A version of this recipe was originally published in Serious Eats.

Joe Cleffie’s Meatballs and Sauce


  • 2 lbs. ground beef (80/20 or 85/15—no leaner than that)
  • 2 eggs
  • Fresh bread crumbs, seasoned with salt and pepper
  • Goya Adobo seasoning
  • Parsley (optional)
  • 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil


  • 2 32-ounce cans of crushed tomatoes
  • 1 6-ounce can of tomato paste
  • 6-8 cloves of garlic
  • Salt and pepper
  • 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

Keep in mind, all measurements are approximates. I make them by feel and not with precise measurements. Measuring is for baking, not meatballs. Once you make them a few times, you’ll develop a feel for it.

  • First start the sauce.

    Use a chef’s knife or garlic press to mince the garlic. Add the olive oil to a hot pot or Dutch oven. Sauté the garlic on medium-high heat until it begins to turn brown. Moving the garlic around will help it brown evenly and not burn. Add the crushed tomatoes, salt, and pepper. Bring to a boil. Stir in the tomato paste, cover, and simmer on low heat

  • Make bread crumbs.

    You can make fresh bread crumbs ahead of time using day-old bread. Whole-grain bread or gluten-free bread work fine if you prefer them, but leftover Italian bread is the standard. Rip it into small chunks and pulse it in the food processor until it’s reduced to crumbs.

  • While the sauce simmers, make the meatballs.

    I used to use fresh chopped garlic but have discovered that adobo seasoning really works well. It seasons evenly and does not interfere with the texture of the meat. I use about a tablespoon and a half to two tablespoons of adobo and mix it into the meat. I was taught that the best kitchen utensils are at the end of your arms: I use my hands and I recommend you do so as well. Add the eggs and combine with the meat.

  • Next, add bread crumbs by the handful until the meat comes together.

    You want to be able roll the meatballs and have them cohere without being stiff. Here’s my test: pick up the meat with one hand and throw it back into the bowl a couple of times. If it holds together, maintains its integrity, and makes a loud “smack” when you throw it in, you are ready to roll.

  • Let’s cook.

    Roll the balls into whatever size you wish. Just make sure the size is consistent. Heat a cast-iron pan or other heavy-bottom pan on high and add the olive oil. When the oil is hot, add the meatballs. Brown them all around. When browned to your liking, add the balls to the simmering sauce. Repeat until all the balls are in the sauce. Simmer on low for at least an hour. You can serve them now, or freeze for a later date. If you freeze them, you can put them in the crockpot for another few hours before serving. (If you’re leaving for work in the morning, use a crockpot with a timer function to put them on high for a few hours, then switch to “warm.”) The longer they simmer, the more the sauce will penetrate the meat and meatier the sauce will be—so once they’re in the sauce, it’s nearly impossible to overcook them.

Let's Eat