you’ve come to the right place! This marinara sauce is thick and rich, with hints of basil and garlic. Traditional Italian meatballs in tomato sauce makes for a supremely satisfying meal!

Fork stabbing giant marinara meatballs on a bed of spaghetti.

Sometimes it’s the simplest things that are the most gratifying. Sure, I love going out to eat and experimenting with exotic ingredients every now and then.

But for pure comfort and satisfaction, nothing beats a pile of spaghetti noodles, a generous ladleful of homemade marinara sauce, and three giant, fluffy Italian meatballs.

This is the kind of meal that feeds both body and soul. It triggers memories of childhood and sparks conversation. It makes you lean over your plate, take a deep whiff in, and let out a little sigh.

It’s the kind of meal you’ll want to linger over, long after you’ve mopped up the last bit of sauce with a hunk of garlic bread.

Spoon holding a meatball in marinara sauce.

Tips for the Best Italian Spaghetti and Meatballs

If you, like me, have gotten used to cracking open a jar and tearing into a frozen bag of meatballs, this recipe may seem daunting. And I’ll be honest, this isn’t a meal you want to plan for the busiest night of the week. It takes some time, but it’s 100% doable for anyone, especially with these helpful tips.

  1. Give yourself the time. It sounds silly, but this is the most important thing. Plan this meal for a day when you have an hour or two to putter about the kitchen and take your time. If you need spaghetti in a hurry, try this Ground Beef Spaghetti Sauce instead.
  2. Mise en place. This is the French concept of readying your space before cooking. Take the time to prep your ingredients (chop vegetables, open cans, mince garlic) before diving in. This recipe requires some juggling between the tomato sauce, meatballs, and pasta, but having your ingredients prepared beforehand makes it so much easier.
  • Enjoy it. Maybe it’s just the cortisol levels talking, but when I rush a meal, it simply doesn’t taste as good. Preparing this should be a feast for all your senses–slow down and enjoy the smells of fresh basil and garlic, the sizzle of onions and carrots. Put on some tunes, open a bottle of wine, taste as you go, and enjoy the process.

Key Ingredients in Marinara Sauce

Ingredients for homemade spaghetti sauce shown in bowls.
  • Carrots, Onions, and Garlic– This “holy trinity” provides the aromatic flavor base to so many delicious recipes, including many sauces, soups, and stews like Italian Sausage Stew.
  • Canned crushed tomatoes and tomato paste– Any brand of tomatoes will work, but San Marzano is an Italian tomato known for its sweet flavor.
  • Fresh parsley and basil- You can substitute dried herbs, but use half the amount.
  • Sugar- I’ve included a range of the amount of sugar, so you can customize the sweetness exactly to your liking.

Ingredients in Italian Meatballs

Ingredients for traditional Italian meatballs displayed in bowls on a wood background.
  • Ground beef– I prefer to use 80/20 or 85/20 for super juicy meatballs.
  • Italian sausage- This adds SO.MUCH.FLAVOR. You *can* substitute it for all ground beef, but why would you?
  • Milk and bread– These two components form a panade, the key to moist meatballs. I use fresh Italian or country white bread, torn into small pieces, rather than dried breadcrumbs, and I think it makes a big difference in the tenderness of the final product!
  • Ricotta– More moisture + flavor in this ingredient!
  • Parmesan– I recommend using freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano. Save some to sprinkle on your spaghetti!
  • Eggs– Eggs act as a binder, holding all of this goodness together.
  • Garlic and herbs– I prefer to use fresh herbs, but again, you can substitute half the amount of dried herbs if needed.

How to Make Tomato Sauce for Spaghetti and Meatballs:

  1. Prep your ingredients. Dice the carrots and onions. Mince the garlic. Chop the herbs, and open up all your canned goods. Start the panade for the meatballs (instructions below).
  2. Cook the veggies. Heat olive oil in a large skillet or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the carrots and onions and toss to coat with oil. Reduce heat to low, cover, and cook for 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until veggies are very soft.
  3. Add remaining ingredients. Remove the cover, add the garlic, and increase the heat to medium high. Cook the garlic until fragrant, about 1 minute, then add canned tomatoes, tomato paste, parsley, basil, red pepper flakes (if using) and one tablespoon of the sugar. Sprinkle generously with salt and pepper.
  4. Simmer. Bring the mixture to a gentle boil then reduce heat to low and allow to simmer uncovered for 30-45 minutes, stirring occasionally, while you work on the meatballs.
  5. Taste. Give the sauce a taste and add salt, pepper, or sugar as desired.

