Served over spaghetti or polenta, or tucked into crusty bread with melted cheese for a sandwich, meatballs are the ultimate Italian comfort food.

A very budget-friendly recipe, the ground beef (already an inexpensive cut) stretches even further — and is made more moist and flavorful — with the addition of eggplant, Italian sausage and Grana Padano cheese, the less pricey cousin of Parmigiano-Reggiano.

The meatballs can be made a day ahead and leftovers freeze beautifully, right in the tomato sauce...but with a dinner this delicious, they'll be gone before you know it.

Recipe provided by Lidia Bastianich.

Sauce (Melanzane)

  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 medium onions, chopped
  • 4 28-ounce cans Italian plum tomatoes, preferably San Marzano, passed through a food mill
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 3 fresh bay leaves
  • 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

Meatballs (Polpette)

  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 medium eggplants (about 1¼ pounds), peeled and cut into ½-inch cubes
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 2 1/2 pounds ground beef
  • 1 pound sweet Italian sausage, removed from casings
  • 2 cups fine dried bread crumbs
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Grana Padano
  • 2 large eggs


For the sauce: In a large Dutch oven, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the chopped onions, and cook until they are slightly softened, about 4 minutes. Add the tomatoes, rinse out the tomato cans with 4 cups water, and add that as well. Add the salt, bay leaves and red pepper flakes. Bring it to a simmer and cook, uncovered, until slightly thickened, about 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, for the meatballs: In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add the onion. Cook until it is almost softened, about 6 minutes, then add the eggplants and season with salt. Cover, and cook until the eggplant and onion are tender, about 10 minutes. Scrape everything onto a sheet pan to cool.

In a large bowl, mix the cooled eggplant with the beef, sausage, bread crumbs, parsley, grated cheese and eggs until the mixture just holds together. Form into about forty 2-inch meatballs on parchment-lined sheet pans.

Add the meatballs to the simmering sauce, and simmer until the meatballs are cooked through and the sauce is flavorful, about 35-40 minutes, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon to make sure the meatballs on the bottom don’t stick.

This makes a big batch, and can easily be kept in the refrigerator or frozen for future meals. If you don’t want to make such a big batch, you can easily halve everything.