Italian Meatball Recipe (Polpette al forno)

A good meatball is tender, never tough. The key to making a tender meatball is to use an appropriate amount of breadcrumbs. You can use beef, pork, or veal for your meatballs, but again, if you do not use enough bread, they will be tough. Grandma Rose used to make a meatball solely out of bread, and called them breadballs. Oh My God were they heavenly! Hopefully I can track that recipe down and put it here for you. In the meantime, you will have to make due with these meatballs. I think you will like them. For those who have asked, yes this is indeed a very authentic recipe (with maybe the exception of the pre-seasoned progresso breadcrumbs, but you can use plain or homemade and add your own parsley and garlic if you are waxing nostalgic).  Typical italian ricette for polpette al forno call for 500 grams of carne and about 100-200 grams of pane grattugiato and 100 grams of latte.


1 pound of ground meat
3/4 cup of Progresso Italian style breadcrumbs
1 egg
1/2 cup of milk
1/2 cup grated Romano cheese (or Parmesan or Asiago…use your favorite)
1 teaspoon of salt
fresh ground black pepper


Before you do anything add the milk to the breadcrumbs in a small bowl and stir them up.   Set aside for a few minutes and allow the bread to completely soak up the milk.  Do NOT skip this step, it is essential.

Next, add the bread/milk mixture, one egg, salt, pepper, and cheese to the ground meat.  Mix it very well by hand.  You will hear some people say that over mixing will make a tough meatball.  I find just the opposite to be true.  The less mixed a meatball, the tougher it tends to be.  The secret lies in using enough bread to soften the meat.  If you use about 3/4 cup of bread per 1lb of meat, you can mix all you want…you will get a tender meatball.

After the meat is well mixed, I roll them into golf-ball sized meatballs. (I am not a fan of giant meatballs, and usually go smaller.  When I make gnocchi, I actually make my meatballs  about marble size so you can get a bite of gnocchi with meatball at the same time). I place the meatballs on a cookie sheet sprayed with non-stick cooking spray.

I cover them with foil and bake them for 45 minutes on 350 degree in the oven.  After 45 minutes, I cook them uncovered (remove the foil) for another ten minutes to firm the outside up a little and get some browning on the meatballs in general.

A big bowl of macaroni, meatballs, and homemade sausage

A big bowl of macaroni, meatballs, and homemade sausage

A few thoughts and tips here.

If you keep your hands wet, the meatball meat will not stick to your hands.  It will be very easy and clean to roll them.

Despite what everyone would have you believe, frying meatballs is time consuming, messy, and completely unnecessary.  I get better results in the oven and less work and far less cleanup.

This recipe can be doubled or tripled, or whatever to accommodate your needs.

32 thoughts on “Italian Meatball Recipe (Polpette al forno)

  1. Great meatballs and reasonably easy compared to a lot of recipes out there. But heres something that gets me every time. I soak the breadcrumbs in the milk – but if I leave it for more than like 5 mins it turns hard as cement – am I doing something wrong? I have added more milk but still it becomes very difficult to work with.

    • I have no idea??? Usually if you let it sit for a bit it will swell and they will get kind of paste-like, which is fine, it is kind of what you want. I have never heard of them getting too hard to even work with. I use Progresso italian style if it helps.

  2. Hello, your recipe sounds great but I have a question please. My older Italian mother always browns meatballs first in a fry pan with olive oil and then they sit in the sauce which is simmering for 2-3 hours. I feel they are tough sometimes…very brown from the fry pan. How long would we bake them if they are then going to be in the sauce for 2-3 hours? Thanks.

    • I typically bake mine for about 45 minutes covered with foil and then another ten or so uncovered to brown up. They hold up fine in the sauce. Obviously if you make polpettini (little meatballs) they need less time. If you make large ones, they need longer. My meatballs are typically about golf ball sized. 2 hours in the sauce is about right. If you keep them in a lot longer than that, they will start to fall apart. This holds true at our big italian festival here in Omaha every year (I run the food line). Much over 2-3 hours and they start to crumble.

  3. THis is pretty much my recipe except I use fresh garlic, minced, and parsley. My dad’s recipe…and ALWAYS did he tell us to WET the breadcrumbs first! His meatballs were always the benchmark, even to his sisters, because they were tender. And cooking them in the oven…I have done that the last few times and its the best! MANGIA!

  4. I’ve made this recipe twice. The first time I didn’t have “italian” breadcrumbs, I had breadcrumbs with parmesan cheese. The result was good but a bit too salty. The second time I made sure I had plain old Italian breadcrumbs (Progresso was sold out so I used Contadina, which were fine). This time I mixed in some flat leaf parsley and a finely minced clove of garlic, and used 1/2 the amount of salt specified in the recipe. The results were spectacular. This will be my standard meatball recipe from now on.

  5. I was happy to try this “simple” recipe a try as I am frankly just tired of making them from a more elaborate and esoteric (Yikes! We are talking just about meatballs, right?). Now that the last one has got out of university, and we no longer have literally gangs of ravenous twenty-something’s laying about, this simple and quick recipe was the way to go. I made the whole recipe as we did have the one twenty-two year old. I was very, very pleased! The meal was begun in monastical silence. I call it “Pigs at Prayers”. When all is heard are the clangs of cutlery at work and the smacking of lips, I know the meal is a winner. Thank you for posting this brilliant recipe.

  6. Just stuck your recipe in the oven. Added flat leaf parsley, a little onion and garlic. Homemade sauce is simmering & waiting for the meatballs. Let the good aromas roll.

