These are those meatballs and this is that marinara sauce. The one from the fabled little restaurant in Harlem. The restaurant nobody can get a table at. And the ingredient list is exactly the same. There are a couple twists to help it all come together though. Spaghetti and meatballs deconstructed.

I’ve been to Rao’s (the one in Las Vegas) and I’ve had the meatballs. They are epic meatballs. Tender, moist, flavourful. People tell me they are the best meatballs they have ever tasted. The version floating around the internet is close I think except for two little details. The internet version has you make the meatballs 1 1/2 inches in diameter. You only simmer the meatballs in the marinara for 15 minutes. But the one’s at Rao’s are way bigger. They taste like they’ve had a good long simmer in the marinara. You barely know where the meatball starts and marinara ends.

These are Rao's famous meatballs done the way they serve them in the restaurant.

I have the Rao’s cookbook. In it, the recipe is pretty much word for word the recipe in the New York Times. It’s not until you start looking at the Sunday Gravy recipe that the truth starts to emerge. In the Sunday Gravy recipe, they tell you to simmer the meatballs in the gravy for an hour. That’s where the magic starts to happen.

This is your mama’s spaghetti and meatballs. Or maybe it’s your nonna’s. To serve, I like a bit of marinara on a bit of spaghetti to start followed by a meatball as a separate course. It’s the primi then secondi approach. Spaghetti and meatballs deconstructed.

Spaghetti with Rao's marinara sauce.



spaghetti and meatballs deconstructed
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
Serves: 4
The marinara
  • 2 28 oz cans of San Marzano whole tomatoes
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 2 oz pork fat back, coarsely chopped (can substitute pancetta)
  • ¼ cup finely diced onion
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely minced
  • salt to taste (about a tsp, depending on how salty your tomatoes are)
The meatballs
  • 1 lb lean ground beef
  • ½lb ground pork
  • ½lb ground veal
  • 1 cup grated pecorino romana cheese (microplane works well here)
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 cups of unseasoned breadcrumbs
  • 2 Tbsp finely chopped Italian parsley
  • 2 cups of lukewarm water
  • 2 tsp salt
  • ½ tsp ground black pepper
  • 1½-2 cups oil to fry
  • 1 lb spaghetti
The marinara
  1. Hand crush the tomatoes, removing the tough piece of core in each tomato (the stem end). You could just put them through a food mill but using your hands is fun.
  2. Heat the olive oil over medium low heat in a 5-6 quart dutch oven or pot of similar size.
  3. Add the fat back or pancetta and cook until the fat is rendered. If you use fat back, remove the rinds.
  4. Add the onions, regulating the heat so they turn translucent but do not brown. Cook for about 3 minutes. Add the minced garlic and cook another 30 seconds.
  5. Pour in the crushed tomatoes, add the salt and simmer for about an hour.
The meatballs
  1. While the marinara simmers prepare the meatballs.
  2. Break up the pork, veal and beef in a large bowl to start mixing them together (it doesn't have to be perfect - just get it started). Add all the remaining ingredients except the water. Mix using your hands to roughly combine. Add the first cup of water and mix. Continue to add the water until you get the mixture to be fairly moist. You are going for a meatball that holds together but isn't at all dry. Most of the time it takes the full two cups or very close to it.
  3. Form the meat mixture into 8 large meatballs about 2½ - 3 inches in diameter.
  4. Place the meatballs in the fridge for around 30 minutes to set up.
  5. Shallow fry the meatballs until golden brown. I find a 10 inch diameter pot with 1½ cups of oil gets you to the point where half the meatball is submerged when cooking 4 at a time. Cook until golden then nudge them over with a slotted spoon to cook the other side.
  6. Drain on paper towel and then add them to the marinara. 8 meatballs will just fit in a single layer in a 5-6 quart dutch oven.
  7. Simmer about one hour. Your marinara will have simmered two hours in total.
  8. To serve, cook spaghetti per the instructions on the package. Drain and toss with a bit of the marinara. Serve with grated pecorino romano as a first course.
  9. Serve the meatballs with the marinara sauce, sprinkled with more pecorino romana as a second course. One giant meatball alone on a plate with a puddle of marinara sauce is a bit of an unorthodox presentation but live a little.
  10. Bask in the adulation of your guests...


8 thoughts on “spaghetti and meatballs deconstructed

  1. For as long as I can remember, my birthday dinner has always been spaghetti and meatballs. Not spaghetti and meat sauce, although now as a grown-up, I can understand why busy parents go that route every now and then. I still make myself meatballs for my birthday if I’m not visiting back home. Needless to say, I am very, very excited for this recipe! Come October, I’ll be using this recipe, thank you!

  2. Nothing like a Rao’s meatball!! I see why they’re so delicious. I think it’s all those homemade touches (like hand crushing tomatoes) and putting in the time (yes, simmer them in the gravy!!) that make these so amazing.

    • Simmering them in the marinara. That is, I think, the secret to duplicating the restaurant experience. Took me quite a while to figure this one out…

  3. I love the the simplicity of his recipe. The nuttiness of the pecorino romana cheese adds great depth to the richness of the meatballs accompanied by the subtlness of the marinara sauce! This is a GREAT dish! Thanks for sharing!

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