Spaghetti with Tomato Sauce and Ricotta Turkey Meatballs

“In prison, dinner was always a big thing,” Henry, the Goodfellas narrator, explains. As is having that much red meat (sorry, fellas). Accordingly, our rendition of the classic prison meal features another meat: turkey. Vinnie says “all the flavor” is in the pork, but we think these meatballs might be able to change his mind.

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For the ricotta turkey meatballs

  • 1 1/2 slices whole wheat bread, crusts removed and cubed
  • 1/2 Cup whole milk
  • 1 Pound ground turkey
  • 1/2 yellow onion, grated
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1 Tablespoon minced parsley
  • 1 Tablespoon minced basil
  • 1 egg
  • 2 Tablespoons whole milk ricotta
  • 1 Tablespoon grated parmesan
  • 2 Teaspoons salt
  • 2 Teaspoons freshly ground pepper
  • 1/2 Cup olive oil

For the tomato sauce

  • 1/4 Cup olive oil
  • 1 Tablespoon dried red pepper flakes
  • 6 cloves garlic
  • 1 onion, grated
  • Two 28-ounce cans plum tomatoes, preferably San Marzano
  • 4 basil stalks, leaves still attached


Calories Per Serving664

Folate equivalent (total)44µg11%

Riboflavin (B2)0.4mg21.9%

Spaghettini with ricotta meatballs

Ricotta ensures a delicate texture and moistness in these pork and veal meatballs, served in a rich tomato sauce.



Skill level


  • 70 g stale crustless bread, torn
  • 125 ml (½ cup) milk
  • 120 g ricotta
  • 500 g pork and veal mince
  • 1 egg
  • 40 g (½ cup) grated parmesan, plus extra, to serve
  • 2-3 tbsp chopped parsley leaves, stalks reserved
  • ¼ tsp finely grated nutmeg
  • finely grated zest of ½ lemon
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 50 ml extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 large French shallot or small brown onion, finely chopped
  • 150 ml red wine
  • 800 ml passata
  • 1 piece red or yellow capsicum
  • 1 small celery stalk from the heart, leaves reserved
  • 375 g spaghettini

Cook's notes

Oven temperatures are for conventional if using fan-forced (convection), reduce the temperature by 20˚C. | We use Australian tablespoons and cups: 1 teaspoon equals 5 ml 1 tablespoon equals 20 ml 1 cup equals 250 ml. | All herbs are fresh (unless specified) and cups are lightly packed. | All vegetables are medium size and peeled, unless specified. | All eggs are 55-60 g, unless specified.


Standing time: 40 minutes

1. Place the bread and milk in a large mixing bowl, toss to combine. Stand for 20 minutes, then use your hands to mash it into a pulp. Add the ricotta, mince, egg, parmesan, parsley, nutmeg, lemon zest and a little salt and pepper and mix well (using your hands is best here) to create an even paste. Refrigerate for 20-30 minutes to firm up a bit.

2. Heat the oil in a large heavy-based frying pan over medium heat. Shape the meatball mixture into golf ball-sized rounds and cook in batches until browned all over. Add the shallot and cook with the meatballs for 1-2 minutes. Add the wine and simmer for 2-3 minutes, then add the passata, 400 ml water, capsicum, celery stalk, the reserved parsley stalks and a pinch of salt. Stir through gently, then bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat to low, cover and cook for 2 hours, stirring occasionally. Taste for salt and adjust to your liking. Discard the exhausted celery and parsley stalks and capsicum.

3. Bring a large saucepan of well salted water to the boil. Add the pasta, stir well and cook until just before al dente. Strain the pasta straight into the meatball pan, dragging along some pasta cooking water. Stir well, but gently, not to disturb the soft meatballs. Serve hot, with fresh celery leaves, a little grated parmesan and a grinding of pepper.

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Calabrian Ricotta Balls in Tomato Sauce.

This fabulous vegetarian version of pasta with ‘meatballs’ is based on a traditional recipe from Calabria in Southern Italy. These Calabrian ricotta balls in tomato sauce are delicious with pasta or without! You can also make extra and fry or bake them!

Polpette di ricotta al sugo.

