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The Cookbook Love Letters of Anna Francese Gass

Acclaimed cookbook author, Anna Francese Gass, explains how her mother and her mother country of Italy have inspired her cookbooks.

Anna Francese Gass and her mother, Gina.
Anna Francese Gass and her mother, Gina.

I have written two love letters in my life. Both happen to be in cookbook format! The first, Heirloom Kitchen - Heritage Recipe & Family Stories from the Tables of Immigrant Women, was a love letter to my Italian mother and all the immigrant women from all backgrounds who chose to take an enormous leap of faith and a suitcase full of dreams to come to the United States.

Starting with my mother, Gina, I began to record her story and transcribe our family recipes, passed down from generation to generation. These recipes traveled over the ocean and settled in the land of opportunity, America. I then traveled from kitchen to kitchen, meeting with women from all over the world to learn and record their stories and dishes that had the same life journey as my own mother. The recipes and stories were equally fantastic, and I was proud to share them.

Anna Francese Gass and her latest cookbook, Italian Snacking.
Anna Francese Gass and her latest cookbook, Italian Snacking.

For my second love letter, I decided to dedicate it to my mother country, Italy. I was born in Calabria and moved here when I was still in diapers. However, whenever I return, I feel like I’m truly home. Italian Snacking - Sweet and Savory Snacks for Every Hour of the Day is a regional exploration of the delicious snacks of Italy and the dedicated moments of each day when Italians sit and break bread, cannolis, pizza, and much more! No matter these moments, Spuntino di Metà Mattina, Merenda, Aperitivi, and Street Foods are weaved throughout the day to spend precious time with friends and family.

Mamma Gina's Polpette from Anna Francese Gass.
Mamma Gina's Polpette from Anna Francese Gass.

In Heirloom Kitchen, the #1 fan favorite is my mother’s Polpette. This recipe has been in my family for over one hundred years, and now, with it transcribed, will be for one hundred more. It also received the most fan mail, with many telling me they have abandoned their cherished meatball recipes for this one. As the meatballs simmer in the sauce, I am transported to my nonna Grazia’s Calabrian kitchen, where I would sit, dunking her taralli in the warm sugared milk she would make for me every Merenda when I visited. In Italian Snacking, I updated the recipe for a quick snack, Polpettini, the mini version of the original.

I hope you enjoy my recipes as much as I do because they taste like love and family and remind me that I always yearn to return home.  

Included below is the recipe for my mother's Polpette (and sauce!). The recipe that I adapted for the Polpettini is here.

Reprinted with permission from Italian Snacking © 2024 Anna Francese Gass. Published by Union Square & Co. Photography by Linda Xiao.

Mamma Gina's Meatballs & Sauce

Recipe by Anna Francese Gass
5.0 from 1 vote


Prep time


Cooking time




  • For the Meatballs
  • 1/2 pound 1/2 ground pork

  • 1/2 pound 1/2 ground veal

  • 1/2 pound 1/2 ground chuck beef

  • 1 tablespoon 1 chopped parsley

  • 1 tablespoon 1 coarse salt

  • 1 teaspoon 1 freshly ground black pepper

  • 2 large 2 eggs, lightly beaten

  • Grated Pecorino Romano cheese

  • 1 cup 1 Italian bread crumbs, preferably seasoned

  • 1/2 cup 1/2 whole milk

  • 1/2 1/2 tomato sauce

  • For the Sauce
  • 10 10 fresh basil leaves

  • 1/2 cup 1/2 virgin olive oil

  • 2 2 garlic cloves, peeled and lightly smashed

  • 8 teaspoons 8 crushed red pepper crushed tomatoes

  • 2 2 32-ounce cans crushed tomatoes

  • 1 tablespoon 1 tomato paste

  • 1 tablespoon 1 coarse salt

  • 1 teaspoon 1 freshly ground black pepper


  • To Make the Sauce
  • Tear 5 of the basil leaves in half; reserve the rest.
  • Combine the torn basil, olive oil, garlic, and crushed red pepper, if using, in a small pan and heat over very low heat, allowing the basil and garlic to “steep” in the olive oil for 10 to  15 minutes (the oil will become fragrant and rich with flavor—be careful to not let the garlic burn or go beyond a medium-brown color).
  • Remove from the heat, strain the aromatics, and set the oil aside.
  • Combine the crushed tomatoes and 2 cups of water in a large pot.
  • Add the tomato paste, salt, and pepper.
  • Pour in the infused oil and stir to combine.
  • Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then immediately reduce to a simmer.
  • Remove ½ cup of the sauce for the meatballs, setting aside to cool.t
  • To Make the Meatballs
  • In a large bowl, hand-mix all the ingredients (this prevents over-mixing). The mixture will be very soft, but resist the urge to add more bread crumbs; you’re making tender, melt-in-your-mouth meatballs.
  • Once all the ingredients are combined, wet your hands and pinch off a golf-ball sized piece of the mixture (about ¼ cup) and roll it into a ball.
  • Place each meatball on a baking sheet and repeat with the remaining mixture, making approximately 16 to 18 meatballs.
  • Carefully drop the meatballs into the sauce. If the pot seems too full, shimmy the pot back and forth to make more room. (Do not stir with a spoon—you will break the meatballs!)
  • Simmer the meatballs in the sauce for 45 minutes or up to 2 hours (the longer it cooks, the better it tastes).
  • Carefully remove the meatballs to a plate.
  • Chop the remaining basil and sprinkle on top of the sauce.
  • Serve with the pasta of your choice.

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