How to Make Traditional Italian Meatballs

  1. Make the panade (if you haven’t already!). Tear the bread into small pieces and pour the milk over top. Allow it to soak for several minutes. The texture should be like a very thick, wet paste. If the mixture is too loose, add a few more bread pieces.
  2. Combine the remaining ingredients. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the ricotta, Parmesan, eggs, salt, parsley, pepper, oregano, and garlic. Add the bread mixture and the meat then use your hands to gently stir it together until a cohesive mixture forms.
  3. Form the mixture into the size balls of your choice. I prefer to use a large cookie scoop that holds about 2 Tablespoons of meat mixture, but you can make yours bigger or smaller.
  4. Coat and fry. To cook the meatballs, fill a bowl with flour. Dredge each meatball in a little bit of flour then place back on the baking sheet. Heat olive oil in a skillet over medium high heat. Carefully add the flour dredged meatballs to the pot and allow to cook until browned, flipping so all sides brown, usually 2-3 minutes per side.
  5. Simmer in sauce. Add the meatballs to the tomato sauce (which should still be gently simmering) and allow them to finish cooking in the sauce, usually another 10-20 minutes depending on the size of your meatball. Meatballs are done when a meat thermometer reads at least 165 degrees fahrenheit.
  6. Serve. Serve the meatballs over fresh cooked spaghetti with plenty of sauce, and a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese and basil.

More Tips and FAQs

  • Start your pasta water to boil when you begin simmering the tomato sauce. As always, I recommend adding a few tablespoons of salt to the water and cooking just to al dente.
  • You can use a jumbo cookie scoop to easily make meatballs that are the same size.
  • The marinara sauce will get thicker as it simmers. If it becomes too thick, you can add water (about 1/4 cup at a time) to thin it to your preference. Reserved pasta water is especially great for this!
  • The sauce will be slightly loose and chunky. You can leave it this way, or, if you prefer, use an immersion blender to puree it for a smooth, silky texture.
  • This recipe makes about 35 slightly over-sized meatballs, or 20 very large meatballs.
Up close image of homemade marinara sauce with the swirl of the back of a spoon through it.

Why do you fry meatballs before putting in sauce?

Frying the meatballs gives them a flavorful crust and helps them hold together in the sauce. You don’t have to coat them in flour before frying, but I prefer the extra crust the flour gives.

Can I bake the meatballs instead of frying?

Yes! Place meatballs on foil or parchment paper, and bake at 375 for 20-25 minutes, or until the meatballs register 165 degrees.

What’s the difference between marinara sauce and tomato sauce?

We often use these terms interchangeably to describe a tomato based sauce that’s used to coat pasta, make Cottage Cheese Lasagna, or toss in casseroles like Company Casserole.

Marinara sauce is typically a quicker sauce, made in under an hour, and using only tomatoes, garlic, and herbs. When you see jarred sauces at the grocery store labeled “spaghetti sauce” or “pasta sauce,” you’re most likely looking at marinara sauce.

Tomato sauce, on the other hand, often has vegetables like carrots and celery, usually uses some kind of pork to season the sauce, and simmers for several hours to deepen the flavor.

This sauce is closer to a traditional marinara, and can be used for everything from pizza to dipping Wonton Mozzarella Sticks to making Cheesy Baked Spaghetti Casserole.

Can I make spaghetti and meatballs gluten free?

This tomato sauce recipe is naturally gluten free, but the meatballs are not. To make this meal gluten free friendly, substitute my Gluten Free Meatballs without Breadcrumbs, and use gluten free pasta.

Traditional italian meatballs in tomato sauce in a large white skillet.

How to Freeze Italian Meatballs in Tomato Sauce

This dish is great for freezing! You can freeze the sauce and meatballs separately or together.

To freeze together, simply place everything in a freezer bag or freezer safe container, and freeze for up to 4 months. Thaw in the fridge overnight before reheating.

To freeze separately, bag or jar the sauce and freeze. Cook the meatballs completely (I recommend doing this in the oven or air fryer rather than the stove top), then place on a baking sheet and flash freeze for 1 hour. Transfer to a freezer bag and freeze.

Learn all about Storing and Freezing Meatballs here.

Tomato sauce and homemade meatballs on a bed of spaghetti.

What to Serve with Spaghetti and Meatballs

For an authentic Italian feast, pair spaghetti and meatballs with a Creamy Caesar Salad and Homemade Garlic Bread. Don’t forget the best Air Fryer Croutons!

These Homemade Breadsticks and Garlic Cheddar Swirled Brioche Rolls are also great pairings.

