Spaghetti and Drop Meatballs with Tomato Sauce

Melina Hammer for the New York Times

The most time-consuming part of making meatballs is rolling them. The solution? Don’t. Just use two spoons to drop little mounds of the mixture into the hot skillet. (Skipping the rolling also prevents you from overworking the meatballs until they get tough.) Leave them alone to brown beautifully on the bottom while you start building the tomato sauce around them.

Also, quick note: you’ll see in this recipe that the ingredient prep (grating cheese, chopping parsley and onion, and so on) is woven directly into the instructions. This is a feature from my book How to Cook Everything Fast (where this dish originated), and is meant to capture, in recipe form, the real-time cooking (aka not prepping everything in advance) that most of us do day-to-day. FYI.

Makes: 4 servings
Time: 25 minutes


  • Salt

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil

  • 12 ounces ground beef

  • 6 ounces Parmesan, or about 1 1/2 cups

  • 1 bunch fresh parsley

  • ¼ cup bread crumbs

  • 1 egg

  • Black pepper

  • 1 large onion

  • 3 garlic cloves

  • 6 cups canned crushed tomatoes (a little less than two 28-ounce cans)

  • 3 bay leaves

  • 1 pound spaghetti


1. Bring a stockpot of water to a boil and salt it. Put the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat.

2. Put the ground beef in a medium bowl. Grate the cheese, put 1 cup over the meat and reserve the rest, about 1/2 cup. Chop 1/2 cup of parsley and add all but 2 tablespoons to the meat mixture; save the rest of the parsley for another use. Add the bread crumbs, crack in the egg, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Gently mix until everything is just combined.

3. Raise the heat to medium-high; use 2 teaspoons to drop rounds of the meatball mixture into the skillet without touching one another if you can help it. Adjust the heat so the meatballs sizzle but don’t burn and cook undisturbed until they’re lightly browned on the bottom, 5 to 6 minutes.

4. Meanwhile, trim, peel and chop the onion; scatter it around the meatballs. Peel and mince the garlic and put it on top of the onions.

5. When the meatballs are browned on the bottom and the aromatics begin to soften, add the tomatoes to the skillet, along with the bay leaves and a sprinkle of salt and pepper. Adjust the heat so the mixture bubbles gently but steadily, then cover the skillet and cook until the meat cooks through, about 8 minutes. Remove the lid and let the sauce bubble vigorously to thicken for another 5 to 10 minutes, essentially while the pasta cooks. Stir only as needed and carefully if you do.

6. Add the pasta to the boiling water and stir. Start tasting after 5 minutes. When the pasta is tender but not mushy, drain it, reserving some cooking water. Return the pasta to the pot.

7. Move the meatballs to one side of the skillet with a spatula and stir the sauce; taste and adjust the seasoning. Discard the bay leaves and spoon about half the sauce into the pasta pot. Toss the pasta over low heat, adding a splash of cooking water to make it saucier if you like.

8. To serve, divide the pasta among 4 plates or bowls; top with the meatballs and the remaining sauce, and sprinkle the remaining Parmesan and parsley over the top.

Recipe published in The New York Times (Photo: Melina Hammer)