A taste of southern Italy with Maria Maisano - Peter Rowland
30 August 2019

A taste of southern Italy with Maria Maisano

In the third instalment of our Nonnas of Melbourne video series, Maria Maisano shares her crowd-pleasing recipe for Italian meatballs in a rich ragu.

We’d happily claim any of the gorgeous nonnas in our new cooking tutorial series, but Maria Maisano already feels like part of the Peter Rowland family. That’s because her daughter Susie McLean is our national client relationship manager, who can often be heard talking about her beloved mum.

“She is very warm and nurturing, a classic nonna,” says Susie. “Food has always been the basis of everything in our family and mum always cooks enough for a small army,” she laughs. “Growing up, any time we spoke or opened our mouths, there’d be some food in it!”

After arriving in Melbourne from Calabria in Italy aged 10, Maria remembers kids at school teasing her for eating spaghetti. “We had it tough,” Maria says of those early days, “but we are very welcome here now and I’m a very proud Australian.”

Maria married at 17 and moved in with her Calabrese in-laws. “My mother-in-law taught me to cook, she was marvellous,” Maria explains. “I’d always ask ‘how come yours always tastes better than mine’ and she’d tell me that you have to put in a lot of love and care – you can’t just throw things together and expect them to taste lovely.”

With such a great mentor it didn’t take long for Maria’s own cooking skills to emerge. “I can cook without recipes; I just know how to do it. You taste everything and put in a bit more of this and that until it tastes delicious,” she says.

Maria continues to cook every day just in case someone drops in. “Another thing that my mother-in-law taught me: always set the family table – it’s a chance to talk to your family when they can’t get away,” she jokes. And any meal at Maria’s house is bound to conclude with that most classic of Italian bookends: un caffé.

Morning tea is always an occasion in the Maisano household
Ready for the family to arrive, Maria’s dining table seats 16

The meatball recipe which Maria cooked when we visited was originally her mother-in-law’s, but Maria was forced to adapt it while living with her husband and four kids on a farm outside Ballarat. She recalls: “I looked in the fridge and there was no parmigiano, but I had some beautiful fresh ricotta and thought you know what, I’m going to add ricotta instead.”

She did not approach this potentially sacrilegious substitution lightly of course. “No one puts ricotta in meatballs, you wouldn’t tell anyone you were doing it,” she stage-whispers. That was 40 years ago, and she’s been making her meatballs the same way ever since.

“They melt in the mouth, everyone loves them,” she beams. “When my children or grandchildren come over, all they want is my meatballs. I make a huge pot of them and they eat so much and then want to take the rest home.”

Watch Maria’s tutorial for Calabrese meatballs now, and find her recipe below:

Maria’s recipe for meatballs in ragu

First make the ragu


  • 1kg pork neck scotch chops
  • 1.5kg lamb shoulder
  • 3 x 800g tins of chopped tomatoes
  • 1 cup tomato paste
  • 1 large brown onion, finely chopped
  • 3 crushed garlic cloves

  • 1 cup dry red wine
  • 1 cup chopped basil
  • 1 tbsp salt
  • 1 tbsp sugar
  • 1 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 4 bay leaves


In a large heavy-bottomed saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat. Add onion and garlic and cook, stirring, for five minutes or until onion softens. Cut meat into two-inch strips and add to pan. Allow to cook until all the moisture has evaporated. Add the red wine and cook until that is evaporated. Dissolve tomato paste with some warm water in a separate container, then add to the pan and cook for about five minutes before adding the rest of the ragu ingredients. Simmer on low heat, adding water as required, for approximately two and a half hours. Remember to stir often and keep tasting for flavour.

Then prep your meatballs


  • 1kg premium beef mince
  • 500g full-cream ricotta
  • 500g breadcrumbs
  • 250g grated parmesan or pecorino
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1 cup chopped parsley
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • 1/2 tbsp salt


Place all the meatball ingredients into bowl and combine well using your hands, then roll into uniformly sized balls. Once your ragu sauce is ready, turn the heat up to medium intensity and add the meatballs to the pan. Cook for approximately 20 minutes.

Finally, cook the pasta:

Bring 500g of your preferred pasta (spaghetti, rigatoni or fusilli work well) to the boil in a large pot and cook until al dente. After draining, return the cooked pasta to the pot and stir through a ladle’s worth of ragu . Portion into bowls and layer with generous servings of the meatballs and ragu. Sprinkle with parmesan to taste.

Discover our Nonna Collection of nourishing mains and desserts, available for a limited a time for delivery to your home or office. 

Watch more Nonnas of Melbourne cooking tutorials on our YouTube channel.

Photography by Nick Tsindos

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