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Braised Meatballs in a Hearty Marinara Sauce

You could turn these braised meatballs into a quick meal by using a store-bought marinara sauce, but would you really want to? The weeknight alternative is to make this hearty marinara sauce ahead of time. It freezes well, or you could can it, if you do that sort of thing.

From start to finish, it should take about 60 to 90 minutes. That range depends on how quickly you chop and how many things you can pay attention to at once. Please see the notes for ways to make sure it doesn’t take longer.

These braised meatballs would be great for a beginner cook who wants to make a classic meal. I just probably wouldn’t recommend it for a first cooking date unless you plan to get all Lady and the Tramp.

A plate of spaghetti with three braised meatballs in tomato sauce.
a pan of hearty marinara sauce.

Tips and tricks for this hearty marinara sauce

  • Use whole canned tomatoes. Another lifetime ago, I did a cooking class with Diane Seed in Rome. She shared with me that cans of chopped and pureed tomatoes often use less than perfect tomatoes. Words of wisdom I now share with you.
  • Finally, I’m sure you’ve heard before never to cook with “cooking wine.” Any wine that goes into food should be wine that you’re willing to drink. If I’m not opening a bottle for dinner, I’ll just use vermouth, because it stays stable in the fridge longer.
a bowl with the meatball mixture.


What is braising?

Braising is a cooking method that classically involves searing meat (frying it in a thin layer of oil until browned on the exterior) prior to slow cooking it in a covered pan in a small amount of liquid or sauce. I’m here to say that the searing step is not always required, and that is so very true for these meatballs.

Can I substitute another pasta shape for the spaghetti?

Obviously, spaghetti is traditional, but don’t feel obligated to run to the store if you have another pasta in the house.

Can I add vegetables to the marinara sauce?

If you’re comfortable in the kitchen, you can vary this in all sorts of ways. If I wanted to add vegetables, I’d think mushrooms or roasted red peppers, for example.

Can I substitute other meats for the ground beef?

Sure, the obvious choice would be a 50-50 combo of ground beef and ground pork, but you can make these meatballs out of most any combination.

Can I fry the meatballs instead of braising them?

Personally, I like how braised meatballs are soft and tender. If you prefer a crusty meatball, you can saute them in a little olive oil or bake your meatballs before adding them to the sauce.

Can you freeze spaghetti and meatballs?

You can absolutely freeze leftover meatballs along with the tomato sauce. But frozen spaghetti will be mushy when reheated, so I would avoid that if possible. Shorter, thicker pasta shapes like penne or ziti will hold up better to freezing.

shaped meatballs on a tray lined with wax paper.

Related recipes:

Check other uglyducklingbakery pasta recipes like this fig bacon jam pasta, one pot pasta with ricotta and lemon, or a sausage ragù.

Make these braised BBQ chicken meatballs. Or turn leftover Italian meatballs into a wrap with the marinara, mozzarella, and parsley!

Do you love meatballs? Check out more options for meatballs and what to serve with meatballs for dinner.

meatballs braising in a hearty marinara sauce.

Spaghetti and braised meatballs in a hearty marinara sauce

5 from 1 vote
Category: Pasta
Cuisine: Italian
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 1 hour
Total Time: 1 hour 30 minutes
Servings: 4
Calories: 350kcal
A classic recipe for spaghetti and meatballs using meatballs that are braised in marinara.
Print Recipe


Tomato sauce

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • ½ medium onion, chopped fine
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • ½ teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1 pinch red pepper flakes
  • 1 28 ounce can whole tomatoes
  • 2 tablespoons vermouth, white or red wine
  • 1 teaspoon granulated sugar
  • 2 teaspoon parsley, chopped


  • ½ cup panko
  • ¼ cup milk or buttermilk
  • ½ ounce parmesan cheese, grated plus extra for serving
  • 1 tablespoon parsley, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon black pepper
  • 2 tablespoon pine nuts, toasted and chopped
  • 1 egg
  • 1 pound ground beef or mix of ground beef, pork or veal


  • Make the tomato sauce. In a large pan with a lid, saute the onion in the olive oil over medium low heat for 5 to 7 minutes until soft.
    1 tablespoon olive oil, ½ medium onion, chopped fine
  • Add the garlic, thyme, and red pepper flakes, and saute for one minute.
    1 clove garlic, minced, ½ teaspoon dried thyme, 1 pinch red pepper flakes
  • Add the tomatoes and wine and raise the temperature until it starts to bubble vigorously. Reduce the temp to a slow simmer and partially cover. Cook on low, stirring intermittently to break up the tomatoes, while you make the meatballs. Before adding the meatballs, add the sugar and parsley and then salt and pepper to taste.
    1 28 ounce can whole tomatoes, 2 tablespoons vermouth, white or red wine, 1 teaspoon granulated sugar, 2 teaspoon parsley, chopped
  • To make the meatballs, combine the panko and milk or buttermilk in a large bowl and let soak for 10 minutes.
    ¼ cup milk or buttermilk, ½ cup panko
  • Add the rest of the ingredients to the bowl and gently mix with your hands.
    ½ ounce parmesan cheese, grated, 1 tablespoon parsley, chopped, 1 teaspoon salt, ¼ teaspoon black pepper, 2 tablespoon pine nuts, toasted and chopped, 1 egg, 1 pound ground beef
  • Using a large scoop (about ¼ cup), form meatballs into large rounds and place on a plate or clean cutting board while you form all the meatballs. This should make 10-12 large meatballs.
  • Place the meatballs gently into the tomato sauce, cover the pan, and keep at a slow simmer for 30 minutes. Once or twice, gently turn the meatballs so they are covered in sauce, and scrape the pan bottom. The meatballs should have an internal temperature of >165°F when done.
  • Counting backwards from the end of the 30 minutes, cook your spaghetti or other pasta per directions. That is, if your spaghetti is supposed to take 12 minutes to cook, have the pasta water boiling so that you can put the spaghetti in the pot after the meatballs have been cooking for 18 minutes.


  • Don’t forget to start heating the pasta water. My cooktop takes forever so I turn it on high when I start making the sauce. Once it boils, I keep it at a simmer until it’s time to cook the pasta.
  • It also helps to toast the pine nuts at the start of cooking so they cool down before chopping. You can toast nuts in the oven or on the stove top. If I have the oven on already, I check them at 5 minutes. If I’m starting with a cold oven, I check them at 10 minutes. Toasted nuts should smell nutty and not burnt.
  • If your sauce is thinner than you prefer, you can thicken this marinara sauce by partially uncovering the pan as it cooks.
  • One additional thing to give pasta more flavor and to prevent it from sticking is to boil it only to al dente and then finish it off with some of the tomato sauce.


Calories: 350kcal | Carbohydrates: 10g | Protein: 28g | Fat: 21g | Saturated Fat: 7g | Polyunsaturated Fat: 3g | Monounsaturated Fat: 9g | Trans Fat: 1g | Cholesterol: 119mg | Sodium: 792mg | Potassium: 483mg | Fiber: 1g | Sugar: 3g | Vitamin A: 215IU | Vitamin C: 3mg | Calcium: 104mg | Iron: 4mg
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