Ricotta balls in tomato sauce is originally a Calabrian recipe that originated among the region’s poorer farming and peasant population, in particular in the mountainous Sila area. Like so many of Italy’s traditional recipes, this is a combination of simple staple ingredients. However, in the past this was also a dish made on special occasions, such as carnival, by people for whom meat was a luxury.

What are polpette?

In Italian, the word polpette is used to mean balls of minced ingredients whether they are made of meat, vegetables or cheese. So ‘polpette di ricotta’ basically means ricotta balls. Meatballs are usually just referred to as ‘polpette’. Apparently, meat based meatballs as we know them were introduced to Europe by the Arabs. Think koftas! However, unlike in US, spaghetti with meatballs isn’t a typical Italian dish.

Many Italians eat meatballs without the pasta. Although they use the sauce as a pasta condiment. For example, my hubby’s family have the tomato sauce with pasta first and then follow with the meatballs, which they take out of the sauce! Even where they are eaten with pasta, Italian meatballs are much smaller than those found elsewhere. Check out this recipe for orecchiette with meatballs a traditional dish from Puglia.

These Calabrian ricotta balls in tomato sauce are also eaten without pasta, often as a main course. In addition, you can bake or fry them and serve them as an appetizer or snack.

So what is ricotta?

Ricotta is an Italian whey cheese, meaning it’s made from the whey produced after making other types of cheese. Simply put, when you make cheese, you separate milk into two substances, curds and whey! Most cheeses are made using the curds. Ricotta is made using the whey. In Italy, it can be the whey from cow, goat, sheep or water buffalo milk. It’s practically a staple here, especially in the South. The word ricotta means recooked. In fact, this fresh cheese is made by heating the whey after letting it ferment for up to 24 hours.

Italians use ricotta in many ways in desserts and cakes and on pizza. There are also lots of pasta recipes that include it. My favourite way to eat this fresh cheese is actually on its own or with honey on bread for breakfast, especially if it’s very fresh and homemade. However, these Calabrian ricotta balls in tomato sauce is my second favourite way to use ricotta.

Making Calabrian ricotta balls with pasta.

As I mentioned before this is a simple recipe made with staple ingredients, well Italian staples! The ricotta for these polpette is usually cow’s milk ricotta or sheep ricotta. Other ingredients are eggs, parsley, garlic, breadcrumbs and grated parmigiano and pecorino. You can just use one of those grated cheeses if you don’t have both. (vegetarians will need to use a hard cheese that doesn’t contain animal rennet). The tomato sauce is a simple one with fresh tomatoes and/or passata and garlic.

The pasta.

I served a short flat pasta called mafaldine with these Calabrian ricotta balls. Do you know this pasta? Mafaldine, also known as mafalde or reginette (meaning little queens) is a wide flat pasta ribbon, similar to pappardelle but with scalloped or ruffled edges. You can find it in both a long and short version. Mafaldine pasta is actually named after Princess Mafalda of Savoy, the second daughter of King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy. Her story is sadly a tragic one! You can read about her in my mafaldine post.

Italian recipes for these ricotta balls with pasta mostly call for spaghetti or short pasta like fusilli. I think the mafaldine were fantastic and other short flat pasta would go well too, for example orecchiette. Also, I came across a number of baked pasta versions which I really want to try. In that case, short pasta like fusilli or rigatoni would be best. Plus a layer of sliced mozzarella on top!

Whichever way you decide to serve these Calabrian ricotta balls, I’m sure you’ll love them as much as I do! This dish is a great option for meatless Mondays and vegetarians!

If you do try this Calabrian ricotta balls with pasta recipe, I’d love to hear what you think. Please write a comment here on the blog or post a comment on the Pasta Project Facebook page.

Your feedback means a lot to me!

Other pasta with ricotta recipes

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Spaghetti with Meatballs and Garlicky Ricotta

Scrumptious meatballs simmered in tomato sauce, a twirl of Spaghetti, and a dollop of herbed ricotta – you’ll love recreating this restaurant classic at home.



