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Old School Italian Meat Sauce

In college, I had a 100% Italian-American boyfriend, and I was partially adopted by his very traditional family. His mom was about 4’10″ and a spitfire, and every week, she had a cooking schedule. A certain day of the week meant soup, another day was always a roast, and Sunday was spaghetti and meatballs. She’d make the sauce on Saturday afternoon so it could simmer until after mass on Sunday, and Saturday night, she’d fry up her meatballs and put them on the back porch to cool until they were dropped into the sauce on Sunday morning.

I did some damn good eating in their kitchen, and every meal included bread from the best bakery in Syracuse: the Columbus Baking Company. (photo of the outside / photo of the inside. Warning: contains bread!)

In addition to quality tomatoes, lots of garlic, and extra-virgin olive oil, a respectable “Sunday Gravy” also usually includes a healthy dose of red wine (both in the sauce and in the cook).

But you and I, we’re not just any Italian (food) lovers; we are dino-chow afficianados. So we say rifiuto! to pasta and bread and wine and EVOO cooked at high temperatures — and then we say benvenuto! to vegetable noodles, balsamic vinegar, and ghee.

This recipe is from my cookbook Well Fed 2: More Paleo Recipes For People Who Love To Eat. And although this recipe is a tiny bit of a project, it rewards you with enough tender, succulent meat to last for several meals — and it can be frozen, too, so you can defrost Italian love anytime you need a food hug. The balsamic vinegar gives the slow-simmered sauce just the right zing, and pork chops, Italian sausage, and beef meatballs infuse the sauce with flavor while, in turn, taking on the tang of tomato and garlic.

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old school italian meat sauce

Old School Italian Meat Sauce

Prep 45 minutes | Cook 2 1/2 hrs | Serves 8-12

Ingredients:
1 1/2 pounds pork chops (boneless or bone in both work)
salt and ground black pepper
1 pound Italian sausage (chicken or pork)

Sauce:
ghee or coconut oil
2 medium onions, diced (about 2 cups)
1/2 tablespoon dried oregano
3 tablespoons tomato paste
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
6 cloves garlic, minced (about 2 tablespoons)
2/3 cup beef broth
2  (28 ounce) cans crushed tomatoes
1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, slivered

Meatballs:
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 tablespoon water
1 pound ground beef
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
2 cloves garlic, minced (about 2 teaspoons)
1/2 cup fresh parsley leaves, minced (about 2 tablespoons)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon Italian herb blend (or oregano)

Directions:
Brown the meats. Heat a little coconut oil in a large, deep sauce pot. Sprinkle the pork chops with salt and pepper – and be generous! – then brown the chops on both sides. Set aside and brown the sausage in the same pot. Set aside.

Make the sauce. You’re going to make the sauce in the same pot, so add a little coconut oil if there’s no fat left in the pan. Cook onions with the oregano until they’re very soft, about 7-10 minutes. Add the tomato paste and stir fry until brown, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.

Add the balsamic vinegar and stir, about 1 minute. Add the broth and crushed tomatoes; stir to combine. Now gently nestle the pork chops and sausage into the sauce. Bring to a robust bubble, then cover and simmer, 2 hours.

Prep the meatballs. In a small bowl, mix the baking soda, cream of tartar, and water with a fork until combined. Crumble the beef into a large bowl, then add the balsamic vinegar, garlic, parsley, salt, red pepper flakes, Italian herb blend, and water/baking soda. Mix well with your hands (or if you want it very smooth, with a food processor or mixer) until combined.

Cook the meatballs. Preheat the oven to 400F and cover a large baking sheet with parchment paper or foil. Measure 1 tablespoon of the meat and roll into a ball. Line up the meatballs on the baking sheet, then bake 20 minutes, until browned.

The final steps. When the sauce has reached its 2-hour simmer deadline, add the meatballs to the sauce and simmer an additional 15 minutes, uncovered. Remove the sauce from the heat and toss in the fresh basil, then taste and add salt and pepper, if necessary.

