Make it Naked

Grandma’s Meatballs and Marinara Sauce (Gluten Free)

I’m back with another Grandpa story! If you’re new here, you can meet my grandpa here. And here. And here. And if you find him as entertaining as I do, there’s more here.

sauce ingredients

Grandpa eats seven items: cake, bread, ice cream, beef, pork, macaroni (what most of us call pasta) and gravy (also known as marinara sauce). That’s it. No fish, no poultry, no vegetables. None. Ever. He tells a story about how his mom would frequently slip him a quarter when he was just a young kid to go buy two slices of pizza for dinner knowing he wouldn’t eat the meal she just cooked.

meatball goods

My grandmother picked up spoiling him where his mother left off. She made only food that he loved. What most would consider “Sunday dinner,” she made every night of the week. I remember the first time Jon met my grandparents. We sat down to dinner and she served her meatballs, ziti and sauce. Jon piled his plate high. It was easy to do with her cooking. I tried to warn him but he had no idea what to expect. Just as he cleared his plate, out came the veal parmesan and then a platter of eggplant parmesan. He ate it, he had to or there’s a good chance this marriage wouldn’t have happened.

get your hands messy

Grandpa’s need for her cooking every night was certainly justified when you tasted anything she made. Since my grandmother’s passing, Grandpa has attempted to make her sauce himself but much to his disappoint, it never tastes like Grandma’s. He’s getting older (92) and he’s cooking a lot less, so he’s been on a mission to find a restaurant that serves the perfect meatballs and sauce. Yeah, so did you read the part about him not liking anything his own mother made? Needless to say, nothing has been good enough. Everything’s too bland, too thick, too sweet, too something. He’s an elderly, Italian, male Goldilocks. Nothing is ever “just right.”

ready for cooking

Growing up, my mom used to make Grandma’s sauce and meatballs on Sundays, so I knew she knew the recipe. I asked her for it and what I received went something like this…

“Add garlic powder if you want. Sometimes I use rosemary. A little sugar is optional.” Seriously? Worst recipe ever. Regardless, I went at it with my fingers crossed.


After a few minutes of work and few hours of simmering, I sat down to taste. Nailed it! At least I thought so, but let’s be real, what I thought didn’t matter. Gramps was the true test.

so good

I dropped a batch off at his house and figured I’d hear later how they were “nice” but I didn’t need to do that anymore. Translation: “That was gross and I’d rather eat cake for dinner.” I was prepared to be insulted. He hates everything. My phone rang:

And now… I’m running a Grandpa catering business.

10 meals for gramps

I make a huge batch, package them into meal-sized portions and freeze them. All he has to do is re-heat them. He doesn’t talk to me now without telling me to sell them. So, instead of setting up a meatball stand, I’m sharing them with you, right here, right now.

twirl it

The sauce is full of flavor. The fresh basil makes a huge difference and as it sits and simmers, the most comforting smell in the world fills your house. The longer the sauce sits the better it gets. I’ve let it simmer for as little as one hour or as long as four. Do what you have time for. My grandmother pan-fried her meatballs and then let them sit in the sauce all day. I baked mine for a healthier approach. It worked beautifully. After simmering for a while in the sauce, they get so tender that I see no reason at all to fry them.

tomato crusher!

I know what you’re thinking….there’s too many ingredients, they take too long, they’re too hard. I promise, they’re not. They’re just right.

Grandma’s Marinara Sauce and Meatballs

For the sauce:

1 medium onion, minced
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 (28oz) cans crushed tomatoes
28oz of water
1 (6oz) can of tomato paste
2 bay leaves
1/3 cup freshly chopped basil
2 teaspoons dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon rosemary powder (or 1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh)
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt (or to taste)
1/4 teaspoons black pepper


  1. In a large pot or dutch oven, heat olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the onion. Stir occasionally until most are opaque and some may brown. Brown is ok. Burnt is not.
  2. Add the 3 cans of tomatoes and all the seasoning from bay leaves to pepper. Stir and let sit at medium-low heat for about 30 minutes.
  3. Fill one of the tomato cans with water (28oz) and add to the pot. Add the can of paste. Stir and turn heat to low. Let simmer for 1-3  more hours. You can add more water at anytime if you prefer your sauce on the thinner side.
  4. You can stop here, but I highly recommend you keep going and make some meatballs.

For the meatballs: (makes about 16 medium sized meatballs)

1 lb of ground beef (I’ve used both 93/7 and 80/20)
1 egg
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
1/2 cup oat flour (or bread crumbs if you’re not gluten free)
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
1 teaspoon dried oregano
2 gloves garlic, pressed or minced
Pinch of kosher salt and black pepper


  1. Preheat oven to 350. Spray the top of a broiling pan with cooking spray and set aside.
  2. Combine all ingredients in a large bowl. Using your hands, be sure all ingredients are mixed well. Roll into balls.
  3. Place on broil pan and bake for 20-25 minutes or until cooked through.
  4. If you’re in a hurry, you can of course eat them now BUT if you want the best meatballs you’ve ever had, let them sit in that simmering sauce up there for at least an hour.

add cheese if you please


  1. See that tomato crusher (I’m sure there’s a more technical term) in the background a few photos up? That was my grandmother’s. I don’t think she actually crushed tomatoes in years, but she used to use it to make her sauce. We found it when we moved my grandfather out of their house. I had to keep it. Love it.
  2. I got another shipment of wonderful Nudo Olive Oil. I used it in this sauce. I’m absolutely LOVING all of their oils so far!
  3. The tomatoes I used this time were seasoned with basil as you can see on the cans up there. I normally use unseasoned because I like to control the flavor but I didn’t notice a difference. Use whichever you prefer or have.

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Posted on April 4, 2013

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