Rao’s meatballs in marinara sauce

Rao’s meatballs. If you’ve ever had them you know. Possible the best meatballs ever. These are those meatballs and this is that marinara sauce.

The one from the fabled little restaurant in Harlem. The restaurant Madonna can’t get a table at.

I’ve been to Rao’s (the copycat one in Las Vegas) and I’ve had the meatballs. They are epic meatballs. Seriously. Tender, moist, flavourful.

Rao’s meatballs are possible the best meatballs ever

Rao’s meatballs are the best meatballs I have ever tasted. They are simple but somehow magical at the same time. It’s totally worth the effort to make these at home.

Raos meatballs in marinara are world famous for a reason

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. And you only simmer the meatballs in the marinara for 15 minutes. In the restaurant, Rao’s meatballs are bigger. Way bigger.

And they taste like they’ve had a good long simmer in the marinara. You barely know where the meatball starts and marinara ends.

Rao's meatballs on a plate with fork.

There’s one thing they don’t tell you

I have the Rao’s cookbook. In it, the recipe is pretty much word for word the recipe in the New York Times. But something’s missing. They aren’t quite magical.

That something is time. You need to simmer them longer. That’s where the magic starts to happen. The real key to this recipe. To get the full Rao’s experience you need to simmer them in the marinara. For an hour. Or more.

San Marzano tomatoes are key for Rao’s meatballs

San Marzano tomatoes are a big part of this recipe. Try not to skimp here. There aren’t a ton of ingredients in this recipe so there isn’t really anywhere to hide. Once you try genuine San Marzano tomatoes I think you’ll understand.

This is your mama’s spaghetti and meatballs. Or maybe it’s your nonna’s. Or maybe you’ve never had meatballs this good. Rao’s meatballs are famous for a reason…

Rao's meatball with marinara on a small plate with fork.

raos meatballs in marinara in a black cast iron frying pan
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4.42 from 12 votes

Rao’s meatballs in marinara sauce

Rao's meatballs are famous for a reason. Big, tender, and floating in the best marinara sauce you've ever tasted.
Course Main
Cuisine Italian
Prep Time 20 minutes
Cook Time 2 hours
Total Time 2 hours 20 minutes
Servings 4
Calories 1530kcal
Author romain | glebekitchen


The marinara

  • 2 28 oz cans San Marzano whole tomatoes
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 2 oz pork fat back - coarsely chopped (can substitute pancetta)
  • 1/4 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
  • 1/2 lb ground pork
  • 1/2 lb ground veal
  • 1 cup grated pecorino romano cheese - a microplane works well here
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 cups unseasoned breadcrumbs
  • 2 Tbsp Italian parsley finely chopped
  • 2 cups lukewarm water
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp ground black pepper

The rest

  • 1 1/2-2 cups vegetable oil to fry
  • 1 lb spaghetti
  • additional pecorino romano to serve


The marinara

  • 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.
  • Heat the olive oil over medium low heat in a 5-6 quart dutch oven or pot of similar size.
  • Add the fat back or pancetta and cook until the fat is rendered. If you use fat back, remove the rinds.
  • 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.
  • Pour in the crushed tomatoes, add the salt and simmer, loosely covered, for about an hour.

The meatballs

  • While the marinara simmers prepare the meatballs.
  • 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.
  • Form the meat mixture into 8 large meatballs about 2 1/2 - 3 inches in diameter.
  • Place the meatballs in the fridge for around 30 minutes to set up.
  • Shallow fry the meatballs in a non stick skillet until golden brown. You will be cursing me if you don't use non-stick. I find a 10 inch diameter pot with 1 1/2 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.
  • 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.

Making them Rao's meatballs

  • Simmer about one hour, loosely covered. Your marinara will have simmered two hours in total.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Bask in the adulation of your guests...


Serving: 4servings | Calories: 1530kcal | Carbohydrates: 141g | Protein: 82g | Fat: 69g | Saturated Fat: 27g | Cholesterol: 264mg | Sodium: 2440mg | Potassium: 1803mg | Fiber: 10g | Sugar: 16g | Vitamin A: 930IU | Vitamin C: 23.7mg | Calcium: 539mg | Iron: 11.3mg

30 thoughts on “Rao’s meatballs in marinara sauce”

    • I would reheat them very gently over low heat in a covered saucepan and I would use an instant read thermometer to only heat them to the desired temp and no higher.

  1. I have seen Frank Sr. of Rao’s make these meatballs in person, and this recipe is virtually identical, with one exception. He did add a small amount of fresh minced garlic to the meat mixture. I know it’s fashionable these days to use fresh breadcrumbs but he used dry/fine breadcrumbs as your recipe calls for. Unlike what it says, even on the Rao’s website, he did not use parm. He used Pecorino Romano as you state. The simmer is the key. One hour minimum.

    • All the ingredients listed in the meatball section are part of the “mix all the ingredients” step.

  2. 5 stars
    I have been making these a while and they are undoubtedly the best. If you change the meat or cheese they will no longer be as good as this recipe. I do grate my pe
    Pecorino Romano because it is also important to use this and not substitute with parmesan. I have played around with the ingredients and it ruins it. I am a perfectionist and have been cooking for
    55 years. Some recipes it doesn’t break it to change some things but this recipe should be left alone. I have started buying the Raos marinara and it is just as good as homemade. Kinda pricey but Sam’s Club does sell it cheaper.

    • That is just an awesome comment. Thank you! Amazingly, the Rao’s jarred sauce does taste like the stuff at the restaurant (at least the Las Vegas location – I am nowhere near important enough to get a table at the real one).

    • People “own” the tables at Rao’s. There are 10 tables And most of the people have had their tables for around 40 years or more. You can be famous As you like you still won’t get a table unless somebody doesn’t show up or is willing to give up their table. There are movie stars who have been turned away as well as politicians.

    • That’s so true. I had them at the Las Vegas location. No way I’m getting into the Harlem location.

  3. I am making these for a crowd. I am doubling the recipe. Do you think it will make a difference if I make the meatballs somewhat smaller on size?
    Thank you!

    • Lucky crowd:-)

      You may find you need less oil to come up halfway. Depends on how many meatballs you want to try cooking at the same time.

      Other than that perhaps the time cooking the meatballs in marinara sauce might need to come down a bit. I would taste one after 45 minutes to see how it was doing.

  4. 5 stars
    I have been cooking meatballs for years trying to find THE recipe. Found this on NYT and tried. Eureka! I can stop looking. My search is over.

  5. 5 stars
    Double-you-owe-Double-you. Wow. So these were so delizioso that I was ordered to make them again this weekend for my Italian in laws. No pressure at all! Thank you for sharing. Quick questions for you : If I were to use only beef would the taste be dramatically different? Thanks!

    • Thank you but I can’t take much credit. These are Rao’s meatballs – I just figured out the step they don’t tell you in the book. I think they would be wind up a bit dry and less delicately flavoured if they were just beef. The pork adds a bit of fat. The veal lightens the overall taste. Good luck with the in-laws!

  6. 5 stars
    I am making this as we speak and my house smells like Nonna’s kitchen! Thanks so much for sharing and I will let you know how it goes when I serve it 😉 yumm

  7. 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!

  8. Romain, my jaw practically dropped when I saw your picture of the meatballs. Incredible. These are possibly the most mouthwatering meatballs I’ve ever seen. I have to make these immediately. Oh.. my…

    • Wow – that is a kind comment. I really hope you like them! They are the best meatballs I have ever made.

  9. 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…

  10. 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!

4.42 from 12 votes (7 ratings without comment)

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