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How-To

The Best Ever Spaghetti & Meatballs

Fine Cooking Issue 71
Photo: Scott Phillips
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I love spaghetti, and I love meatballs. I smell a good meatball frying—I don’t care what time of day it is—I’ve got to eat it. I don’t know anyone who can resist a good spaghetti and meatballs for lunch or supper. And I know people who eat it cold out of the fridge for breakfast.

The spaghetti and meatballs we make at Rao’s, my family’s restaurant, are the best. The marinara sauce we use was my Uncle Vincent’s recipe. The meatball recipe is from my grandmother—a great cook—who handed it down to my Aunt Anna, the head chef at Rao’s for twenty years.

I’m going to tell you how to make this dish the way it’s been done for generations in my family, and the way we’re still making them at Rao’s (we’ve been in business since 1896).  

First you start the marinara sauce, which is really easy. You just simmer canned Italian tomatoes with garlic and olive oil until they’re slightly thickened. I usually buy whole tomatoes, but you can use crushed if you want: It would take a genius to figure out the difference in taste.  

While the sauce is simmering, you start making the meatballs. I use a mixture of ground beef, pork, and veal—equal amounts of all three—plus eggs, grated cheese, breadcrumbs, parsley, and garlic. I don’t use much garlic because I also use it to flavor the frying oil. You put too much garlic in, it will repeat on you; you’ll taste it six hours later. And I don’t like that. That’s not good cooking to me.  

Next you shape the ground meat into big, beautiful meatballs and fry them in oil so they’re nicely browned all over and cooked through. By the time you’re done with that, the marinara will be ready. You add the meatballs to the sauce and simmer them together so their flavors intermingle. Meanwhile, boil the pasta until it’s just about al dente.  

The next step is called the segreto method, and it’s the key to the whole dish. In Italian, segreto means “secret.” After you drain the spaghetti (don’t rinse it, that’s nonsense) you put it back in its cooking pot. You add a couple of ladlefuls of sauce to the pasta, put it over high heat, and toss until each piece is fully coated. What’s happening is the spaghetti is finishing cooking in the marinara. Now every piece of pasta is flavorful because it’s permeated and integrated with the sauce. That’s the secret to finishing your spaghetti and meatballs.

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