Ladle the sauce over a pile of zucchini noodles, spaghetti squash, or mashed cauliflower and top with a little bit of each kind of meat. Mange!

Two things to consider:
1. If you like your sauce smooth, you can purée it in a blender or food processor before adding the meatballs. I really like it that way, but some people prefer the most rustic, chunkier sauce.

2. I like to eat this like a stew and skip the “noodles” underneath. I just pile a piece of each kind of meat in a deep bowl and top with sauce.


BONUS:
In case you missed it, be sure to check out this photo of the kitchen disaster that ensued when tomato sauce met gravity (and yoga pants and the tile floor and…).

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99 Responses to “Old School Italian Meat Sauce”

  1. Isla says:

    This will absolutely be on my cooking schedule for the week. Looks wicked, which in my opinion is the best kind of look!

  2. Pam says:

    This looks amazing! One question though, in the directions for the meatballs it says to “crumble the beef and pork”, but there’s no pork listed in the ingredients. is it optional to use half beef and pork, or is something missing?

  3. Cathy says:

    Going along with Pam’s comment, there’s no instructions for what to do with the pork chops in the sauce. Surely they need to be shredded at some point?

    I hope the final version will include an explanation of the reason for the baking powder, which took me by surprise.

    Thanks for giving us this recipe now! We understand the editing is likely not finalized :)

    • Mel says:

      The pork chops remain whole, as does the sausage… but you can certainly shred the pork if you like. My first batch, I did it that way, and I didn’t like it as much. The pork chops get very tender and may fall into large-ish pieces, but I preferred them that way to shredded. It got too much like pulled pork, in my opinion, when I shredded them.

      Baking powder! Because I don’t use any fillers/binders in my paleo meatballs (like almond flour, for example), I discovered that using a little baking powder makes the meatballs more tender and a little airier. It’s a good trick!

      • Jennifer says:

        I’m intrigued by the baking powder… can’t wait to try it!

      • Not to be the paleo police, but baking powder has cornstarch in it. Baking soda plus cream of tarter should do the trick. I would ever have thought to do this though!

        • Mel says:

          Good catch! I forgot I need to switch that out for baking soda plus an acid. Recipe has been updated — thanks for the reminder!

      • Cathy says:

        Oops, I guess MY editing wasn’t finalized, either :(
        Your recipe calls for baking SODA and I mistakenly asked you about baking POWDER. In any case, I’d never have guessed it would help the meatballs out. Great tip! Thanks.

        • Mel says:

          No, it originally said baking powder, then I corrected it because it should be baking SODA. The recipe above is all-good now. I tested it just a few minute ago, and it’s 4-star!

  4. Conny says:

    I’m looking forward to making this batch of meaty, tomato-y goodness! And looking forward with greater anticipation the release of Well Fed 2…I can’t wait!! Thanks.

  5. melissa says:

    Melissa,
    Looks relish and was so worth the 24 hour wait!-I am going to do my weekly shopping now.

    Anxiously awaiting Well Fed 2 as if I haven’t said it before!!-

    Bon Apetit!
    Melissa

  6. Andrea McGloin says:

    My mom is 100% Italian too and her meat sauce is filled with all that Italian “goodness”. I don’t partake in it too often anymore but my kids love it. Can’t wait to make them this healthy paleoized version. Thank You! Love the baking powder idea too.

  7. Mmmmmm. This is gonna be the big meal with my next paycheck.

    Glad to have you back–I missed your posts this week! Am listening to the Violent Femmes right now, which somehow seems an appropriate soundtrack :o)

  8. Emily says:

    Oh holy yum, I have so been craving Italian lately. This shall do the trick for our weekend feast! Totally excited to see what Well Fed 2 has in store, thank you for the sneak peak!

  9. Kristy S says:

    This looks like a good Sunday cook-all-day dish!

