tuna balls in tomato sauce

Tuna “Meatballs” in Caper-Olive Tomato Sauce


tuna balls in tomato sauce

Tuna Meatballs in Caper-Olive Tomato Sauce

Tuna takes the place of red meat in this pantry-friendly update of spaghetti and meatballs.
Total Time 1 hour
Course Main Course
Cuisine American, Italian
Servings 4


for the tuna balls:

  • 3 5- oz cans albacore tuna in water, drained
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1/3 cup fresh breadcrumbs
  • 1/2 tablespoon dried oregano
  • freshly ground black pepper

for the sauce:

  • 1/2 teaspoon anchovy paste optional
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
  • 1/4 cup halved Kalamata olives
  • 3 tablespoons nonpareil capers
  • 28 oz canned crushed tomatoes
  • freshly ground black pepper

to serve:

  • 1 lb fresh hot spaghetti (or angel hair)


  • Place all of the ingredients for the tuna balls in a food processor. Pulse until smooth paste forms. Add more oil if needed to help it stick together. Form into balls. Set aside.
  • Heat a few tablespoons of olive oil in a pan. Add the tuna balls and brown, turning once, for about 5-10 minutes. Remove to a paper towel-lined plate.
  • In the same pan, you cooked the tuna balls in, add the anchovy paste, onion, garlic, olive and capers and saute until the onions are translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes and simmer 5 minutes.
  • Add the tuna balls back to the pan. Cook until heated through, about 5-10 minutes.
  • Serve on hot spaghetti.


I found that the tuna balls did not absorb much oil and I didn't need to add any to the pan when I removed them and started the sauce. Feel free to add more oil at this point.
The anchovy paste is optional but it did boost the seafood flavor of the sauce. Pretty much any grocery store would carry it in the Italian, "International" or canned tomato section and it keeps forever in the fridge. You could also use a couple of filets from a jar.
The tuna was water-packed (as is most tuna in the US) so I added some oil to the mixture. If your tuna is oil-packed, don't drain it and use that oil, adding more if needed. 
Keyword meatballs, pantry cooking

I really wanted to name this something more appealing than “tuna meatballs” but I don’t think what I made is a real Italian dish and I don’t really know enough Italian to make up a name myself. Polpette di Tonno and ?? is as far as I got.

Anyway! I had come across a reference to Sicilian tuna balls when writing my proposal for a book on tinned seafood (which is still unsold! publishers, I’m free!)  last year and mentally filed it away. It seemed like they were often served unsauced as an appetizer or small plate but also occasionally in a tomato sauce.

I couldn’t find a ton of info on tuna meatballs in English but I liked the idea so I made a version that I knew I would want to eat. I took the inspiration for the sauce from puttanesca which also has olives, capers, and tomatoes but left out the red pepper. I added a bit of anchovy paste but honestly, I think just making the tuna balls (that really isn’t an appetizing turn of phrase, I’m sorry) and the sauce in the same pan would have embued it with flavor.

We are still in a pandemic and I’ve been limiting our shopping for groceries to every 3-4 weeks so I’ve been looking at ways to make more with what we have on hand. This dish is made with 100% pantry and staple ingredients. The breadcrumbs I made myself from the heels of bread and froze. I always have tuna, canned tomatoes, capers, and olives on hand. Capers and olives are pretty cheap, last forever and are enormous flavor boosters.

The only “fresh” ingredient in this was the egg but it still was light, fresh-tasting dish. If you are craving pasta in the summer and are cooking out of your pantry, this is a great dish to add to your rotation.

I had it on spaghetti (actually, angel hair because that’s what my husband accidentally bought instead) but I think it would also be very good on polenta if you have that.


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