Seasonal Flavors: Zito Family Spaghetti Sauce with Meatballs


We’re still friends with ‘the girl next door’ from our hometown. Kenna still lives in Johnstown, and visits the Charlottesville area a few times a year. I find it an extraordinary statement that she and my siblings and I still connect. Our mothers were friends who shared coffee, cigarettes and gossip. We now get together a few times each year to share memories and celebrate holidays. 

The author’s grandchildren enjoying Zito Family pasta a few years ago. Photo: Denise Zito.

The last time Kenna visited, my brother and I took her to Lampo, that tiny Italian Restaurant in Belmont. Lampo is famous for its wood-fired pizzas, which are truly terrific. But we also go for the sides: the cauliflower, the cold meat and cheese platters.  But when Kenna ordered the meatballs with “let’s share!,” my brother Tom and I exchanged glances. One thing we almost never do is order pasta or meatballs at a restaurant. Invariably, they are never good. They don’t taste right. What we make is so much better.

But we dutifully tried the Lampo meatballs, and they were… good. Really good. How nice! We could then laugh and confess to Kenna our misgivings. She remarked, “Well, I’ve never made meatballs; I wouldn’t know where to begin.”

Never made meatballs? How could that be? She had also never made tomato sauce. The things you learn about people you’ve known your whole life!

We gave her our recipe—it’s really just a description. She wrote a few weeks later to report that her friends were delighted. And she had leftovers for the freezer.

This made me think that if Kenna didn’t know how to make a meatball, maybe other people could use our recipe.  Enjoy.  

Zito Family Spaghetti Sauce with Meatballs

For the sauce

  • 3 T olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 4 cloves of garlic, minced
  • A handful of dried basil (sounds like a lot, but it’s actually just enough)
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 cans (28oz) crushed tomatoes (you may substitute 2 cans of tomato puree and a small can of tomato paste)

For the meatballs

  • 1 lb ground beef
  • 1 lb ground pork
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 pieces sliced bread
  • 3 cloves crushed garlic
  • 2 T fresh dried parsley
  • 2 T basil
  • 2 tsp salt
  • ½ cup grated Romano cheese
  • Handful of chopped celery leaves

Heat the oil in a large, heavy pot and cook the onions gently, till soft. Add the garlic and cook for about 30 seconds, then add all the other sauce ingredients. Stir to combine, then bring to a boil, and lower the heat to a very low simmer.

Soak the bread in a bowl of warm water for about five minutes. Wring the bread to remove the water, then combine with all the other meatball ingredients. Use your hands to mix thoroughly.

Form the meatballs into 1-inch spheres and drop gently into the sauce. Do this carefully so they don’t fall apart. If you run out of space in the pot, drop the meatballs gently atop each other. They will eventually sink into the sauce. Cover the pot and maintain on the lowest heat setting.

DON’T STIR for an hour. Then gently, gently, stir to make sure the meatballs are submerged in the sauce, and continue cooking till it’s time for dinner, at least another two hours.

Remove the meatballs and serve separately. Cook a pound of your favorite pasta, according to package directions for al dente. Drain and mix with the sauce. Please don’t serve the pasta separate from the sauce; your pasta will cool and stick together. Mix it with the sauce before serving. Serve with grated Romano.


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