This post may contain affiliate links. Please see my affiliate disclosure for more information.
If it’s Sunday, it’s time for Sunday sauce and meatballs. This low and slow simmered tomato sauce yields the most tender meatballs and will make your house smell like home.
Is there any aroma better than a pot of tomato sauce simmering on the stove? Or the bite of a perfectly cooked meatball, browned and tender?
A Family Recipe for Sunday Sauce
I grew up eating sauce and meatballs every Sunday. The sauce would cook on the stove all day, filling the house with the most delicious smells, garlic and herbs wafting from the kitchen. I’ve continued the tradition with my own family, though I’m not a stickler for sauce every Sunday. (I even make it on the occasional Monday!)
But I am a stickler for cooking sauce and meatballs just the way my father taught me and I follow his recipe and method almost to a T.
I use tomato paste, crushed tomatoes, and tomato puree (I love the intense tomato flavor that canned tomatoes provide). A splash of red wine, a pinch of sugar, and a healthy scoop of grated parmesan cheese round out the sauce.
The key is cooking the sauce over low, low heat for a long, long time and adding browned (but not fully cooked) meatballs to the sauce to finish cooking. A little milk, not too many breadcrumbs, and not over-mixing yield a wonderfully tender meatball.
Are you drooling yet? Let’s get cooking!
Let’s make Sunday Sauce and Meatballs
- Saute the onions and peppers (reserve some for the meatballs).
- Add the garlic and saute 2 minutes more.
- Mix in the tomato paste.
- Add the crushed tomatoes, tomato puree, and water.
- Stir in the grated cheese and red wine.
- Add the herbs, seasonings, and sugar.
- Combine all the ingredients for the meatballs in a bowl.
- Mix together with your hands.
- Roll the meatballs and heat the olive oil in a saute pan.
- Brown the meatballs on all sides over medium heat, but they won’t be fully cooked through.
- As the meatballs brown, simmer the sauce over very low heat.
- Add the meatballs to the sauce and simmer for 2 – 3 hours over very low heat, stirring occasionally.
Tips for success
- To save time, you can saute the onions, peppers, and garlic for the sauce and meatballs together. Remove the sautéed onion/pepper/garlic combo for the meatballs and set aside to cool.
- Low and slow are the magic words for this sauce. The longer it cooks, the better it tastes. Adjust the heat to very low so the sauce is just simmering as it cooks.
- Stir the sauce frequently, being sure to always mix from the bottom.
- When combining the ingredients for the meatballs, I find that mixing them with my hands works best. Be careful not to overmix!
- Brown the meatballs over medium heat and rotate them frequently so they don’t burn. If you burn a meatball, DO NOT add it to the sauce. The burnt flavor will permeate the sauce and it will be ruined.
- This sauce tastes even better the next day (if you have leftovers)!
More Family Favorite Recipes
- Italian Cookies
- Braised Veal and Peppers
- Banana Bread
- Pasta e Fagioli
Update Notes: This post was originally published in November 2015 but was republished with tips and step by step photos in March 2019.
My Sunday Sauce and Meatballs Inspiration…
When I came downstairs this morning, I had a childhood flashback to the smells of Sunday morning. These were not your typical Sunday morning smells. No bacon frying or bread toasting, but instead our house smelled like my favorite Italian restaurant…garlic and onion seeping into my pores before I was even fully awake.
Every Sunday my Dad would make sauce and meatballs right after he had breakfast and while I was still clinging to the last bits of sleep. I would stumble out of bed, head to the kitchen, and instantly want to skip over breakfast and move right on to dinner.
We never tired of my Dad’s sauce. We ate it every Sunday and then depending on how much was left over, we would fashion at least one or two weekday meals from the rest. It really didn’t matter what type of pasta we were having, the sauce was the star of the show. We even referred to it as “having sauce” for dinner. Not gravy (that’s for turkey in my book), not pasta, just simply ”sauce”.
The sauce and meatballs would simmer on the lowest flame all day, being carefully stirred and secretly sampled by my brothers and me. The aroma of the sauce filled the house and never failed to get our stomachs rumbling and our incessant “how long until dinner???” chant started.
My dad was the cook of all things Italian in our house. One of fourteen children born to Italian immigrants, he often hung around the kitchen while his mother cooked for the family. Of course, he adapted his mother’s recipe for sauce and meatballs over time, but the essence of it remained.
This is a rich tomato sauce slowly simmered until thickened (but not too thick) and filled with meatballs that are perfectly browned in a frying pan before being tossed into the bubbling pot to finish cooking.
I still consider my Dad’s meatballs the best I’ve ever tasted. They taste like home. And while mine come pretty close to his, I never mind when my boys declare Grandpa’s their favorite too.
The secret to this sauce and meatballs is not to rush. The longer it simmers, the better it gets. The flavor has time to develop and it’s honestly even better later in the week (if you still have some left). I don’t make sauce every Sunday, but when I do, I often feel a twinge of nostalgia. It reminds me of being a kid and plucking a meatball out of the pot with my fork and gobbling it up before giving it a chance to cool down.
It reminds me of family, comfort, and tradition. I hope my boys have similar memories and one day they make a pot of Sunday sauce to share with a family of their own.