Tony Danza’s Sunday Sauce with Meatballs

Savory Recipes, Winter • 13 Jan 2010


Last year I became a very fortunate fan-girl when I was asked to interview Tony Danza, one of my favorite childhood television stars, for a holiday-centric profile that was never published. Since we spoke, I have made his Sunday sauce with meatballs countless times.

With his son Marc, he wrote the adorable, pint-sized cookbook Don’t Fill Up on the Antipasto: Tony Danza’s Father-Son Cookbook (Scribner, 2008) jam-packed with his beloved Italian-American family recipes. And I have to admit, Mr. Danza is one hell of a cook!

“Food was what we did in my family,” reminisced Danza. “We met over food, and not just during the holidays. It was always about food: what we were having, who was making what. I had a real Italian upbringing: my grandfather made wine, my grandmother made homemade olives. And you never know what would appear in the Sunday sauce. I’m sure a pigeon or two made it in!”

The Christmas meal was particularly significant for Danza’s family, especially his grandparents. It signified their journey to the United States, their struggles, their successes and, most of all, their desire to make a better life for their children and grandchildren. “They tried to assimilate into the country and wanted to do better for their kids,” he says. “Christmas became a sign that they made it.”

Danza told me that their Christmases consisted of Italian-American dishes such as his family’s beloved lasagna, manicotti, an array of antipasti and very American roast turkey. He also gave me the recipe for his meatballs and sauce, which includes two ingredients his family used to make their holiday lasagna: meatballs and Sunday sauce.

I didn’t know what to expect the first time I tried the recipe. I guess you could say I was skeptical. I mean, isn’t this the man known for the catch phrase “ay oh- oh ay?” The sauce is cooked in the true Italian mode: low and slow. And with pork ribs and meatballs simmering in the red sauce for hours, the taste is deep, rich and complex. In fact, it may be the most layered, full-bodied red sauces I have ever tasted.

Sunday Sauce with Meatballs

2 cans (35 ounces each) plum tomatoes with basil
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
4 garlic cloves, chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/2 cup red wine
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup water
1/2 cup fresh basil leaves, cut into thin strips

Meatballs and Ribs:
1 pound ground sirloin or lean ground beef, pork, turkey, veal, chicken, or any combination
2 eggs
6 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1/2 cup seasoned bread crumbs
1 tablespoons salt
1 tablespoon black pepper
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup milk
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 garlic cloves, chopped
1 pound pork spareribs, trimmed
1 can (6 ounces) tomato paste

1. Strain the tomatoes in a colander to extract the juice, breaking the tomatoes apart with your hands. Discard the pulp. (This eliminates the bitter part of the tomato.)

2. Now make the meatballs. Put the ground meat in a mixing bowl. Beat the eggs and add them to the meat along with 6 cloves garlic, the bread crumbs, salt, pepper, Parmesan, and milk. Mix this all together with your hands. Wet your hands with water and continue to wet them as you pinch meat from the bowl and roll into 2-inch balls. Roll the balls in the flour.

3. Heat the oil in a large skillet. Add 3 cloves chopped garlic and sauté until golden brown. Remove the garlic with a slotted spoon and set aside. Add the meatballs and sauté over medium-high heat, turning them, until they are brown all over. As soon as you can pick them up with a fork, they are ready. You don’t want them to be well done. (If the meatball slides off the fork when you pick it up, it needs to cook a little longer.)

4. Cut the ribs apart. Sauté them in the hot oil until very brown and remove. Return the garlic to the oil and add the tomato paste to the pan. Cook, stirring, over medium heat for about 3 minutes. Remove from the heat.

5. Back to the sauce: Heat the olive oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add 4 cloves garlic, the onion, red and black pepper and sauté until the onion is soft and beginning to brown, about 5 minutes. Add the juiced tomatoes, red wine, Parmesan, and salt. Add the tomato paste/garlic mixture and the water and stir together over medium heat. Add the meatballs and spareribs. Bring to an easy boil, then simmer over low heat for 2 hours.

6. Add the basil and simmer for 15 minutes more. The spareribs should be very tender, falling off the bone, and the meatballs should float in the sauce.

Yield: Serves 4 to 6.

7 Responses

  1. bill bacher

    i love tony danza, and all of his shoes. i love italian food. my favourite food, although i am irish german, english, spanish, and others. my son’s mom is sicilian and italian, and the best cook in the world. anything connected with tony danza, and italians, and tony danza’s italian cooking has gotta be great. a tony danza fan since the show taxi. sincerely, bill bacher.

  2. Pingback: Recipe Friday | Hilary With One L

  3. Marilyn Davis

    Watched the Today show and saw Al with Tony Danza. Will be making Tonys meatballs next time we have them. They really looked so good. I’m 77 yrs old and have cooked many meatballs, have tried them many ways so this is a treat to make another version. Thank you Tony and Al.

  4. Pamela Burnham

    Recipe instructions talk about adding tomato paste in 2 instances, but not mentioned in ingredients; don’t know how much to put in.

    • Hi Pamela! The ingredient list includes a can of tomato paste. You saute it with the garlic and then later add the tomato paste/garlic mixture to the sauce. Hope that helps!

  5. Jill Carter

    This recipe has one confusing instruction and that is about the canned tomatoes. What do you end up using, just the juice? It says to discard the pulp, but it says to break up the tomatoes with your hands first. Doesn’t make sense. I wish I could see a video that clears this up. The Today Show video, skipped the sauce being created, along with leaving out the Tomato paste from the list of ingredients, yet referring to it in the instructions. Your version cleared that up.

    • Yes, you discard the pulp. Basically just get really messy and squeeze the life out of the canned tomatoes so you get as much liquid out of them as possible. Then strain out the solids and discard them, or use them in another recipe.

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