    I’m a bad pork chop cooker – they’re not my best meat. They always seem to end up really tough and over cooked. My chops seem to equal that of a 10 lb weight plate, even when cooked in some kind of sauce. Any tricks to make sure they don’t overcook?

    • Mel says:

      Bone-in chops will stay more tender during the somewhat lengthy cooking — and if you get some with a little fat instead of super-lean, that will help.

  10. Cindy says:

    Looks awesome! How many meatballs do you get?

  11. Looks sooo good!!!!! im getting hungry

  12. Pam says:

    Drooling over here! Looks phenomenal!

  13. David says:

    1. So glad you are back
    2. This looks awesome and I was getting excited to make it as I was reading – will happen this weekend!
    3. Looking so forward to Well Fed 2!
    4. I have always thoughts I like my sauce rustic/chunky, but then I realized I never make it smooth. Think I’ll give it a try, or at least some of it to compare.
    5. So glad you are back

  14. Sam says:

    Oo, sounds so tasty! A quick question, when you say 2 cans (28oz) tomatoes, do you mean 2 28oz cans, or 2 cans equaling 28oz?

  15. Sarah D. says:

    Looks yumtastic! Is the Italian Sausage ground, or links cut into slices?

    • Mel says:

      I used whole links, and I didn’t cut them. They get VERY tender when simmering, so I recommend leaving them whole. They might break into chunks during/after cooking, which is nice for serving. if you want, you can cut them in half before cooking, but I wouldn’t do coins, or they might mush into oblivion.

  16. Mel says:

    I am dumb! Or… to be fair… I committed the paleo sin of forgetting to read a label. As a helpful reader above pointed out, baking POWDER contains corn starch. I’ve updated the recipe above to use baking SODA instead — which doesn’t contain any non-paleo ingredients. Interesting to note: baking SODA needs an acid to be effective, so cream of tartar does the trick.

    Sorry I missed this first time around, but the recipe is updated and paleo-approved now. Enjoy!

  17. Michelle says:

    Hi Mel,
    Italian sausage is a bit hard to get in my neck of the woods. Could I just use pork sausages? Not actually sure what an italian sausage is.

    M

    • Mel says:

      Italian Sausage is labelled as such and includes Italian herb and spices. If you can’t find that, any turkey or pork sausage will do as long as it’s not smoked and isn’t, like, German bratwurst or something. A basic, fresh (not smoked) pork sausage should work great.

  18. [...] B: Egg Scramble with Fig Scones L: B.L.T.T Salad D: Old School Italian Meat Sauce with Spaghetti Squash and Side [...]

  19. tara says:

    I really want to start making fresh sauce in large batches like this and freezing remainders, but am stumped at to the right kind of containers to freeze it in.

    What do you use to freeze your sauces and/or other leftovers?

  20. Sallie says:

    Made this yesterday…I must say this is now my new favorite of all your recipes (and that’s saying A LOT cause I love all of them). The smell of all that meat cooking and the fragance of the tomato sauce–heavenly!!! My son and hubs loved it too and have declared it the new birthday dinner recipe. Oh yeah!

    • Mel says:

      AWESOME! Thanks for letting me know! So far, Dave and I (plus two friends who came for a tasting dinner) are the only ones who’ve eaten this recipe. Such a relief to know you enjoyed it. YAY!

      Thank you!

      • Sallie says:

        And btw, I followed the recipe to a “T”…no changes or subs. My hubby thinks I’m genius. I credited you all the way. It truly is delicious. I will not wait for birthday’s to make again, that’s for sure.

  21. SamB says:

    ACK! I went out and bought baking powder before the paleo police called you out. How much baking powder did the recipe call for before you changed it?

    • Mel says:

      Sorry about that! It’s 1 teaspoon per pound of meat — and if you don’t care about the little bit of cornstarch in baking powder, you can use that ratio for any meatballs:

      1 pound of meat + 1 teaspoon baking powder + 2 tablespoons water

  22. [...] Old School Italian Meat Sauce with Spaghetti Squash and Side Salads [...]

