Classic Rao’s Restaurant Meatballs And Marinara! My “52 In 22” Cooking Challenge Tries To Duplicate Anna And Vincent Rao’s Sauce!

Meet The Rao’s!

There is a restaurant in East Harlem that has been open since 1896 – run by multi-generations of the Rao family.

This legendary restaurant has only ten tables – and it is impossible to get in to…but that’s OK, because the family has been selling their famous sauces to enjoy at home – and I’m going to see if I can replicate their Marinara sauce – and use on one of their classic recipes!

“52 In 22” Goes Rao!

Every week, I am cooking from one of my cookbooks – 52 recipes in 52 weeks in 2022 – and as you can see from the first stack of ten cookbooks above, Author Frank Pelligrino has amassed this iconic restaurant’s greatest recipes!

I found this book on sale a few years ago – and after using their various jarred sauces over the years, I thought it was time to see if I could replicate it!

There’s the Marinara recipe, and some of the ingredients I will be using to try and make it myself – with the jar of Rao’s sauce watching over it – and there will be a taste test at the end!

Of course, I need something to use the sauce on, so there will be their famous meatballs as well – let’s get cooking!

Making Marinara!

The recipe for Rao’s Marinara sauce is simple – and it’s because the ingredients are meant for each other!

First, saute 3-4 tablespoons of minced onion in 1/4 cup of olive oil for 3 minutes, until it becomes translucent, then add two minced garlic cloves and cook for 3 more minutes.

INext up, dump into 2 28-ounce cans of imported plum tomatoes – I used whole peeled San Marzano tomatoes, and the recipe says to smash them up a bit while cooking – but make sure you move your cookbook out of the way first:


Yes, I gave those tomatoes a good crush and they promptly sent lots and lots of seeds flying out of the pan and onto my counter!

Luckily I cleaned it up immediately and there were no stains left behind…now, add sat to taste, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat as it’s time to give it a low simmer for an hour:

After an hour or so, stir in 6 leaves of torn fresh basil, a pinch of Oregano, then set the sauce aside – it’s done!

Time To Make Anna & Frankie’s Meatballs!

Here is a look at the ingredients for the family’s famous Meatball recipe – and while I’ve made many Meatballs before, I’ve never made them like this!

Mince a garlic clove ahead of time – yes, I used several but I love garlic so anything worth doing is worth overdoing….then, toss it in a bowl, along with one pound of lean ground beef, 1/2 pound ground veal and the same amount of ground pork…I couldn’t find the veal so I double the pork.

Add two large eggs, a cup of freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese, a tablespoon of fresh parsley and salt and pepper to taste.

As you can see, dumping all of the ingredients into a bowl is pretty straightforrward:

Rao’s Meatballs – Part 2!

Now comes the second part of the preparation – and I entered a whole new world of Meatball-making!

It all started simply enough: add 2 cups of bread crumbs…I used remade but you can make your own of course as well – and then I was told to add an ingredient I’d never used before this way:

Just Add Water!

Yes, it was time to slowly add two cups of lukewarm water, one cup at a time….it was strange to add water, but I didn’t, and slowly, the mixture came together in a surprisingly creamy way!

See how much creamier it looks? The bread crumbs absorb the water, so there is no liquid in the bowl.

Now, time to make some meatballs!

I had enough mixture for a dozen meatballs, so I fried them up in batches…watch this short clip and imagine how delicious my kitchen smelled at this time!

Heat oil in a pan to medium high, then place your Meatballs in, turning them after they begin to form a crispy brown exterior…

While it wasn’t in the recipe, since I doubled the pork, I decided to give them 15 minutes in the oven at 400 degrees to make sure they would be fully cooked…

I carefully lowered them into the sauce and let them cook for another 15 minutes…

Time To Eat!

The smell in the kitchen was incredible: meatballs bubbly softly away in the sauce!

One last thing to do before my taste test: I’m going to scoop out some of the jarred Rao’s Marinara, warm it up a bit, and place it on a plate to top with a Meatball:

Now, I built my presentation: I took some of the homemade sauce and placed a single Meatball on top:

Some fresh parsley went on top, and I did the same with the jarred sauce, and placed them side by side:

Let me share my live taste test for you:

I was completely surprised just how close my homemade sauce was to the flavor of the Rao’s jar…I assumed there would be additives in their product, but it was as pure and minimal as the sauce I made from the cookbook!

As for the Meatball, it was DIVINE.

It had such rich flavor but was also velvety smooth – the addition of water really made the Meatball creamy and soft – but without destroying the shape of the Meatball while I ate!

I loved this recipe – both the Meatballs and the Marinara were delicious and filling – they say you can put them on top of pasta, or just eat them this way!

Last week, I tackled “Modern Tiffin” cooking, and Chef Priyanka Naik congratulated me for the effort!

Click here to see my epic Eggplant battle!

My first “52 In 22” foray into Italian food was with the help of The Sopranos – and Stanley Tucci!

Click here for a traditional Italian “Sunday Gravy” with some strong advice from the actor!

This is week #7 of my cooking challenge, which as included Italian, French, British and even Eggs!

Here’s my “Mollet Egg Over Asparagus Sauce” – and it almost cracked me!

Click here to see why:

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As for my “52 Cookbooks 52 Recipes” challenge, I am sharing and storing all of these recipes on my food website “Bite! Eat! Repeat!” – it’s your site for all things food – if you like what you see, please click on my link and follow this blog as well!

Let me know what you think of my “52 In 22” challenge!

If you like the story, share it with friends on social media! Thanks!

Categories: cookbooks, Exotic Travel, Food, food blog, Food Review, New York, Pop Culture, Recipes, Restaurants, Travel, Travel Adventures, Wacky Food

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21 replies

  1. I love all things Italian. I have my own meatball recipe, but yours look better!


  2. This looks like a really good recipe, John. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. We are in lots of garlic camp…I always mix pork and beef for meatballs but the water tip is one I hadn’t heard of…Thank you for sharing John…I am loving this series 🙂 x


  4. What time is dinner? These look so scrumptious! I love multi-generational businesses—especially restaurants that have maintained the same level of excellence.


  5. John, this was wonderful! I love how you embraced this family restaurant and tackled the recipe- which wasn’t so hard! Who knew water could be a key ingredient? I will definitely be making these meatballs (well, hubby will.)


  6. bella! beautiful presentation and i can almost smell the sauce

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Oooh, I really liked this. I love meatballs, and those looked delicious! Excellent work!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I have a meatloaf recipe that asks for water to be added and it always turns out well so there must be something about the meat, bread and water that works together. Your sauce looks so good. I like that there is no meat in it so you could use it by itself over pasta. The more garlic the better!!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Veal is also very difficult to get here now. The animal welfare objectors have all but removed it from sale.
    Your meatballs were huge, but looked delicious. I enjoyed the taste test, but I am wondering why there was so little difference in flavour, given the big difference in the amount of garlic you used, compared to the original recipe. (I like garlic too!)
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 2 people


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