The pasta customarily used to make the beloved Italian soup pasta e fagioli is ditalini, which roughly translates to "little thimbles." Pasta e fagioli wasn't on the menu, but I reached for the same short macaroni as I developed a copycat version of SpaghettiOs that captures the family-friendly nostalgia inherent to the canned stuff.
While it's not the same distinctive "O"-shaped pasta found in the can, ditalini has a nice toothsomeness when cooked al dente. It's really satisfying — and so are the mini oven-baked meatballs and slightly creamy red sauce that round out this comforting and simple weeknight meal.
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You could, of course, cook up your own sauce, but I selected a solid jarred option to make this recipe a little more weeknight-friendly. In order to recreate the concentrated tomato flavor and sweetness of original SpaghettiOs, I decided to doctor up pizza sauce instead of pasta sauce. It's a little thicker, and since we're going to be cooking our pasta in the sauce with a splash of water, this works to our advantage.
The torn fresh basil leaves are optional, but they really do help take the dish over the top flavor-wise. Buon appetito!
Recipe: Ditalini with Miniature Meatballs (aka "Grown-up Spaghettios")
- 1/2 pound Italian sausage (I like the spicy variations, but feel free to go mild if you're cooking for kids!)
- 1/2 pound ground beef
- 1/2 cup Panko bread crumbs
- 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
- 1 egg or 3 tablespoons whole milk yogurt
- 2 teaspoons Italian seasoning
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Olive oil
Sauce and Pasta
- 13 ounces jarred pizza sauce (I like Rao's)
- 2 tablespoons half-and-half
- 2 tablespoons torn fresh basil (optional)
- 16 ounces ditalini
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Grated parmesan
1. In a large metal or glass bowl, mix the sausage, ground beef, bread crumbs, parmesan cheese, egg or yogurt, Italian seasoning and salt and pepper. Mix with your hands (my preferred method) or a large spoon until completely combined.
2. Using a tablespoon, scoop and mold mini meatballs, then place them on an olive oil-drizzled sheet pan. Depending on how generous your scoops are, you'll end up with between 24 and 30 meatballs. Heat your oven to 400 degrees and bake the meatballs for 12 to 16 minutes, or until they're no longer pink in the middle. If you like yours a little more browned (I do!), feel free to put them under the broiler for 2 to 4 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, heat the pizza sauce, half-and-half and (optional) basil in a skillet. Once the basil begins to wilt, add a cup of water, followed by the ditalini. It only takes about 6 minutes to cook in the sauce, so keep an eye on it. Once al dente, season with salt and pepper and set aside.
4. Add the freshly-baked meatballs to the mix and serve with grated parmesan.
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