Polpette al Sugo is a classic Italian recipe, soft juicy meatballs in a delicious tomato sauce. Often made on Sunday morning for Sunday lunch with the family and then eating the leftovers (which are even more flavorful) on days after, maybe with pasta (spaghetti and meatballs, anyone?). They usually cook for a long time, but with this recipe, you can have delicious Polpette al Sugo in less than 15 minutes with the help of the Instant Pot or pressure cooker.
When you think about Italian meatballs, Spaghetti and Meatballs are the first things that come to mind. But the funny thing is: this is not the way Italians usually eat meatballs. There is a recipe for pasta with tiny meatballs from the south of Italy, but it's not very common.
What is more common, is to eat the leftover Polpette (or sometimes even only the sauce) with pasta the day after, because there is not enough left to eat as the main course, so it's added to the pasta to make a full meal.
Most Italian recipes come from specific regions and their origin and the traditional recipe is well known (Carbonara, for example, comes from Rome and there's only 1 way to make it correctly). But for Polpette al Sugo, its origin is unknown and they are popular all throughout Italy, from north to south so we don't know where the original recipe comes from and each family makes them their own way.
Ingredients and Substitutions
There are some ingredients in this recipe that are essential to make the recipe successful. Below you can find a breakdown of the most important ingredients:
- Minced Meat. It's important to use half-half with pork and beef to get the best fat ratio. Only pork would be too fat and only beef would be too lean and dry. Using half-half will get you the best juicy meatballs possible.
- Parmigiano Cheese. There isn't a true Italian meatball recipe without Parmigiano cheese. You can increase or decrease the amount to your liking but freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano cheese is essential to make perfect Italian meatballs.
- Breadcrumbs+Milk+Egg. This trio is what makes the meatballs juicy and keeps them in shape. Don't skip them. The only change you can make is using homemade breadcrumbs made with stale bread in a food processor.
- Tomato sauce. I use canned tomato sauce (passata di pomodoro) which is simply canned blended tomatoes with salt and nothing else. For this recipe, in particular, I find that this canned tomato sauce with basil gives the best result. But you can also use the plain tomato sauce and add fresh basil to it.
- Basil. Nothing gives tomato sauce a fantastic flavor like basil. Nothing. So trim your basil plant or buy fresh basil before you make this recipe. Don't skip it! And please, don't use dry basil, it's not the same.
How to make 15-minute Polpette al Sugo
The only way to achieve in 15 minutes the same result as a 1-hour long slow cooking is with a pressure cooker. The pressure cooker, or Instant Pot, will cook much faster, packing all the flavor in the sauce and giving the best result with super soft and juicy meatballs and a delicious tomato sauce.
Start by making the meatballs. In a large bowl, mix the ground meat with grated Parmigiano, bread crumbs, egg, milk, garlic powder, and salt.
Mix well with your hands or with a potato masher until all the ingredients are well combined. With an ice cream scooper or your hands, make 10-11 meatballs, the size of a golf ball.
In the pressure cooker, drizzle a bit of olive oil and add the minced garlic and finely chopped onion.
Sautè for a few minutes, then add the red wine and let the alcohol evaporate for a couple of minutes. Add the water, then gently layer the meatballs.
Cover everything with the tomato sauce and finally season with salt and chili pepper flakes. Add a few basil leaves on top and close the pressure cooker with the lid.
Cook at high pressure for 12 minutes, then do the quick pressure release and open the lid. Mix gently with a wooden spoon and adjust the seasoning with sugar and salt. Let it cook another minute or so, then serve.
To brown or not to brown?
There are 2 ways of making Polpette: Browning the meatballs in olive oil and THEN adding the tomato sauce. Or add the raw meatballs directly into the tomato sauce. I tried both ways, and I didn't find a huge difference in flavor.
When I make meatballs on the stove, my automatic instinct is to first brown the meatballs. It feels like the right thing to do. But when I make them in the pressure cooker following this recipe, I never brown them and they turn out incredibly flavorful as well.
So do as you prefer, there is no right or wrong way!
How to make Polpette al Sugo on the stove
If you don't have an Instant Pot or a pressure cooker, or simply don't want to use it, you can make this recipe on the stove. You also need only 1 pot and the final result will be just as delicious! The only difference is that it takes about 30-40 minutes to cook.
First, make the meatballs following the same directions and ingredients in the recipe card below. Then drizzle some olive oil in a large pot and brown the meatballs, moving them often to brown evenly (you can also skip the browning step and make the tomato sauce first and then add the raw meatballs directly in the sauce).
When the meatballs are browned, gently remove them from the pot and add the chopped onion and halved garlic clove. Sautè for a couple of minutes, then pour the red wine and let the alcohol evaporate for a couple of minutes.
Add the meatballs back to the pot, then cover them with the tomato sauce, and add the water, salt, sugar, chili flakes, and basil leaves. Turn down the heat and simmer for at least 30 minutes, up to 1 hour.
FAQ & Tips
There is no perfect size, but I usually like to make them the size of a golf ball, more or less. Many use an ice cream scooper to make meatballs and that's a great way to make them all the same size.
Yes, you can either freeze the raw meatballs or the cooked leftovers. If you freeze them raw, lay them on a tray lined with parchment paper, making sure they don't touch each other. After 1 hour, you can move them all together in a freezer bag.
They're great on their own as a main course. As a side dish, I would recommend mashed potatoes or garlic green beans. Use crusty Italian bread to scoop the sauce from the plate.
You can find step-by-step photos, and tips in the post above.
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Polpette al Sugo, 15-minute Meatballs in Tomato Sauce
For the Meatballs
- 1 lb Ground Meat, pork and beef
- ¾ cup Parmigiano cheese, grated
- ½ cup Breadcrumbs
- 1 Egg
- 1 tablespoon Milk
- ½ teaspoon Garlic powder
- ½ teaspoon Salt
For the Sauce
- ½ Onion
- 1 Garlic clove
- ¼ cup Red Wine
- ¼ cup Water
- 1 can Tomato Sauce with Basil, 14 oz
- A pinch Sugar
- Chili Flakes
- Basil leaves, fresh
- EV Olive Oil
Make the Meatballs
- In a large bowl, mix the ground meat with grated Parmigiano, bread crumbs, egg, milk, garlic powder, and salt. Mix well with your hands or with a potato masher until all the ingredients are well combined.
- With an ice cream scooper or your hands, make 10-11 meatballs, the size of a golf ball. Press well the meat between your palms to remove as much air as possible and then roll them to form the meatball shape. Set them aside on a covered plate in the fridge to rest.
Complete the dish
- In the pressure cooker, drizzle a bit of olive oil and add the minced garlic and finely chopped onion. Sautè for a few minutes, then add the red wine and let the alcohol evaporate for a couple of minutes.
- Add the water, then gently add the meatballs (you can also layer them on top of each other). Cover everything with the tomato sauce and finally season with salt, and chili pepper flakes. Add a few basil leaves on top and close the pressure cooker with the lid.
- Cook at high pressure for 12 minutes, then do the quick pressure release and open the lid.
- Mix gently with a wooden spoon and adjust the seasoning with sugar and salt. Let it cook another minute or so.
- Serve with grated Parmigiano cheese, fresh basil leaves and a crusty bread to scoop up all that delicious sauce.
Nutritional information is only an estimate. The accuracy of the nutritional information for any recipe on this site is not guaranteed.