Classic Italian Meatballs

Celebrate National Meatball Day this March 9th with easy, oven-baked Classic Italian Meatballs. Seasoned to perfection and ready to serve in just 30 minutes, homemade meatballs are always a crowd pleaser. Baked just right, they’re melt-in-your-mouth incredibly tender and juicy. There is nothing complicated here, just simple old-school meatballs. Rolled Grandma-style, so they are larger size than usual, pair them with spaghetti for a meal that will bring everyone to the table. 

The hands down, all star, best meatballs I ever ate were made by Mrs. Deniro senior, the matriarch of our next door neighbor’s family. They were absolute perfection. Light as a feather, perfectly seasoned and amptly sized, they were everything a meatball should be. I ate one, and then another. I ate two more, and when I finally got the chance I sidled up to her and asked her what her secret was. She leaned over and said a single word, “cheese.” I pressed her further and she disclosed a bit more. “Use more cheese than you think, and less breadcrumbs.” I have been trying to replicate those meatballs for years and these are the closest I’ve come. 

A few tips to get you rolling. First, use fresh (not previously frozen) ground beef. It will give you the best results. You can add in a half ratio of pork, sausage, or veal if you like, or just use ground beef as is in the recipe. If you want those meatballs tender and juicy, use beef that is 80-85% lean. For authentic, restaurant-style meatballs, you need fat. A lot of it will cook off and you can transfer your meatballs to paper towels to drain them when they’re done. 

If you are using panko, or don’t have Italian breadcrumbs, you can make your own. Season one cup of plain breadcrumbs with 1/2 teaspoon of each: salt, dried parsley flakes, ground black pepper, and garlic powder, then add 1/4 teaspoon of each: onion powder, dried oregano, dried basil. Make these gluten-free by using gluten-free breadcrumbs or panko, or you can use 1/2 cup of almond flour. Reduce the milk to 1/2 cup for any of the gluten-free options, and feel free to use an alternative milk if needed. 

Don’t overmix. Too much handling equals tough meatballs. Break the ground beef up into small chunks as you add it to the mixing bowl. You can then use your hands to quickly combine all of the ingredients. Use a large cookie scoop to quickly portion and get the basic shape, again, with a lot less handling. Don’t compress more than necessary when you roll, as pressing too tight will lead to dense meatballs. Finally, don’t overcook. Remove from oven as soon as they register 165º F in the middle with an instant-read thermometer. 

My very best meatball tip: before you roll the whole bowl, portion out a single meatball and cook it fully in the microwave. Give it a try and see if anything needs adjusting. If it’s as delicious as it should be, get rolling! Tuck some of those meatballs into the freezer for a quick meal anytime you don’t feel like cooking. Let meatballs cool completely, then arrange in a single layer on a baking sheet. Freeze until solid, then transfer to a freezer container or bag. Use for spaghetti, sandwiches, or pizza topping. Serve them up in a skillet with some pasta sauce, topped with some melted provolone or mozzarella, and a sprinkling of Parmesan. Add some crusty bread for dunking, and a green salad and you’re done. 

For vegan meatballs and more meatball recipes, go to 

Classic Italian Meatballs

  • 1/2 cup Italian breadcrumbs or panko 
  • 2/3 cup milk
  • 1/4 medium onion finely diced or grated, or 1 teaspoon onion powder
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced, or 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 large egg, beaten
  • 1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1 Tablespoon fresh parsley, or 2 teaspoons dried parsley
  • 1 pound ground beef (at least 15% fat), or other ground meat

Preheat oven to 400º F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Combine Italian bread crumbs and milk in a large mixing bowl. Stir together, then set aside while preparing other ingredients, allowing to sit at least 10 minutes.

Add onion, garlic, egg, salt, black pepper, Parmesan cheese and parsley to the breadcrumb mixture and stir together. Add ground beef and mix with clean hands. Do not overmix. Portion onto prepared baking sheet using a cookie or ice cream scoop. Using wet hands, roll meatballs into 2-inch diameter balls, pressing just enough to gently mold them into shape. 

Bake 18-20 minutes, or until meatballs reach an internal temperature of 165º F. Transfer meatballs to a paper towel-lined plate to drain.  

Air fryer:  Place meatballs in a single layer in air fryer basket. Cook for 10-12 minutes at 400º F or until they reach an internal temperature of 165º F. 

Simmer: Bring marinara or other pasta sauce to a simmer and add as many meatballs as will fit comfortably in the pan. Cover and simmer 30 to 35 minutes, or until they reach an internal temperature of 165º F.  

Donna Ferguson

Donna Ferguson

I love to cook, garden, and write about all the things in Vancouver and the Northwest that make life so great.

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