  7. Meatballs came out quite right for me so I finally got smart and googled “italian meatball recipe” and found your site. Made the meatballs exactly by your recipe, using a mix of 50% venison 25% ground beef (cheap) 25% ground pork butt.
    Results: Fantastic!
    I finally have a perfect meatball recipe and process, Thank You!

  8. I’ll be making them this weekend, using venison…which is the only meat my family eats. Venison is very, very lean, and pork fat is usually added to ground venison at the butcher. Do you think this will be enough? I don’t want them to be dry. Could I just increase bread/milk? Thanks.

    • I have made many a meatball out of moose when living in Anchorage. You may want to skip the browning step so you do not dry them out too much. Just be careful not to overcook them and it should be fine.

      • Ok so a couple things happened… First, I doubled the recipe and think I overcompensated on bread/milk. Then my convection oven adjusted the cooking temp and time. I took them out because i was afraid they’d dry out. They still browned, and I put them in the sauce on stove top. A little mushy but still delish!

  9. When I was a teen a fair piece back in the last century I had occasion to almost survive on an ancient Italian Gentleman’s “fettuccine & meatball.” Ralph’s accent made understanding him difficult indeed, but his sauce and one huge meatball were to die for and he had no trouble relating his thoughts concerning the sharing of his recipe. I haven’t tasted such a combo in nearly fifty years and would love to find that a single 5″ ball with fettuccine & sauce was a “style” of Italian cookery that can be duplicated. I know that all ingredients were fresh: shallots/onions, garlic, herbs, but I have never succeeded in duplicating Ralph’s flavor. Your recipe is compelling and I will definitely try it. I make my own fresh tomato sauce and, in as much as I don’t have a sufficient number of Italian genes, would love to try your recipe with beef, pork, and veal. You mentioned Italian ancestry and, it’s been a long way around but, my question is is there a faded, sauce stained, dog eared scrap of paper in your parents’ recipe box that might have a recipe similar to Ol’ Ralph’s? It’s a shot in the dark, but my passion for the quest it at least equal to Ralph’s passion for all things Italian — in spite of the fact that his “to go” containers were coffee cans with foil lids. Any thoughts from you or anyone else would be gratefully accepted. Sorry for the long wind.

    • Somehow your post got shuffled to the spam folder. I sure could not even hazard a guess as to what Ralph’s recipe is or was. The standard meatball is meat, milk, cheese, eggs, breadcrumbs, and some herbs of choice. The only thing I can think of that might have made it different was perhaps he used fennel is the meat or maybe some anise seed? Shoot us an email if you have any specifics to share. Maybe we can track down what exactly Ralph was making.

  10. I know and admire your Mom and Dad (Jackie and Chuck). I see them every week in my store in Trinidad. Jackie shared this website with me and I am working my way through the recipes. Today, I made your meatballs and they were the most tender and delicious I have ever tasted!

  11. I know and admire your mom and dad (Jackie and Chuck); I see them every week at my store in Trinidad, CO. I made your meatballs today and I have to say they are the most tender and delicious meatballs I have ever tasted! I used lowfat milk and very low fat beef and they were superb. I am thinking of adding some finely diced shallots the next time. What do you think?

    • I think you can add any spices or type of meat that you like. Sometimes I will add onion, especially grilled onion. If I have fresh parsley in the garden, I like to add some as well. The famous quote in every italian recipe is “quanto basta” or use as much as you need. Have fun! Tell my dad you want to eat bagna cauda. That is a real treat!

      • Thanks, Doug. I will definitely do that! We are planning a get together soon. Btw, I am making this recipe for the second time today, just adding two tsp of dried Italian seasoning blend.

  12. I’ve seen other recipes that call for cooking the raw meatballs in the sauce. Can this be done with these meatballs, and will it make the sauce more flavorable? Thanks!

    • You can try it and I am sure it would work, but you will have to skim grease off the top of your sauce. My thoughts here though…the Maillard’s reaction (the reaction that gives meat that nice brown coating) adds flavor and depth. Those browned bits are a big flavor boost to a sauces. It is why I roast a bone if I am going to toss it into my sauce (or soup). I brown my meat well before I add to the sauce.

    • I have never frozen them uncooked, but I suppose you could. I have frozen many of them after they are cooked and they freeze well.

    • Jim,

      I usually try to use a leaner grade of meat (at least 85%). Since 95% of the time my meatballs wind up in the red sauce, I prefer the leaner grind. Too fatty of meat will cause a grease slick to rise on top of your sauce and you will have to skim it with a spoon. I can remember my mom and grandma having to do this since the luxury of 85% or leaner meat did not come along until later. You can certainly mix your meats and add pork, veal, etc. Usually I use beef but from time to time I will make a double batch with a pound of hot sausage.

  13. I have a batch in the oven now. I omitted the salt, i figured there was enough in the cheese. They’ve only been in the oven 15 minutes and my mouth is already watering. Thanks for sharing

  14. I had my doubts as the mixture is very wet and sticky but the meatballs were in fact very moist and delicious. Next time I will skip the salt as they is plenty in the cheese. Oh, yeah, and I added lots of crushed garlic. Thanks for posting!

  15. You are correct about the bread crumbs making the meet balls nice and light. We tried you recipefor the meetballs and these are AWESOME, great job and thank you.

  16. These meatballs are sooo good and easy to make. This is definitely my new meatball recipe, plan on making them again!