Polpette (Traditional Italian Meatballs)

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Famous Traditional Italian Meatballs in tomato sauce (polpette al sugo pomodoro) are my nonna’s famous recipe. Made with simple ingredients and stewed in a delicious tomato sauce.

Try these recipes: Creamy Polenta with Polpette al Sugo (meatballs in tomato sauce) and Best Authentic Lasagna Bolognese with Bechamel Sauce.

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Recipe Ingredients

You only need a few pantry staples and fresh ingredients for these authentic Italian meatballs.

ingredient shot for the meatballs

Polpette (meatballs)

  • Ground beef
  • Stale bread
  • Milk
  • Parmigiano Reggiano
  • Egg
  • Parsley
  • Bread crumbs
  • Salt and black pepper to taste

Sugo al Pomodoro (homemade tomato sauce)

  • 1 large (28 oz/ 794 grams) can of good quality crushed tomatoes
  • 1/2 an onion, diced (make sure to finely chop the onions so there are no large chunks!)
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 5 fresh basil leaves
  • Optional: add a whole garlic clove into the sauce while simmering

How To Make Polpette

Soak the bread in the milk in a small bowl, and set aside. In a medium bowl, combine the bread with the remaining ingredients and gently mix.

Gently form into small balls. I like to use a spoon or fork to scoop and then roll in the meat mixture in the palm of my hand- just like nonna Laura taught me!

mixture of Italian meatballs ready to cook

Make your tomato sauce and let the meatballs gently simmer in the sauce until perfectly tender.

The meatballs are cooked in the sauce and remain perfectly tender and soft this way. Every family in Italy makes their meatballs slightly differently.

This is our way, and I can tell you they are melt-in-your-mouth tender!

meatballs cooking in tomato sauce

Why I Love this Traditional Italian Meatball Recipe…

These succulent Italian meatballs are a comforting dish that brings everyone to the table! These nutritious homemade meatballs are the perfect meal to make on a Sunday afternoon and freeze for weeks!

Let your children take part in the recipe by having them roll the meatballs in their tiny hands.

traditional Italian meatballs in a pan

Tip for Soft and Tender Meatballs

Soak the bread for soft meatballs. Bread soaked in milk will puff up when cooked, creating little air pockets that soften these meatballs. Our family prefers it to use breadcrumbs that tend to make meatballs tough or dry (panko breadcrumbs are an okay variation).

What is the beat meat to use?

This recipe (and also the way my nonna made them) is with one pound of 80-85% lean ground beef. Add half-ground beef, half-ground pork, or even Italian sausage with the casing removed if you like. Try this recipe that uses Italian sausage- Italian Sausage Meatballs Recipe (In Sauce).

Can you cook raw meatballs in tomato sauce?

YES! This recipe does exactly that. It saves you time in baking them first and dirtying more pans. The raw meatballs will cook in tomato sauce and come out tender and scrumptious. The juices will flavor the tomato sauce, and the tomato sauce will flavor the meatballs. This is the traditional way we do it in Italy!  

Can You Make This Recipe Gluten Free?

You can make a gluten-free version by adding a slice of gluten-free bread of your choice. Instead of the breadcrumbs, you can use a gluten-free variety! 

Can these meatballs be fried or baked?

Yes, you can cook the meatballs any way you like. I highly suggest cooking them in the sauce because the flavor is outstanding!

Can I omit milk in this recipe?

Yes, you can skip the milk. But, you still need some sort of liquid to help bind the meatballs together. Water is an easy substitute.

What To Serve With This Recipe

These soft and tender Italian meatballs are delicious served with hot al dente pasta or any of the following:  

 Easy Polenta Recipe Authentic Italian Style

Authentic Homemade Pappardelle Pasta Recipe

BEST Pillowy Soft Potato Gnocchi

Fast Italian No Knead Ciabatta Bread

If you want to add some greens to the table, try these recipes: Sautéed Zucchini and Onion (Italian Recipe), Simple Petite Peas (Side Dish), or Arugula, Apple, and Pistachio Salad in Parmigiano Cups.

Storage & Reheating Instructions

The cooked meatballs can be stored in an airtight container in the fridge for up to three to four days.

They can also be frozen and cooked in a freezer-safe container for up to three months.

If you prefer, you can even freeze them uncooked. Place the meatballs in the freezer until firm, then transfer them to a freezer-safe container or bag. They will keep for three to four months.

Traditional Italian Meatball Recipe 

This is another tried and true simple, flavorful, and mouthwatering recipe from my Nonna. I’ve sat at many kitchen tables and rolled these meatballs with her countless times.