You might also like this Easy Garden Salad with Homemade Italian Dressing or a side of Italian Broccoli.

While not traditional, these Tiramisu Brownies are the perfect way to finish off the meal.

Don’t forget to save the leftovers to make these incredible Meatball Subs or a Meatball Sub Grilled Cheese.

Three large Italian meatballs in homemade tomato sauce on top of spaghetti noodles.

Spaghetti and Meatballs Sauce

Yield: 8+
Prep Time: 45 minutes
Cook Time: 45 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour 30 minutes

Traditional Italian meatballs are served in a homemade marinara sauce for a super satisfying meal that'll make your house smell like an Italian restaurant! The very best recipe for spaghetti and meatballs.

Ingredients

For the Sauce:

  • 3 Tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 large yellow onion, diced
  • 3 medium carrots, peeled and diced
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 28 oz. cans crushed or whole tomatoes, including the juice
  • 4 Tablespoons chopped fresh basil
  • 4 Tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
  • 2 teaspoons tomato paste
  • 1-3 Tablespoons sugar, to your taste
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

For the meatballs:

  • 1 cup milk
  • 4-5 slices fresh bread, such as Italian or country white, crusts removed
  • 2 lbs. ground beef
  • 1 lb. bulk Italian sausage
  • 1/3 cup ricotta cheese
  • 1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 3 eggs
  • 3 teaspoons Kosher salt
  • 1 1/2 Tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
  • 3 teaspoons black pepper
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • About 1 cup flour
  • 1/4 cup olive, grape, or vegetable oil, for frying

For the pasta:

  • 1 pound spaghetti noodles

Instructions

For the tomato sauce:

  1. Prep your ingredients. Dice the carrots and onions. Mince the garlic. Chop the herbs, and open up all your canned goods. Start the panade for the meatballs (instructions below).
  2. Cook the veggies. Heat olive oil in a large skillet or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the carrots and onions and toss to coat with oil. Reduce heat to low, cover, and cook for 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until veggies are very soft.
  3. Add remaining ingredients. Remove the cover, add the garlic, and increase the heat to medium high. Cook the garlic until fragrant, about 1 minute, then add canned tomatoes, tomato paste, parsley, basil, red pepper flakes (if using) and one tablespoon of the sugar. Sprinkle generously with salt and pepper.
  4. Simmer. Bring the mixture to a gentle boil then reduce heat to low and allow to simmer uncovered for 30-45 minutes, stirring occasionally, while you work on the meatballs.
  5. Taste and puree. Give the sauce a taste and add salt, pepper, or sugar as desired.The sauce will be slightly loose and chunky. You can leave it this way, or, if you prefer, use an immersion blender to puree it for a smooth, silky texture. If the mixture becomes too thick, stir in water, ¼ cup at a time, until desired consistency is reached.

For the pasta and meatballs:

  1. Make the panade (if you haven’t already!). Tear the bread into small pieces and pour the milk over top. Allow it to soak for several minutes. The texture should be like a very thick, wet paste. If the mixture is too loose, add a few more bread pieces.
  2. Combine the remaining ingredients. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the ricotta, Parmesan, eggs, salt, parsley, pepper, oregano, and garlic. Add the bread mixture and the meat then use your hands to gently stir it together until a cohesive mixture forms.
  3. Form the mixture into the size balls of your choice. I prefer to use a large cookie scoop that holds about 2 Tablespoons of meat mixture, but you can make yours bigger or smaller.
  4. Coat and fry. To cook the meatballs, fill a bowl with flour. Dredge each meatball in a little bit of flour then place back on the baking sheet. Heat olive oil in a skillet over medium high heat. Carefully add the flour dredged meatballs to the pot and allow to cook until browned, flipping so all sides brown, usually 2-3 minutes per side.
  5. Simmer in sauce. Add the meatballs to the tomato sauce (which should still be gently simmering) and allow them to finish cooking in the sauce, usually another 10-20 minutes depending on the size of your meatball. Meatballs are done when a meat thermometer reads at least 165 degrees fahrenheit.
  6. Serve. Serve the meatballs over fresh cooked spaghetti with plenty of sauce, and a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese and basil.

Notes

For freezing and make ahead instructions, please visit the post above.

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Nutrition Information:
Yield: 10 Serving Size: 1
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 762Total Fat: 39gSaturated Fat: 13gTrans Fat: 1gUnsaturated Fat: 25gCholesterol: 170mgSodium: 1035mgCarbohydrates: 56gFiber: 5gSugar: 16gProtein: 45g

Please note nutritional information for my recipes is calculated by a third party service and provided as a courtesy to my readers. For the most accurate calculation, I always recommend running the numbers yourself with the specific products you use.