  23. Erica lopez says:

    I love this recipe and will like to try it. Can i use the sauce for a lasagna? Ive been looking for a meat sauce recipe.

    • Mel says:

      The meat in this recipe remains in big chunks, so it won’t work as-is for lasagna. If you wanted to use this for lasagna, I’d recommend removing all the meat from teh sauce when it’s cooked… puree the sauce, shred the pork chops, slice the meatballs, slice the sausage… then when you make your lasagna, layer the noodles, then sliced meats, then pureed sauce… repeat, repeat, repeat.

  24. Laura says:

    This recipe sounds great! I think I’m going to make it on Sunday. Spag (with veggie noodles or spaq squash these days) with meatballs is one of my favourite meals! My hubby loves pork chops, but I don’t like cooking them for some reason. Throwing everything in the pot sounds like a win-win for everyone!

    Thanks for the great recipes – really looking forward to well-fed 2!!! :-)

  25. esmith78 says:

    Melissa – I love the size of the orange pot – can you share more info about it. It’s hard to find a “tall” pot that’s not huge…

  26. Laney says:

    I’m making this tonight and can’t wait! I bought ground italian sausage didn’t realize they were supposed to be links until I read the reviews. Should I go grab links or do u think the ground will work?

  27. Luloah says:

    This came out incredible! We love it. This will officially be our family sauce recipe moving forward. Thanks so much for the recipe!!

  28. tony says:

    my mom used to use short ribs in the sauce a big fav of mine..The meat would just fall off the bone.I like you would just eat a big bowl of the sauce w/ the meat.Who needs pasta..

  29. Rachel says:

    I get excited about any recipe that has “old school” in the title! Sigh.

  30. Stephanie says:

    This is seriously hands down the BEST sauce I have ever made or eaten. This is my new go-to recipe. I had non-paleo friends over for dinner and they were licking their plates too. SOOO good!

  31. [...] article the power to pursue our dreams recipe school italian meat sauce [...]

  32. [...] dinner last night to help battle whatever I was coming down with. I made up another batch of Melissa’s Old-School Italian Meat sauce and topped it with a bag of frozen mixed Italian [...]

  33. Laney says:

    This recipe is soooo yummy! 3rd time I’ve made it this month, its so hearty no one noticed there were no noodles under it! Thanks for sharing :-)

  34. Giselle says:

    Hello,

    What can we substitute for pork chops since we don’t eat pork? Thanks.

    • Mel says:

      You can just skip the pork chops… but if you want to add more meat, you might try some bone-in, skinless chicken thighs — or could make a double batch of meatballs.

  35. Guinnevere says:

    Ooohhh this is simmering on the stove we speak and I cannot wait to dig in. I didn’t want that much stuff, so I skipped the porks and just made a 1.5 x batch of meatballs (with my butcher’s meatloaf mix- veal, pork, beef). I put a bit more crushed pepper cuz I like it spicy. Soooo excited to spiralize some noodles and bake a spaghetti squash for when my partner gets home tonight! She’s gonna love the smell when she walks in! Thank you for always sharing such deliciousness. Can’t wait for your next book. If it wasn’t the Kindle version, my copy of WF would be quite thumb worn by now :)

    • Mel says:

      Love that you used this as a base for your own experimentation — that’s awesome! Hope you enjoyed the end result.

      Thank you for the sweet words about Well Fed and the enthusiasm for Well Fed 2! We’re wrapping up a big chunk of production this week… very exciting!

  36. [...] technique: Maintaining “tightness” and why it’s important Old-school Italian meat sauce Exercise as good as massage for sore muscles Floor living Precision Nutrition on food labeling: [...]

  37. Melissa says:

    Oh, Columbus Bakery!! I grew up in Syracuse & it was a weekly tradition for our Italian family to have Columbus Bakery bread with our Sunday Sauce!! My grandmother is 100% Italian & makes her sauce very similar albeit not paleo. Can’t wait to try this!

