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Ricotta Meatballs with Ziti is not your average pasta with meatball recipe! Ricotta is added to the meatballs to give them a wonderfully soft texture and taste you are sure to love.
Today’s Ricotta Meatball recipe was inspired by a meatloaf recipe that we saw Lydia Bastianich prepare on her Italian cooking show on PBS.
She referred to it as a “Marchegiano-style meatloaf, with ricotta added to the mix, which renders the loaf tender and tasty – not heavy and dense, as they so often are.”
We decided to try adding ricotta to an Italian meatball recipe instead – and the delicious effect was the same! Fork-tender meatballs with a light and very moist texture. Since ricotta is a mild, milky cheese, it still allowed the flavors of the seasoned meat to shine through.
What is Marchegian-style cooking?
This term refers to recipes that originate in Le Marche (or The Marches as translated to English) a region in central Italy with the Adriatic Sea along the eastern coast, and the Appennine Mountains along its Western border.
This is a less-touristed region of Italy, but travelers in-the-know visit the area for their meats and salumi, grilled and deep-fried foods, seafood, and cheeses.
Here’s a fun fact according to GreatItalianChefs.com: The people of Marche eat more meat per person than anywhere else in Italy, and they’re particularly fond of grilling it alla brace – over burning wood.
Why you’ll love Ricotta Meatballs with Ziti
- The texture and flavor of meatballs – thanks to the ricotta in the mix – is really quite special.
- You can make this recipe ahead of time – in fact, you should chill the meatballs before baking them in the oven.
- These meatballs are delicious served over pasta with sauce, as shown, but they would also be delicious served as meatball subs, or in a casserole.
Key Ingredients & Substitutions
- Whole milk ricotta cheese – While you could use a low fat or even a no fat ricotta in this recipe, the milk fat from the whole milk ricotta adds the perfect amount of fat and flavor to these meatballs. You can even make your own homemade ricotta cheese with this recipe.
- Ground meat – A mix of ground beef, ground pork and ground veal are the perfect blend for Italian meatballs. You could however just use beef and pork, or just beef as long as the total weight is three pounds.
- Country bread – Choose a dense country-style loaf or sour dough bread. The crusts will be cut off, and the soft insides cubed, then soaked in milk. This bread is added in place of any dry breadcrumbs – and another important step that yields tender meatballs once they are cooked.
- Eggs – Added as a binding ingredient.
- Seasonings – Onions, parsley, Parmesan, salt, pepper and nutmeg.
- Ziti and Tomato Sauce – We served our meatballs with ziti, but you can substitute with any favorite pasta. Make a homemade Italian Tomato Sauce or your favorite store-bought variety.
Tips & Tricks
Store-bought ricotta cheese needs to be drained for four hours (or overnight) to remove any excess liquid or whey. After draining, you’ll be left with a thick, soft cheese that really enhances the finished meatballs.
Special Tools Needed
- Mesh strainer, cheesecloth, and bowl – To drain the ricotta
- Large bowl, to mix the meatballs
- Scoop, to portion out the meatballs
- Sheet tray, to bake the meatballs
- Pot, to cook the ziti
- Colander, to drain the ziti
- Pan, to heat the sauce
How do I make Ricotta Meatballs with Ziti?
- Drain the ricotta by wrapping in cheesecloth and pressing into a strainer over a bowl for four hours or longer. (If you are very ambitious, you can make your own ricotta cheese by following this recipe and drain well.)
- Soak the bread cubes in milk while measuring and preparing the remaining ingredients. Then squeeze out all milk. Discard the milk.
- Add the drained ricotta, ground meats, eggs, onion, parsley, Parmesan, salt, pepper and nutmeg along with the squeezed-out bread. Gently mix to combine.
- Scoop out 24 balls of meat mixture onto your counter, rolling each into a ball and placing them onto a parchment-covered sheet tray.
- Refrigerate for 30 minutes, roll again, and then brush with olive oil.
- Bake in the oven until cooked through, about 25 minutes
- Cook ziti while the meatballs bake. Drain when cooked.
- Serve by tossing the drained ziti with some of the sauce and topping with cooked meatballs. Spoon more sauce over the top and sprinkle with grated Parmesan cheese.
Tips & Tricks
- Avoid over-mixing the meatballs. Working the meat mixture too much can result in dense, tough meatballs.
- The meatballs will stay round as they cook – if they are cold before baking. After chilling, roll again before brushing with oil (to assist with browning) and placing the sheet pan in the oven.
- Use a wet scoop and keep your hands wet while scooping and rolling your meatballs. This helps prevent them from sticking to the scoop or your hands.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can I make Italian Ricotta Meatballs with Ziti ahead of time? Yes, you can make them ahead and refrigerate for up to one day before baking. We do not suggest freezing the uncooked meatballs due to the ricotta cheese in the mixture.
How do I store leftovers? Store refrigerated for up to three days.
How do I reheat leftover meatballs? Use the microwave or heat back up on the stove top with some sauce.
Can I freeze? Yes, the cooked meatballs can be frozen
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16 ounce tub whole milk ricotta cheese (or make your own)
3 cups country loaf or sour dough bread, crusts removed and cubed (1 small to medium loaf)
2 cups milk
1 pound ground beef
1 pound ground pork
1 pound ground veal
3 whole large eggs
1 cup sweet onion, diced fine
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese grated, plus more for serving
1/4 cup fresh Italian flat leaf parsley, chopped
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Few grinds fresh nutmeg
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 pound dry ziti
1 1/2 quarts tomato sauce, see here, or jarred
- Lay out a 12-inch square of double layered cheesecloth and place the ricotta in the center. Pull up the sides and tie off the top with twine.
- Lay a strainer over a bowl and place the cheesecloth pouch in the strainer. Place a bowl over the cheesecloth and press down. Add weight to the bowl so that it is constantly pressing down on the cheesecloth pouch and place the entire thing in the refrigerator for at least four hours or overnight. My weight was two sweet potatoes I had but any weight will work.
- After four hours, you should see ½ cup of liquid sitting in the bottom bowl. Discard that liquid.
- Open the cheesecloth bag and place the contents into a large bowl.
- Trim the crusts from the bread and cut the bread into cubes and place three cups into a medium bowl and cover with the milk while you work on the rest of the recipe.
- Add the ground meats, eggs, onion, Parmesan, parsley, salt, pepper and nutmeg to the bowl with the ricotta. Do not mix yet.
- Squeeze out all the milk from the bread and discard the milk. Place the squeezed-out bread in the bowl with the other ingredients and gently mix until combined.
- Line a sheet tray with parchment paper.
- Use a large scoop, scoop out heaping scoops of meatball mixture onto your cutting board or counter, dipping the scoop in water between scoops. You want 24 even sized scoops of meat mixture.
- With wet hands, roll each scoop of mixture into a ball and place on the prepared sheet tray and refrigerate for 30 minutes or longer.
- Fifteen minutes before baking, preheat oven to 425 degrees F.
- After the meatballs sit for at least 30 minutes, remove from refrigeration, re-roll each one to a perfect round shape, then brush each using the half cup of the extra virgin olive oil.
- Bake for 25 minutes.
- While the meatballs are baking, cook the ziti in boiling salted water according to box directions and set aside.
- Heat the sauce in a sauce pan.
- To serve, toss the cooked drained ziti with some of the sauce and top with the meatballs and the rest of the sauce.
- Serve with additional Parmesan cheese over each portion.
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