  • 1 lb. Sfoglini Spaghetti
  • 1 jar good quality tomato sauce (such as Passata or Sugo)
  • 1 lb. ground beef
  • 3/4 lb. ground pork
  • 1 slice white bread, crust removed
  • 1/3 cup milk
  • 1 egg
  • 1/3 cup seasoned breadcrumbs
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1 medium onion, grated (about 3/4 cup lovely packed)
  • 2 garlic cloves mined
  • 2 tbsp. fresh Italian parsley, minced
  • 1/2 tbsp. dried basil
  • 1/2 tbsp. dried oregano
  • 2 tsp. kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • Extra-virgin olive oil


In a large mixing bowl, soak the white bread in milk until milk is completely absorbed and the bread easily tears apart (approx. 5 minutes). Tear bread into tiny 1/4” pieces.

Add the beef, pork, egg, breadcrumbs, cheese, onion, garlic, parsley, oregano, basil, salt and several turns of freshly ground black pepper to the mixing bowl with soaked bread pieces and any residual milk. Use a fork to lightly combine the mixture but do not overwork or over mix. Once combined, use your hands to form 2" balls. This mixture will yield 14 or so meatballs.

Coat a large sauté or cast-iron pan with about 1/8" olive oil and heat oil over medium to medium high heat. When oil is hot, add several meatballs to the pan, ensuring not to overcrowd. Brown the meatballs on every side, using tongs to rotate them, and if needed, to gently shape them back into balls should they lose their shape. Once browned, remove the meatballs to a wire rack over a baking sheet. Repeat this process, until all meatballs have been browned. Discard the oil but do not wipe out or clean the pan.

Add the tomato sauce and the meatballs back to the pan and heat over medium-low heat, stirring the sauce frequently and turning the meatballs in the sauce so that they cook evenly. When meatballs are fully cooked, approximately 30-35 minutes, remove the meatballs to a plate.

Boil Sfoglini Spaghetti according to package instructions and drain when al dente, reserving 1 cup of starchy water.

Over low heat, add the cooked spaghetti in batches to the pan with the sauce to evenly coat with the sauce, adding a tablespoon of reserved water at a time to loosen the sauce and evenly coat the pasta, if needed.

For the garnish: In a small sauté pan, over low heat, heat the olive oil. Once hot, add the garlic and cook for 1-2 minutes until garlic is fragrant but not yet brown. Add the garlic/oil mixture to a small bowl. Mix in the ricotta, parmesan, parsley and black pepper until combined.

Serve the meatballs over the spaghetti in your favorite serving bowl or platter and place generous dollops of the ricotta garnish around the platter. Serve with additional parmesan cheese and enjoy with your favorite bubbly!

Recipe Summary

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 5 cups canned crushed tomatoes
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/3 cup milk
  • 1 white onion, finely chopped
  • 1/4 cup plain breadcrumbs
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Asiago or Parmesan cheese, plus more for serving
  • 1/2 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 pound ground turkey
  • 1 pound spaghetti

Make the sauce: In a large nonstick skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add garlic, and cook about 1 minute. Stir in tomatoes, oregano, and thyme, and season with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, lower heat, and simmer, covered, 20 to 25 minutes.

Make the meatballs: In a large bowl, whisk together egg, milk, 1 1/4 teaspoons salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper with a fork. Stir in onion, breadcrumbs, cheese, and parsley. Add turkey, and mix until combined. Form mixture into 1 1/2-inch balls.

Add meatballs to skillet, and spoon sauce over to coat. Place over medium heat until meatballs are just cooked through, about 8 minutes.

Cook spaghetti until al dente according to package instructions, about 12 minutes. Drain pasta, transfer to skillet, and toss gently with the sauce. Serve with more cheese.


For the meatballs, heat the oil in a pan and fry the onion for about 10 minutes until softened.

Meanwhile, soak the breadcrumbs in the milk for 10 minutes in a large bowl.

For the sauce, heat the oil in a pan and fry the onion for about 10 minutes until softened. Add the crushed garlic and sauté for one minute.

Add all the remaining ingredients and simmer, covered, for seven minutes.

For the meatballs, add the turkey mince, grated apple, thyme, sautéed onions, salt and freshly ground black pepper to the soaked breadcrumbs and mix together.

Using floured hands, form teaspoons of the turkey mixture into small balls.

Heat the sunflower oil in a frying pan and brown the meatballs. Transfer the meatballs to the pan of tomato sauce and simmer, uncovered, for 8-10 minutes.