  38. Renee says:

    “Four forks up” here at our house! Actually more like spoons – I ate this like a stew. My two sons and my hubby each asked for second helpings! Today was a hot day so I made it in the crockpot (browned the meatballs briefly on the stovetop before putting them in the sauce to finish cooking). It’s a keeper!

  39. Cristina says:

    OMG! I love trying to find new ways to do this. I’m half Italian so a JAR of sauce is an UTTER Italian SIN! I’m eager to try this especially your compliant MBs!! I have such a thing for MBs. I don’t know why. I HAVE recently discovered through a family event other’s ways of making Italian sauce and they did throw in all different kinds of meats! It was SOOOOOO much better that way!! Ohhhhh now I want to go home and make this too!!!!

  40. [...] Spaghetti squash with meatballs –trying a new recipe here–I didn’t follow the whole recipe–I modified it a bit. >>>http://www.theclothesmakethegirl.com/2013/03/01/school-italian-meat-sauce/ [...]

  41. scott says:

    grew up in Syracuse & Columbus bread is the best!!!! hard to explain to people not from there how bread really is different….every time we go back I need a full month of food detox!

  42. Suzanne says:

    I made this tonight for dinner and served it over roasted spaghetti squash. I’ve never really liked pork chops before, but this was INCREDIBLE. All of the meats were very tender and the sauce itself had so much flavor and depth. My boyfriend couldn’t even speak it was so delicious. I’m new to the paleo world, but if I can eat like this, I’m in for life!

  43. Katia says:

    This recipe looks amazing! Have you ever tried cooking the meatballs completely in the sauce? Do you think they would fall apart too much? Can’t wait to try this! BTW, I have both your books and your recipes are really AWESOME! You have a serious talent in the kitchen!

    • Mel says:

      I haven’t tried it, but I suspect they might fall apart. But if you don’t mind having meat sauce, try it and see what happens!

      So glad you’re enjoying the cookbooks!

  44. Coles says:

    I love that you use pork in the sauce. That’s how my little Italian mom does it, too. She uses pork ribs though. It really gives the sauce a great flavor. Can’t wait to try this recipe!

  45. Kim says:

    MOST excellent – you know what’s also really great in this sauce? short ribs. YESSSSS.

    If you wanted to cook the meatballs in the sauce, I suggest browning them in a skillet to give them a crust, then cooking in the sauce. That’s the way we do it in our family Italian sauce recipe, and that’s the way I did it using your meatball recipe in our sauce recipe. Worked beautifully.

  46. Magess says:

    Dumb question, but what do you do with the pork chops when it’s done? Just serve two people pork chops instead of meatballs?

    • Mel says:

      We usually divide up the meat and everyone has 1-2 meatballs, a chunk of sausage, and a piece of pork chop — but you can divvy it up however you like :-)

  47. Nancy says:

    My southern aunt married an Italian from Rhode Island. She came to our house and made spaghetti sauce with meatballs and pork chops. I had never even had spaghetti before. I remember it as being one of the best things I had ever tasted. I asked her about it recently and she couldn’t remember it. So pleased to find that this is actually an authentic Italian dish. Can’t wait to try it.

    • Mel says:

      Hope you enjoy this recipe — glad it brought back fond memories for you. I love that food can be so closely associated with family. Enjoy!

  48. ruth says:

    Thank you for this fabulous recipe. i’ve been making a pretty yummy (but simple) meat sauce for years, but thought i’d like to join the ranks of the nonna’s out there and try my hand at a true “gravy”. The results were truly inspiring!

    One question though… My meatballs were not remotely tender. Perhaps they were too small and cooked too much in the oven? I used the baking powder/water rather than soda/tartar/water mix (didn’t have cream of tartar on hand). I also wondered whether they wouldn’t have been just as happy doing all their cooking in the sauce, rather than the oven first.

