Mark Leslie's Baked Turkey Meatballs & Nonna's Simple Sauce

Baked Turkey Meatballs
Baked Turkey Meatballs
Sugo di Nonna
Sugo di Nonna

The secret to moist meatballs is using stale or day-old bread.  In Italy, a frugal grandmother wastes nothing. So when bread goes stale and becomes too hard to eat, it is reconstituted in water, squeezed dry and added as an extender, enabling Grandma to make a few more meatballs, feeding a couple more mouths—and insuring they'll be moist, too. Buon Appetito!

Baked Turkey Meatballs

  • 2 1/2-inch slices Italian bread, stale (Tuscan boule, Ciabatta, or similar artisanal bread)
  • 1 pound ground turkey
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1 tablespoon grated Parmigiano-Reggianno cheese
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • Sugo (use "Nonna's Simple Sauce" recipe)
  • Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese for garnish
  • Freshly chopped Italian flat-leaf parsley for garnish

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Put the slices of stale bread in a medium bowl and pour enough water over the bread to cover them. Place a teacup saucer on the bread slices to keep the bread submerged. Set aside to soak for 5 to 10 minutes.

Next place the turkey, egg, thyme, Parmigiano, salt and pepper in a medium bowl. Remove the soaking bread from the water and, using your hands, squeeze the excess water out of the bread. Tear or crumble the bread into very small pieces and add to the meat mixture. Using your hands or a spoon, gently mix all the ingredients until well combined. Divide into 10 to 12 equal parts (roughly the size of a golf ball) and shape them between the palms of your hands into meatballs.

Place the meatballs on the baking sheet and bake for 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, make the sugo—sauce (use "Nonna's Simple Sauce" recipe)

Add the baked meatballs to the simmering sauce (as indicated in the sauce recipe), partially cover the skillet and simmer together for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

To serve, remove the meatballs from the sauce to a warmed platter, garnish with the Parmigiano-Reggiano and chopped parsley. Serve hot. Makes 10 to 12 meatballs. [*NOTE: if doubling the meatball recipe, you do not have to double the sauce recipe. One sauce recipe will be enough for a double meatball recipe.

Sugo di Nonna 

This recipe also calls for "strained tomatoes"—"passato" in Italian, which is simply whole tomatoes that have been put through a food mill to remove their skins and seeds. Tomato Puree (the American version of strained tomatoes) may be substituted for the Italian strained tomatoes called for in the recipe, but you will arrive at a more authentic flavor using strained tomatoes.

  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 small-medium onion, finely minced
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 2 large cloves garlic, finely minced
  • 1/2 cup wine (Nonna used either red or white, whatever was left from the previous night's
  • dinner)
  • 1 (28-ounce) can whole peeled Italian tomatoes (preferably San Marzano tomatoes), placed in a bowl and crushed by hand, reserving all of the liquid
  • 1 cup strained tomatoes (tomato puree may be substituted)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt, or more to taste
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or more to taste
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf Italian parsley

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add the onion and sauté for a minute, stirring constantly. Add the water and cook until the water has almost evaporated, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the garlic and cook another minute. Add the wine and cook until the wine has reduced by half, stirring occasionally, another 2 to 3 minutes. Add the crushed tomatoes with all their juices, strained tomatoes, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer. (*If using with the meatballs, add them at this point, after they come out of the oven.)

Simmer the sauce for 20 to 25 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from the heat, adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper and stir in the basil and parsley. To serve, remove the meatballs and plate as indicated in the meatball recipe.

*To serve the sugo with pasta, prepare 1 pound of your favorite pasta, cooked al dente—tender but firm to the bite—in plenty of boiling, salted water. Drain the pasta and add to the sugo skillet, tossing until the pasta is well coated. Garnish with freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, Pecorino Romano or Grana Padano cheese. Serve hot with the meatballs as a side dish, or serve the meatballs separately as a second course.

Makes 4 cups sauce.