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58 Comments

  1. Made a similar version today. Here are my notes.
    Notes:

    Stovetop version:

    Used bout 10 lbs of garden tomatoes, semi-cored, parboiled 30 sec., ice bathed, and peeled (smaller round ones and Roma types), pureed in food processor without cutting
    Next time: cut up some of the tomatoes at the equator and let some water drip out; may lose some seeds, too
    3 T olive oil (approx.)
    Did not use carrots
    No parsley
    Used frozen basil from last year’s garden
    2 T tomato paste
    No sugar!
    1 Tbsp salt, nearly 1 tbsp black pepper

    Meatballs:
    Same recipe, used 2.25 lbs beef, 1.5 lbs pork (NOT sausage)
    1 c milk
    4 slices bread
    Used 1/2 c ricotta
    1/2 c parmesan
    4 eggs
    1 Tbsp salt
    almost 1 Tbsp pepper
    Parsley
    1 1/2 tsp Winn-Dixie Italian Blend seasonings
    3 cloves garlc
    Did not flour and fry
    Baked in foil-lined 9x13s (metal and glass) for about 40 minutes — next time, turn once, maybe cook on a rack

    Made a similar version in slow cooker, with 6-8 lbs tomatoes
    Added several bay leaves
    Sauteed veggies in olive oil in nonstick skillet before adding to crockpot
    Used the rest of a 6-oz can tomato paste
    NO sugar

    Tastes good so far!

    Janet

  2. Well first time i have actually cooked an italian sauce from scratch. Made the dish for my wife and 2yr old daughter, a little wine and some Sinatra capped off a great night. Great recipe and glad i had the time to put it together. Thanks for sharing and look forward to trying other recipes…

  3. What a beautifully written post! You made me want to call my family and invite them over for dinner! The recipe sounds delicious. I’m an old fashioned Italian with my own meatball and sauce recipes, but I’m always tempted to try new ones! This might be one that I try! Thank you so much for sharing! New fan here! I found you on the Food Foto Gallery! =D

    1. Thanks Lori! I have a Nikon, so it’s a Nikkor 50 mm lens. Here’s the link: http://www.amazon.com/Nikon-50mm-NIKKOR-Digital-Cameras/dp/B004Y1AYAC/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1382110261&sr=8-2&keywords=nikkor+50+mm+lens It took me a long time to invest in a lens, but now I wish I would have done it AGES ago. My photography improved by leaps and bounds when I switched, and now I hardly ever use my kit lens. I always shoot in natural light, usually with a reflector board. The lens allows me to lower the f-stop enough that I can get quality photos even in low light, as long as I use a tripod.

      1. Thanks for the info, Courtney! I actually also use a Nikon and that same exact lens! It gives me hope that I can eventually produce images like this. I will confess that sometimes I’m too lazy to set up a tripod, and some of my photos suffer for it. I’m thinking I need to start experimenting with black backgrounds. It’s so stunning!

        1. Thanks Lori. My photography is definitely still a work in progress, but it’s fun to see things improving little by little. This was one of my favorite things to shoot. I do like using black backgrounds a lot, and I really can’t say enough about the tripod. I just leave mine set up all the time now and rarely shoot without it. Although it is sometimes a pain to have in the kitchen!

  4. I love anything with red sauce! Homemade? Even better! I love making spaghetti and meatballs when having guests over bc it’s simple to prepare and yet extremely satisfying. I don’t like it when they ask for seconds though bc that means less leftovers for me haha. But don’t worry…I serve it to them with a smile ;). I can just smell the sauce simmering in the kitchen! There are so many wonderful recipes here, and I’m so glad we connected!

  5. WOW! I am not even a fan of red sauce, but I would dive into that head first! Gorgeous photos of a dish that always gets family around the dinner table.

  6. Oh my, this looks delicious! I would love a big bowl of that spaghetti and those meatballs right now. And your sauce sounds incredible, too!

  7. I felt like I was with you in the kitchen and at the table while reading your post. I also LOVE the top picture!!

  8. Those meatballs are calling my name! I also do meatball subs the day after we have spaghetti and meatballs.

  9. Just gorgeous photos! I love cooking up a big of of meatballs in sauce mostly because I like to sneak in the kitchen through the day to eat the sauce straight. You gotta test how it tastes, right? I used to do that as a kid too, it always made my day when I came home from school to see the big pot of sauce bubbling away on the stove.

  10. Mmmm, between your photos and description, I can almost smell the meatballs and sauce cooking in my home right now. I wish it were!

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