The people at Big Spaghetti (I like to think that’s a thing) have a secret. There’s a far worthier option for that simple, satisfying pasta dinner- bucatini and meatballs.

There are two serious upgrades to this go-to family night dish you can make with surprisingly minimal effort. First, a lush DIY tomato-based sauce is ridiculously easy to make yourself and tastes a hell of a lot better when you do too. And secondly, swapping stringy spaghetti for hardy bucatini noodles cooked in some generously salted water will elevate any tomato sauce, jarred or no.

So what is bucatini? These are long, straight noodles reminiscent of spaghetti. But bucatini is thicker, denser, and has a hole running down the middle of the noodle like a straw. The density helps keep the noodle al dente, while sauce can coat both inside and out.

How bucatini ended up being my noodle of choice was purely a matter of chance. Rushed in the supermarket one day, I grabbed a different pasta brand of spaghetti noodles, but it ended up being a different type of pasta altogether. It was the happiest of accidents. Where spaghetti noodles were a bland backdrop, bucatini stood out spectacularly.

Did I mention it was my son’s favorite as well? We’ve long since replaced spaghetti night with bucatini night. And if you’re feeling up for a change, read on for help with the transition.

Caution: Upgrades Ahead

There were only a few essential tweaks I’ve made over the years to my pasta cooking method (regardless of shape) that really made a difference. One is simply to use enough water. Too little water and the noodles will need constant stirring to stay submerged enough to be softened. Testing the flavor and texture every minute near the suggested cooking time ensures you don’t end up with mush.

Most important of all, generously salt the water (I use coarse sea salt- about 1 to 2 teaspoons in my stock pot). This imparts even more flavor to the noodle so that you have a perfectly seasoned bed of pasta. That starchy water is liquid gold too. Save a little to thicken an otherwise thin sauce.

For the tomato sauce itself, the beauty in DIY is that you have control over flavor and texture. Want a thicker, chunkier sauce? Cook it down a little longer with the lid off. Want a thinner sauce? Put a little less time on the clock, use crushed tomatoes instead of whole ones, or use a handheld blender to smooth it all out. A little too seedy for your taste? Squeeze and strain out the seeds before starting. We prefer a chunkier sauce and don’t mind the seeds, so the recipe below reflects that.

The flavor of any tomato sauce can also be a challenge to nail down. Without adequate attention, pomodoros and marinaras can easily feel lackluster or overly acidic. Taste testing along the way is by far the best safeguard for a standout sauce. Salting will be necessary at different stages of cooking but may come in different forms (like once the meatballs and parmesan are added).

The recipe below employs a few of my favorite tomato sauce tricks. A pinch of sugar (or caramelizing the onions in the sauce) can balance out the acid with a slight sweetness, earthy herbs like parsley can reduce the pH, and parmesan rinds can impart extra umami.

And for the meatballs, the trick is in blending flavors. The best way to do this is by using a mixture of ground meats. We’ve enjoyed beef and pork, beef and pork sausage, beef and veal, beef and lamb… Just make note of drier versus fattier meats, and adjust the meatball recipe accordingly. For example, a torn up slice of fresh sandwich bread and grated onion may be ideal compared to dry bread crumbs and diced onion when using drier meats like lamb. Small tweaks like these can ensure even the leanest meatball stays light and moist.

So regardless of what you pick up in the pasta aisle, keep these cookery quick tips handy next time you’re feeling in the mood for a starchy, saucey, meaty flavor bomb. They’ll take your dish up, up and away!

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Bucatini and Meatballs

This is a seriously saucy upgrade to spaghetti and meatball night, and I'm about to let you in on the secret.

Prep Time 30 minutes
Cook Time 3 hours
Total Time 3 hours 30 minutes
Servings 12 people
Calories 496 kcal

Ingredients

For the sauce

  • 4 28 ounce cans San Marzano tomatoes whole, peeled
  • 2 14.5 ounce cans diced tomatoes fire roasted, if available
  • 1/2 yellow onion finely diced
  • 5-6 cloves garlic minced
  • coarse sea salt to taste (I add 1 teaspoon at a time, usually ending up with about 4 teaspoons total over the course of cooking the sauce)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 3-4 sprigs fresh thyme tied with twine
  • pinch crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 teaspoon Italian seasoning (I use Penzey's Tuscan Sunset)
  • 1 parmesan rind
  • 1/4 cup fresh parsley hand torn or chopped

For the meatballs

  • 2 pounds ground beef
  • 2 pounds ground pork
  • 1/2 yellow onion finely diced
  • 5-6 cloves garlic minced
  • 1/2 cup panko breadcrumbs (I prefer Ian's Italian Panko Breadcrumbs)
  • 1/2 cup parmesan cheese grated
  • 1/4 cup fresh parsley hand torn or chopped
  • 1 egg
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt

For the pasta

  • 1 16-18 ounce package bucatini noodles (I prefer Rustichella d'Abruzzo brand)
  • water, generously salted

Instructions

  1. To make the sauce, in a 9 quart or larger dutch oven, sauté the onion in oil over medium-high heat until translucent and beginning to brown, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and sauté briefly, without burning.

  2. Add all other ingredients for the sauce except fresh parsley and stir, bringing to a low boil. Reduce to a steady simmer and let cook, uncovered for about 3 hours or until you've reached desired consistency, stirring occasionally. Taste and adjust seasoning regularly along the way. 

  3. While the sauce is reducing, mix all ingredients for the meatballs in a large bowl, and mix together without overworking. In the palms of your hands, form the mixture into roughly a 3-inch diameter meatball. Set formed meatballs aside until ready to cook.

  4. Brown the meatballs either in a foil-lined sheet pan in a 400-degree oven for about 20 minutes, or in batches in a sauté pan over medium-high heat. Once browned, set aside on paper towel lined plate to remove excess grease. They do not need to be cooked all the way through.

  5. Remove thyme stems, bay leaf, and any remaining parmesan rind. If using whole tomatoes, break them apart with a wooden spoon or masher once they are softened from the heat. 

  6. In the final 30 minutes of cooking the sauce, add in the meatballs and torn or chopped parsley leaves, and stir to distribute throughout the sauce.

  7. Meanwhile, fill a large stock pot with water about 3 inches from the rim, generously salt the pasta water, and bring it to a boil. Add the pasta, stir and reduce the heat to a quick simmer. Cook according to the package directions, testing for doneness at one-minute intervals near the suggested cooking time, until al dente.

  8. With a pasta fork, plate the cooked pasta immediately and top with sauce and meatballs. Garnish with fresh parsley and freshly grated parmesan.

Recipe Notes

This recipe can easily be halved, but it’s so good you won’t want to. Pile any leftovers on a hoagie roll along with some provolone for a mouthwatering meatball sub.

Nutrition Facts
Bucatini and Meatballs
Amount Per Serving (0 g)
Calories 496 Calories from Fat 297
% Daily Value*
Fat 33g51%
Saturated Fat 12g75%
Cholesterol 125mg42%
Sodium 985mg43%
Potassium 1098mg31%
Carbohydrates 17g6%
Fiber 3g13%
Sugar 8g9%
Protein 31g62%
Vitamin A 685IU14%
Vitamin C 36.7mg44%
Calcium 222mg22%
Iron 5.9mg33%
* Percent Daily Values are based on a 2000 calorie diet.

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