I’ve always wanted to learn how to make my grandma’s classic Italian Sunday sauce with homemade meatballs, and I finally nailed it (with a few small adjustments to make it all my own). Simmered low and long, this classic red sauce is deeply flavorful. It’s a class family recipe that will become an instant classic in your kitchen.
Sunday sauce, as The Kid would say, is the bomb-dot-com and is an essential recipe staple in Italian cooking. I was raised in NJ, and I’ve got a huge family – three brothers, a bevy of aunts and uncles, and a pack of cousins. Both sets of my grandparents lived within three blocks of one other. Until very recently, the majority of us lived within a 5-mile radius of those homes. We naturally spent a lot of time together, and I carry incredibly fond memories of family dinners. Heritage-wise we are mutts – Polish and Italian on my dad’s side, Native American and Irish on my mom’s. But we all share a deep love of both Italian and southern food, and nearly every family meal we shared was one or the other.
Family dinner with Dad’s side was formulaic. The Dinner Hour was strictly observed and commenced at 5:30 pm on the dot. A dozen or more of us would gather ’round the dinner table where we’d stuff our faces and
talk yell over one other for well over an hour. Salad, fresh from the garden, was consumed after the main course, and we almost always finished with Cool Whip dolloped Jello.
My Polish grandmother fully embraced the Italian family she married into and mastered Nonna and Big Non’s family recipes. Her specialties included chicken cacciatore and fresh pasta, and to this day her potato gnocchi is the best I’ve ever had. Her red sauce, though, is legendary. It’s robust in flavor and thick in texture, seasoned with fresh-dried garden herbs and home-canned tomatoes. It’s cooked long and slow until it’s wine red in color and the consistency of mud. Eating that sauce was a balm to a shitty day and a boon to a terrific one. The smell and taste are seared into my memory so completely that just a waft can transport me back decades.
We begged her to teach us the recipe for years, and while she meted out tips from time to time, she didn’t share her formula until well past my adolescence. And even then I’m sure she held back just a little because our versions have never quite tasted the same. In time I came to appreciate that heirloom recipes are meant to change, and get better and better from one generation to the next. I’ve based my Sunday sauce loosely on Grandma’s recipe and tweaked it over the years to make it undoubtedly mine.
Sunday Sauce Recipe Notes
Practically speaking, you either need to get up at like 6 am to get this stuff going (so not happening in my world) or do the leg work on Saturday (much more my style). Keep in mind that Sunday sauce is not marinara, and it’s not for weeknight cooking – you need to cook the shit out of it, whereas marinara only needs a quick simmer to do it justice. I cook my sauce for a minimum of four hours, and up to 8. You’ll know it’s ready when the tomatoes are completely falling apart and the color is burgundy. I’ve found that freshly canned tomatoes take closer to 4-5 hours, whereas commercially purchased canned tomatoes can take 7 or more.
The recipe below calls for a cinnamon stick. THIS IS NOT A TYPO. Grandma swore by the addition of cinnamon, and I have to agree. When paired with red pepper flakes, the result is a subtle balance of sweet and spice that perfectly counterbalances the acidic tomatoes.
Like so many of my favorite recipes, you’re going to need a heavy bottomed pot that retains heat well. I use my trusty dutch oven. You may also want to use a heat diffuser to prevent scorching if your gas stove is temperamental. It’s not a necessity, but it makes a difference considering the extensive cooking time.
Seasonally, there’s a time and place for both and it’s my opinion that Sunday sauce is a winter food, whereas marinara is reserved for the summer months. I prefer canned tomatoes for the former and fresh for the latter, and who would dare use canned tomatoes in summer. Not you? Cool. We can still be friends.
Sunday Sauce with Homemade Meatballs
Sunday Sauce with Bucatini, Ricotta, and Parmesan
- 4 tbsp butter
- 2 large sweet onions diced to 1/2"
- 6 large garlic cloves minced
- 1 cup dry red wine
- 3 28- oz. cans whole peeled organic tomatoes hand crushed
- 3 tbsp organic tomato paste
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- 1 tsp fresh cracked pepper
- 1 tsp dried basil
- 1/2 tsp dried parsley
- pinch dried oregano
- pinch dried thyme
- pinch dried red pepper flakes
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 1 tbsp fresh parsley minced
- 1 tbsp fresh basil minced, plus more for serving
- 8 c water
- 2 tbsp or more kosher salt
- 1 lb pasta I prefer bucatini or spaghetti
- 1/2 c ricotta cheese
- 1/2 c aged parmesan cheese grated
- 1 lb ground grass fed beef
- 1 lb ground pastured pork
- 2 pastured eggs
- 4 garlic cloves minced
- 1 tbsp fresh parsley minced
- 1 tbsp fresh basil minced
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- 1 tsp fresh cracked pepper
- 1 cup fresh breadcrumbs
- 1/3 cup organic all-purpose flour
- 4 tbsp olive oil divided
For the Sunday Sauce.
- Heat a dutch oven over medium; add the butter and cook until it foams. Add the onions and a pinch of salt, reduce heat to medium and cook, uncovered, stirring occasionally until the onions are brown and caramelized, about 45 minutes.
- Increase heat to medium-high; move the onions in the center of the pot aside, add the garlic and cook until soft and fragrant, 2-4 minutes.
- Add the red wine and deglaze, stirring up the browned bits from the bottom of the pot. Cook until the wine stops bubbling, 5 minutes.
- Add the hand-crushed tomatoes, tomato paste, salt, pepper, dried herbs, red pepper and cinnamon stick. Mix well to incorporate. If you are using a heat diffuser, place it under the pot now. Keeping the heat at medium-high, bring the sauce to a boil, then reduce to the lowest heat setting and simmer at least four hours (up to 8) until the sauce is deep burgundy and the tomatoes are falling apart. The sauce will have a muddy consistency. Stir frequently, at least every 30 minutes, and gently crush the tomatoes with a wooden spoon as you stir.
- If you are not preparing the meatballs, add the fresh herbs, stir, and cook 10 minutes more.
For the Meatballs
- In a large bowl, combine the beef, pork, eggs, garlic cloves, basil, parsley, salt, and pepper. Mix thoroughly with your hands until all ingredients are very well incorporated and the meat no longer looks marbled.
- Fold in the breadcrumbs a quarter cup at a time. You may need slightly more or less depending on the wetness of the mixture and your preferred consistency. I add enough breadcrumbs so that the mixture is moist, but not wet, and holds a ball-shape well.
- Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add two tbsp olive oil and heat until shimmering.
- Pinch off a heaping tablespoon and roll into a ball with your hands; then roll the meatball in the flour and gently shake off any extra flour. This recipe makes about 3 dozen meatballs.
- Brown the meatballs in the hot oil, 8-10 at a time. Shake the pan to ensure they retain their shape and that all sides are evenly browned. Add the browned batch of meatballs to the sauce and repeat until all meatballs are browned, adding more oil, a tablespoon at a time, as needed.
- Simmer the meatballs in the sauce until cooked through, about 40 minutes.
- Once the meatballs are cooked through, add the fresh herbs to the sauce and heat 5 minutes more.
- While the meatballs are simmering, bring 8 cups of water to a boil in a large stock pot. Once boiling, add at least 2 tbsp kosher salt. Cook the pasta to package instructions.
- Drain the pasta, return to the pot, and add 1-2 cups of sauce. The noodles will be thinly coated. Serve with additional sauce, meatballs, fresh ricotta, grated parmesan cheese, and thinly sliced basil.
The calorie count for Sunday Sauce with pasta, ricotta, and parmesan is 411 calories.
The calorie count for Homemade Meatballs is 359 calories.