Cook the spaghetti according to the instructions on the packet. Drain and toss with the sauce. Sprinkle with a little chopped parsley or basil and serve.

Julia Turshen’s Turkey + Ricotta Meatballs

The first thing I ever cooked for my wife, Grace, were these meatballs. I made the mixture at my apartment, then packed it up with a box of pasta, ingredients for sauce, and a pot (she told me she had only a skillet) and took it all to her apartment . . . which soon became my apartment, too. A small victory here is not only about getting someone to marry you (!), but also about making meatballs that are incredibly light and tender by incorporating a generous amount of ricotta cheese in the mixture. In fact, I’ve found that by adding ricotta, you can skip the usual bread crumbs and eggs (which also makes this recipe gluten-free, if that’s important to you)—I love any addition that allows you to let go of a few things. Another small victory is baking the meatballs instead of frying them. It’s much less messy and so easy—win-win. Please note that while most of the recipes in this book serve four, I’ve made this one a bit larger because whenever I make meatballs, I like to make a ton so that I can freeze some. That way, I can have meatballs on the spur of the moment. I thought you might like that too, but feel free to cut the recipe in half if you prefer.

Excerpted from Small Victories by Julia Turshen. Published by Chronicle Books. Text ©2016 Julia Turshen. Photograph ©2016 Gentl + Hyers.

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This ground turkey pasta bake is out of this world! I took my 5 year old popular recipe, improved a bit and it turned out amazing!

Penne soaks up delicious tomato sauce with a hint of balsamic and spice. In my house, everyone loves pasta with cheese, I bet in yours too. I just knew that I could sneak in a bunch of kale and nobody would complain. There is melted cheese in between layers and on top, but reasonable amount.

Pair it with a glass of red wine, simple salad and be transported to a fancy restaurant at about $10 per adult, including the wine. And did I mention this ground turkey pasta dish is easy and fairly quick for a weeknight meal?! Just like this Tuscan chicken pasta.

The Keys to Meatball Success

This recipe isn't my first foray into Italian-American meatball-making. I spent a lot of time perfecting my "ultimate" recipe years ago, and have refined it in the years since. My mission here was to adapt the basics of that recipe to this version—streamlining a few of the more ambitious steps, like adding gelatinized stock and using buttermilk to soak the bread—to make it a little less of a project. In the context of a big plate of pasta, those small improvements get lost in the shuffle and aren't as important for meatball success (they are, frankly, optional in the original recipe as well).

Otherwise, the bones of that recipe stand:

  • Incorporating a panade made from fresh, milk-soaked bread, not dry breadcrumbs, makes a lighter and more tender final meatball.
  • A mixture of ground beef and pork offers the best of both worlds: more robust flavor from the beef, tempered by pork's relative mildness, and a good combination of meaty textures that produces a meatball that's hefty without being heavy. Pancetta adds even more porky fat to the party, for added flavor and juiciness.
  • A stand mixer fully mixes the panade, flavorings, and egg yolks with some of the meat, and then the rest of the meat is incorporated by hand to prevent over-mixing the meatballs, which can result in a bouncy, rubbery texture.

Pasta with Tomato Sauce and Turkey Meatballs

I don´t know about you, but having a bowl of pasta with meatballs means comfort food to me. Pasta is a constant dish in Peruvian tables, served with myriad of sauces, vegetables and / or meats. We love this filling ingredient since the first Italians brought it to our country, and this love is always growing. Even in the Andes or in small villages in the Amazon, you can now find pasta as the main dish or as a side for any protein (or for more carbs).

Tomato sauce and meatballs is one of the most popular ways to have pasta at home. Through the years, I have tried every kind of recipe for meatballs: beef, chicken, pork, turkey, tofu, veal, and a mixture of different vegetables. Even though most of them are delicious, I´ve found this turkey recipe to be among my favorites.

A few days ago I was visiting my cousin Carolina, and she decided we should make meatballs for dinner. We had every ingredient we needed in the kitchen: ground turkey in the freezer big, plump and juicy tomatoes from the garden onions also from the garden herbs and spices and pasta in the pantry. In about an hour we had steaming bowls of pasta with the most delicious tomato sauce with turkey meatballs ready on the table. Everything made from scratch, as we Peruvians like it.