    Thoughts?

    • Mel says:

      Hmmm… I haven’t heard that complaint from anyone else so maybe your baking powder is old (?)… also, baking powder isn’t paleo, if you care about that. That’s why I recommend soda/cream of tartar.

      Yes, you can cook them directly in the sauce instead of baking. I like them baked because they get brown and more flavorful, but if that’s not your thing, plop them in the sauce about 45-60 minutes before its done simmering.

    • Making Limonada says:

      Ruth,

      I also had less-than-tender meatballs even with soda/tartar. However I believe the baking time was a tad long for the size of the meatballs (especially in my oven that tends to run hot). I made a note in the cookbook to bake them only 10 minutes next time. The flavor was on point though…and the whole recipe is just awesome!

  49. Jen says:

    OMG Columbus has the BEST bread, especially the flat bread! So exciting to see you mention a bakery from my hometown. That being said, I cannot wait for next weekend to make this sauce and the meatballs sound amazing!!! Thanks for sharing!!

  50. nina says:

    Making it again tonight – first time was such a hit. great recipe!

  51. Making Limonada says:

    WoW! Made this for the first time today. Amazing taste. Just…wow! Thank you for this recipe. It will be a regular for us in winter.

  52. Shelly says:

    Day 5 of Paleo and I’ve been itching to make this since we made the decision to jump in. Goodness gracious! This is some good stuff. The table fell silent as we ate.

  53. Yvonne says:

    Hey Mel! I Just Started The Whole 30, And I’m Very Interested In This Recipe. Would You Replace The Cream Of Tarter On This Recipe To Make It “Compliant”?

    • Congratulations on Whole30-ing!

      This recipe is 100% Whole30 approved exactly as written above — no need to sub out the cream of tartar. Cream of tartar isn’t cream at all — it’s technical name is potassium hydrogen tartrate and it’s acid/salt.

  54. Melissa says:

    On my first Whole30 and live in a house full of boys who are used to eating Red Beans & Rice and homestyle Mac & Cheese with every meal. Needless to say they are less than thrilled with my Whole30-ing, but I made this for them these weekend and they LOVED it. All is well in the world. :) Thank you so much for sharing this!!

  55. Emma says:

    Made this last night and it was so so yummy! My husband was in heaven and finally went back for seconds on a recipe I made while doing the Whole 30. Thank you!!!!!

  56. Martine says:

    Made this and both my husband and I loved it. He kept repeating the flavors!, the flavors!, the whole time he was eating it. We ate it over a bed of spaghetti squash. My husband normally objects to paleo substitutes, like squash for pasta, on principle, but the sauce was so good, he didn’t complain.

    You’ll laugh but I made the meat balls earlier during the week and doubled the quantity because I had 2lbs of meat. So I was planning to double the sauce as well. When I saw how much sauce a regular recipe made I realized how silly my plan was. So making this again tonight with the rest of my ingredients :)

    The only change I would like to make is to include wine. I am not a purist and will drink wine with the sauce anyway. I was thinking of replacing the beef broth with the wine.

    Also my husband wants to include roasted garlic, but I don’t know if a straight substitution would work since the flavors aren’t the same at all. I think I am just going to add the roasted garlic whole to the sauce and still include the chopped fresh garlic. What do you think.

    • Mel says:

      Hooray! I’m glad it was a hit!

      You can certainly use wine — replace the balsamic vinegar with good red wine.

      I’m not a fan of roasted garlic, and I don’t cook with it much, so I’m not sure how to advise you on that. Just experiment — how far wrong can you go? ;-)

  57. Nancy Kirkland says:

    So I should use bone in pork chops?

  58. Grant says:

    This was LITERALLY the best sauce I have ever made! Day 7 of Whole 30 and I am feeling good! Thanks for all your WONDERFUL recipes!

  59. Jackie says:

    Just wondering, what kind & how much beef is in the all beef version?
    Thanks! Looks great!

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