This meatball lasagna is a playful riff from Alex Guarnaschelli on the Italian classic where tender mini beef and veal meatballs stand in for traditional meat sauce.
Meatball lasagna?! Yep. It’s a sorta playful riff on the Italian comfort food classic with bite-size meatballs standing in for the usual meat sauce. Yet all the cheesy goodness of traditional lasagna remains unchanged. It’s from celebrity chef Alex Guarnaschelli (and you can take it seriously because, c’mon, look at her last name!) The recipe makes an ample amount, although you won’t have any difficulty using up leftovers. In fact, you may have to break up a fight or two.–Angie Zoobkoff
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Meatball Lasagna FAQs
I want to make this for a gathering. Is it better when made ahead of time?
It is, actually! We had a number of testers comment on how this is one of those miraculous dishes that get better with a little time in the fridge. We’d suggest 24 hours ahead is good. Too much more than that and you might find it starts to dry out.
The recipe recommends whole San Marzano tomatoes. What are they?
San Marzano is a very specific type of plum tomato that comes from the San Marzano region of Italy. They’re prized for their sweetness, flavor, and lower acidity, as well as being meatier with fewer seeds and easier to peel. They can be a little harder to find but are worth searching out. If you can’t find them, “San Marzano-style” is close and will still be better than your average, grocery store canned tomato–they’ll likely be from somewhere nearby, but not directly in, San Marzano, Italy.
How do I make my own breadcrumbs?
To make dried breadcrumbs, tear 2 slices of bread up and dry it out in a low oven first, then process it. In a blender, whiz the bread in bursts until you have breadcrumbs of the size you want. You can also make dried breadcrumbs by bashing up pieces of dried bread and rolling over the pieces with a rolling pin. You can put them in a plastic bag to do this and they won’t fly everywhere.
For the tomato sauce
For the meatballs
- 12 ounces lean ground beef (85 or 90%) preferably chopped sirloin
- 4 ounces ground veal (or substitute more ground beef)
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt or to taste
- 1/2 cup panko bread crumbs or dried bread crumbs toasted, plus more if needed
- 3/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
- 1/2 cup finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
- 1 large egg
- 3 medium garlic cloves grated
- 1/3 cup mild vegetable oil
For the pasta
- Kosher salt
- 1 pound dried lasagna sheets
- 1 pound whole-milk mozzarella cheese thinly sliced
- 1 pound whole-milk ricotta cheese
- 3 cups freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Make the sauce
- In a medium skillet set over medium heat, warm the olive oil. Add the onion and garlic and season with 1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons salt. Stir in the red pepper flakes and sugar and cook for 2 minutes.
- Add the tomatoes along with their juices and the oregano. Increase the heat to high and continue to cook, stirring occasionally and using a wooden spoon to break up the tomatoes, until the sauce is well combined and chunky, 5 to 10 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning, if necessary. Add the basil leaves and remove from the heat.
Make the meatballs
- In a large bowl, combine the beef and veal and spread the meat over the bottom of the bowl and up the sides a little. (This helps you distribute the seasonings evenly throughout the meat.) Sprinkle with 1 teaspoon salt. Then sprinkle the bread crumbs, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and parsley over the meat and use your hands to mix the ingredients together.
- In a small bowl, whisk together the egg and garlic. Drizzle the egg mixture over the meat and use your hands to combine again.
- To test a meatball, form 1 small meatball (about 1 inch in diameter or even smaller). In a small skillet set over high heat, warm a splash of the vegetable oil. When the oil almost begins to smoke, add the test meatball, reduce the heat to medium, and cook, turning as necessary, for 2 to 3 minutes. Taste for seasoning and texture. If it seems too wet, add some more bread crumbs to the mixture in the bowl. If it seems too dry, add a splash of water. Adjust the seasoning of the meatball mixture in the bowl as needed. Roll the remaining meat into 1-inch balls. You should have 40 to 50 very small meatballs.
- Line a baking sheet with paper towel. In a large skillet set over medium heat, warm half of the vegetable oil. When the oil is hot but not quite smoking, remove the skillet from the heat and carefully add half the meatballs in a single layer, taking care not to crowd them so they brown evenly. Return the skillet to medium-high heat and brown the meatballs, turning them to brown evenly, until medium-rare, 2 to 3 minutes. Use a slotted spoon or spatula to transfer them to a baking sheet lined with a kitchen towel to drain. Wipe out the skillet and repeat the process with the remaining vegetable oil and meatballs.
