'Good Fellows' jail cell meat balls.
I've always browned meat balls.
Then I remembered the jail cell scene from the movie 'Good Fellows'. The mobsters were living the life of luxury. One scene showed one of the Mafia boss's 'soldiers' making meat balls in tomato sauce. In went the ingredients for the tomato sauce in a big pot.....no debate about that. Then he carefully added meat balls the size of golf balls. The meat balls had only been hand formed and were raw.....not browned. IYO is this actually the 'authentic' Italian method for meat balls in tomato sauce. The sauce was on a 'low and slow' simmer BTW.
I brown my meatballs in the pot and then remove, add in olive oil and then gently fry the tomato paste and scrape the browned bits/fond up and into it to add more flavor to the sauce before adding tomato puree.
No sense in wasting that fond in a muffin pan or cookie sheet.
I don;t see why you cannot drop them in raw as long as you are gentle when stirring and cook them long enough to be done.
It's all subjective but I see no definitive "right or wrong" method.
Unless I'm mistaken, Clemenza also throws the raw meatballs into the pot of simmering tomato sauce in the Godfather when he is preparing the sauce in the Corleone house during the war between the families. Of course, the Goodfellas scene may have been a nod to the earlier film - the parallels are there - but it also may have been independent references to research indicating it is a traditional Italian-American way to prepare meatballs in tomato sauce.
I have always browned my meatballs before adding them to the sauce, FWIW, but, then again, I have no Italian heritage.
Authentic ????? The arguments I would hear when my Sicilian grandmother and her friends would discuss how a dish should be prepared .Whose mother taught her the ONLY way ,the true way. I laugh now how heated they would get. Anyway I've eaten them baked ,fried ,poached some all beef ,some mixed meats,some with cheese ,some with raisins from tiny to baseball size whatever .
In my experience it can be done either way but I think pinehurst is right on the money.
But, having said that, I like to place them in a deep baking dish and (carefully) pour sauce to about halfway up the meatball, cover with foil and cook at 350 for about 35-45 minutes, depending on size.* I prefer them this way because I live in fear of scorched tomato sauce while keeping it at a simmer - burn one pot and it'll haunt you forever.
*I do a similar recipe which calls for small meatloaves/huge meatballs depending on my mood to be formed around pieces of cold mozzarella then cooked in the sauce. They're done when your mouth is watering from the smell - yes, I know, highly technical. Then I remove the loaves/balls and dump cooked penne or similarly shaped pasta into the dish, and cut up at least one loaf/ball to mix back into the sauce.
The following is a post I first wrote years ago on another website; one that's geared towards writers (and amateur writers, like me):
This quick recipe was given to me by my mother, who got it from an Italian neighbor in 1952. What sets this recipe apart from the run-of-the-mill recipes is that it yields delightful-tasting meatballs that are very soft. So soft that when I make this recipe, we spread our Italian bread with the meatballs, as well as eating the meatballs with the spaghetti.
1/4 cup good olive oil.
A big, fat sweet yellow onion (do not substitute small yellow ones; they taste awful).
Garlic. I use eight cloves, smashed or run through the garlic press.
2 bay leaves.
As much fresh or dried basil* as you care for.
A large can of very good peeled crushed tomatoes.
A medium can of tomato sauce.
A small can of tomato paste.
1 lb. ground beef (or 1/2 pound ground beef and 1/2 pound ground pork).
1 cup good quality coarse breadcrumbs (hopefully that you've made yourself from a crusty two-day-old loaf).
1/4 cup Pecorino Romano cheese, grated finely
A pound of thick spaghetti (preferably "number 12" from DeCecco or Barilla), cooked until al dente (chewy) in salted boiling water and drained.
In a large frying pan with a lid, sweat the onion and the bay leaf in the olive oil and add the garlic half-way through. The garlic should not be browned (it will become bitter). Add the basil, and salt and pepper to taste. This will make your kitchen smell just wonderful.
Separate the onion-garlic mixture into halves. Leave half in the pan, making sure to leave in the bay leaves, and place the other half in a bowl. Add the three cans of tomato products to the pan and simmer, covered, on low heat. Stir this mixture occasionally.
Place the meat, breadcrumbs, egg and cheese in the bowl with the onion-garlic mixture. Mix thoroughly and shape into balls about 3" in diameter.
After the tomato sauce has been simmering about a half an hour (the longer the better), add the balls to the sauce, raw, and simmer an additional half hour to an hour, covered. You must stir this mixture to keep it from scorching.
Check the salt and pepper and serve over the cooked spaghetti. Pass more of the Pecorino, or use Parmigiano Reggiano or Asiago. Serve with good Italian or French bread. Serves 4.
In case you're wondering: there's no oregano in this recipe for a reason. Oregano overpowers this dish.
*A note about basil: At least in the U.S., it's possible to find fresh basil year-round nearly everywhere. It's even in the supermarkets in the dead of winter where I live. Fresh basil lends a completely different flavor to foods than does the dried product. And the neat thing about basil is that one really can't use too much of it!
My family hailed from Naples. We browned, because meatballs smaller than the size of a tennis ball were an aberration to us, and browned meatballs held together better. I assume (and you know what that means) that the golf ball sized would cook more quickly and (being more compact) would be less likely to fall apart.
That's really interesting. The reason I stopped browning my meatballs was that they would fall apart in the browning process, and it was easier to keep them together cooking them in the sauce. I actually prefer them this way; I was only browning because I thought I was "supposed" to.