The smell of onion frying in olive oil, fresh tomatoes, basil, beef, and parsley brings me back to all those tables and conversations. 

My favorite part about all my Nonna’s recipes is the simplicity and authenticity of the fresh ingredients. It’s about highlighting the natural flavors of the food, and this recipe exemplifies just that. Read more about my nonna and her meatballs.

Made with Amore, Elena. 

More Delicious Recipes for you! 

Spinach and Ricotta Lasagna with Tomato Sauce

Italian Sheet Pan Sausage, Potatoes, and Tomatoes

Pesto Smashed Potatoes and Roasted Tomatoes (video)

Orzo Pasta with Shrimp, Sun-dried Tomatoes, and Artichokes

Best traditional Italian Meatballs in tomato sauce

From my cucina to your table- enjoy our traditional meatball (polpette) recipe for years to come! It will be the most popular dish from Italian cuisine in your household!

Make sure to leave a ⭐️star rating on the recipe card and comment below if you make the recipe. I love to connect with you through my recipes.

I would love for you to tag me on Instagram @cucinabyelena so I can see your delicious Italian recipes. To get more ideas, follow me on Pinterest.

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best authentic Italian meatballs

Polpette Recipe

5 Stars 4 Stars 3 Stars 2 Stars 1 Star

5 from 24 reviews

These nutritious homemade meatballs are the perfect meal to make on a Sunday afternoon and freeze for weeks to come! This is another tried and true simple, flavorful and mouthwatering recipe from my Nonna.

  • Total Time: 55 minutes
  • Yield: 4-6 1x


Units Scale

Polpette (meatballs)

  • 1 pound of 80-85% lean ground beef
  • 2 slices of stale bread
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1/2 cup parmigiano reggiano, finely grated
  • 1 egg
  • 3 tablespoons fresh minced parsley
  • Optional: 1 tablespoon fresh minced garlic
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Breadcrumbs (for rolling the meatballs by hand)
  • Extra parmigiano for serving

Sugo (sauce)

  • 1 large can (28 oz) good quality crushed tomatoes
  • 1/2 an onion, diced
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 5 fresh basil leaves, whole


Make Sugo: 

Make Polpette: 

Cook your favorite pasta or gnocchi, as directed by the package, to serve with meatballs. You can also eat without the pasta and serve it on yummy bread. Try with Easy Polenta Recipe. Generously top with parmigiano and serve hot!


Make Meatballs Ahead of Time

I always make a double batch of the meatballs and freeze them for a busy weeknight.

To freeze meatballs: Place them on a baking sheet in one layer so they aren’t touching, and place them in the freezer. Once frozen, transfer to a freezer-safe container with a tight lid. Freeze for up to 2 months. Add frozen meatballs to the broth when ready to use and simmer until warm. You can also add them to homemade tomato sauce.

  • Author: Elena
  • Prep Time: 15 minutes
  • Cook Time: 40 minutes
  • Category: Savory
  • Cuisine: Italian

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About Elena

My dream is to share delicious wholesome recipes that you will share around the table with all your loved ones. The memories surrounded by food are the heart and soul of CucinaByElena.

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  1. all your recipes are so helpful.
    I can cook, but always happy to expand my knowledge and I love your Italian vibe all over, the respect for ingredient’s natural flavors. The way you tell the story of your recipes and how you take me to your family for that moment
    ty for all of them , I am sharing them once more with my almost adult children

  2. I made a double batch of these for my daughter & her family while she was away & I babysitting. I left them in the fridge for them. A couple days later she raved about them! Said everybody loved them & asked if I had tweaked my usual recipe somehow. These were easy, tender & delicious, as was the sauce. I’ll definitely make them again.

    1. That is so nice of you to do that and I am sure she appreciated it so much! I am happy everyone loved the recipe!

  3. These were incredible! I’ve been on a kick of trying different meatball recipes and there were by far the best and probably the easiest of the ones I’ve made. My whole family said it was the best meatballs they’ve had!

  4. These are the most amazing meatballs. Easy, delicious and are little balls of heaven in a bite. I have even made these with turkey and they are just incredible. Made these in a mini version to add to my chicken soup. OMG! I come from a family of wonderful Italian cooks so I am a hard sell. These are top notch! Thanks for sharing, Elena.

  5. What’s a good substitute to use if I don’t have any stale bread? I only have sandwich bread (but it’s not stale).

      1. I made them before I saw your reply – I used 1/2 cup panko breadcrumbs instead and they were so good! I’ll have to try bread next time.