Cook the pasta
- In a large pot over high heat, bring 6 quarts (5.7 l) water to a rolling and season with 1/2 cup salt. The pasta water should taste like seawater. Add the lasagna sheets, stirring with a slotted spoon to make sure they do not clump or stick to the bottom, and cook for 4 minutes. The pasta should be pliable but very firm to the touch. Drain in a colander, rinse under cold water, and drain again. Separate the lasagna sheets carefully so they don’t stick together.
- Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Adjust the oven rack to the center position.
Assemble the lasagna
- Spoon a thin layer of sauce evenly over the bottom of a 9-by-13-inch (23-by-33-cm) baking pan. Arrange a layer of pasta sheets over the sauce. Sprinkle 1/4 of the mozzarella, ricotta, and Parmigiano-Reggiano over the pasta, and then add another thin layer of sauce (about 3/4 cup). Dot the surface with about 1/3 of the meatballs, spacing them evenly. Repeat the layering process 2 more times. Add a final layer of pasta and top it with the remaining sauce and cheese.
- Cover the dish tightly with foil and bake for 45 minutes. Increase the oven temperature to 450°F (230°C) and remove the foil. Continue to bake until the top of the lasagna browns slightly, 10 to 15 minutes. Remove the lasagna from the oven and let it cool for 15 minutes before serving. And actually, you may want to let it in the fridge overnight as the flavors and textures meld and become even lovelier. (Don’t believe us? See what our recipe testers say below.)
Recipe Testers’ Reviews
Even traditionalists will fall for this riff on classic lasagna. The mini meatballs have all the flavors of meat sauce, delivered in tiny textured morsels.
I found the recipe to be adaptable to time and scaling. I needed to halve the casserole as I didn’t have an afternoon to spend in the kitchen. I made the meatballs on a weekday after work. I made the whole quantity of meatballs and half of them disappeared that night, a testament to their tastiness! Two days later, I made a half recipe of the sauce, boiled a half box of noodles, and assembled the casserole in a shallow 8-by-10-inch baking dish (pleasingly, the exact length of the noodles!). I did come up short with the amount of sauce required, so I ended up using the entire 28-ounce can of tomatoes in the sauce instead of just half of it.
Limited grocery access left me unable to find ground veal or panko so I used all beef and Italian-seasoned crumbs.
The short simmer time yields a slightly watery, very chunky result, even after I broke them up with a spoon. However, the noodles soaked up the sauce pretty well and did even better as leftovers; in fact, the lasagna was even better the second time around.
I used the full amount of Parmesan in the meatballs but when it came time to layer the lasagna, I eyeballed a good sprinkle in between each layer and over the top. Used the large end of a melon baller to portion the meat which worked great and I had 50 meatballs.
This stores well and the lasagna was less weepy the second day, when the slices cut beautifully and the noodles weren’t soggy at all. Better than any other reheated casserole pasta I’ve made, in fact. We enjoyed it so much the first time around and the second night it was even better.
This is an excellent recipe for a family favorite. The little meatballs make for a nice change from the normal ground beef filling or sliced meatballs. The flavors of the sauce are sharp and garlicky, a perfect foil to the creamy ricotta and melted mozzarella. The amount of sauce and filling is perfect and the slices maintain their shape well on the plate. (I really hate it when a lasagna piece falls apart into a mess as soon as it’s removed from the casserole dish.)
We enjoyed the lasagna the day I made it but it really improved with age! My wife declared it much better the next day when she heated up a slice in the microwave. The most time-consuming part here are the small meatballs but if you have some kitchen help (I volunteered my son), rolling the meatballs goes by fast.
I highly recommend weighing the Parmesan cheese in the meatballs. It’s more than you think if being grated fresh as it’s closer to 1 1/2 cups. Skimping on the cheese makes for an okay meatball but using the whole amount is what makes these excellent.
Definitely leave the noodles very firm. I’m not talking al dente here. These are undercooked but pliable. They work great in this dish and finish cooking perfectly without turning to mush.
Remove the ricotta from the container and put it in a bowl. Whip it well with a spoon or whisk to make it a bit looser and easier to use. Dollop on each layer then when you put a lasagna layer on top press gently to spread the ricotta a bit.
I quite enjoyed this meatball lasagne. The tiny meatballs make it different enough to be a standout along with the creamy cheese filling. I will likely make this again. It makes a lovely dish to serve to guests.
I never add sugar to a tomato-based dish and I disliked the way it made the final dish taste, especially paired with such a large amount of ricotta cheese. The comments from my guests were all very positive, though; no one disliked the sweetness as much as I did.
Originally published April 1, 2019