Sicilian Fresh Tuna Meatballs with Pasta.

Fresh Tuna meatballs with Pasta: Recipe from Sicily.

These delicious Sicilian fresh tuna meatballs are flavoured with mint, pine nuts and lemon zest.  They are fabulous served with potatoes or as an antipasto or snack without the tomato sauce. But, I like them best with pasta!

Sicilian fresh tuna meatballs with pasta

Polpette di tonno fresco con pasta.

Traditionally Sicilians eat these delicious fresh tuna meatballs as an antipasto without the sauce or as a main course with just bread or potatoes (I like them with mashed potatoes!).  As with beef or pork meatballs, Italians are more likely to eat the sauce with pasta and the tuna meatballs separately.  In fact, there are many traditional recipes which are divided into two courses in this way.  For example orecchiette with braciole (beef rolls) or Italian braised pork ribs with pasta.

Sicilian fresh tuna meatballs with pasta

Having said that, I found a number of recipes for Sicilian fresh tuna meatballs with pasta on Italian food blogger and recipe sites. This made me happy because it meant I could add this recipe to the other fresh tuna pasta recipes here on The Pasta Project! This is a such a tasty way to serve fresh tuna. However, these tuna meatballs can also be made with canned tuna if you can’t find fresh!

ingredients for Sicilian fresh tuna meatballs on white plate

A little fresh tuna meatballs history.

Because Atlantic bluefin tuna migrate past Sicily to reach their spawning grounds in the Eastern Mediterranean (Levantine sea) and the South Tyrrhenian sea, fresh tuna has been fished and eaten in Sicily for hundreds, if not thousands of years. In fact, there is a Neolithic cave painting of tuna on the Egadi Island of Levanzo.

ground fresh tuna in food processor and in white bowl

The Egadi Islands are located off the North Western tip of Sicily. Favignana, the biggest of the islands, was home to the first tuna canning plant in Europe.

ground fresh tuna, finely chopped onions, pine nuts and fresh mint in white bowl

This plant was owned by the Florio family, who also bought all the Egadi islands in 1876. The Florio family’s tuna netting, processing and canning tuna business (the tonnara of Favignana) actually employed practically every resident on the island. I have read that the idea of Sicilian fresh tuna meatballs was born there! Apparently, the employees were allowed to take home the tuna scraps, which the wives used to make tuna meatballs!

ground tuna mixture with raw egg and breadcrumbs in white bowl

La cucina povera.

Whether that story is true or not, Italians certainly have a talent for turning leftovers into delicious meals. This aspect of Italian cuisine was born out of necessity and poverty. However,  despite the fact that we live in richer times, there are still many traditional recipes from ‘la cucina povera’ (the kitchen of the poor) that remain popular.  One I posted recently is North Eastern Italian canederli dumplings made with stale bread.

floured raw tuna meatballs on white plate. ready to fry.

Nowadays, Sicilian fresh tuna meatballs aren’t made with scraps or leftovers. In fact, they’re usually made with the best quality tuna, most often bluefin. But, they do remain a typical dish in Favignana and other parts of Sicily and Calabria where tuna fishing was an important industry.

tuna meatballs cooking in frying pan

Today, there’s still a tuna fishing industry in Sicily, of course, but because of a depletion in tuna populations and fishing restrictions , it’s not as big as it used to be.

freshly made tomato sauce in skillet

Making these fresh tuna meatballs.

Apart from the fresh tuna this recipe has just a few other ingredients. The tomato sauce is a simple classic Italian tomato sauce made with fresh peeled tomatoes, passata (ready liquidized tomatoes) or polpa (ready chopped fresh tomatoes). The only other additions to the sauce are garlic and basil.

You can make these meatballs with swordfish instead!

The tuna meatballs are ground fresh tuna, finely chopped onion, breadcrumbs, egg, pine nuts, mint and  lemon zest. I fried the fresh tuna meatballs in olive oil until they were slightly browned and then cooked them for a few minutes in the tomato sauce.  Some Italians use grated pecorino instead of the breadcrumbs but I’m not really a fan of tuna with cheese.  As a final note on this recipe, you can make these meatballs with swordfish instead or a mixture of swordfish and tuna.

fresh tuna meatballs cooking in tomato sauce in skillet

The pasta.

For this Sicilian fresh tuna meatballs recipe I used a wonderful pasta tube called genovesone.  I got this pasta from pasta makers pastificio dei campi when I visited their factory in Gragnano, Naples last month. Pastificio dei campi are one of the companies that produce pasta di Gragnano IGP. You can read more about pasta from Gragnano and pastificio dei campi on my post about my visit.

genovesone pasta from pastificio dei campi

Genovesone are the larger version of a smaller pasta tube called genovesine. The latter is a popular shape with Neapolitan pasta makers. It is cut like penne but has a smooth surface and similar diameter to ziti. Genevesone are bigger but also cut like penne.  Of course you can use other types of pasta for this recipe. Pasta tubes like paccheri, penne, short ziti or mezze maniche are great. But, I have seen recipes with long pasta such as spaghetti too.

genovesone pasta with tomato sauce in white bowl

Whichever pasta you choose I’m sure you’ll enjoy this Sicilian dish. If you make extra fresh tuna meatballs you can use this as a cook once eat twice recipe. Serve them with pasta one day and potatoes the next!  Yum!

Sicilian fresh tuna meatballs with pasta

If you make this pasta recipe, I’d love to hear how it turns out and if you liked it. Please leave a comment here on the blog or on The Pasta Project Facebook page.

Looking forward to hearing from you!

Buon appetito!  

Other Sicilian pasta and pasta recipes on The Pasta Project

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Sicilian fresh tuna meatballs with pasta
5 from 35 votes
Sicilian fresh tuna meatballs
Sicilian Fresh Tuna Meatballs with Pasta
Prep Time
20 mins
Cook Time
30 mins

These traditional Sicilian fresh tuna meatballs are easy to make and delicious with pasta, potatoes or just bread! Perfect main course for seafood and fish lovers.

Course: Main Course
Cuisine: Italian, Mediterranean, Sicilian, Southern Italian
Keyword: Bluefin tuna, fresh tuna, Italian recipe, Sicilian food, tomato sauce, tuna meatballs, tuna pasta
Servings: 4
Author: Jacqueline De Bono
For the tuna meatballs
  • 400 g fresh tuna
  • 1 onion (medium size or half a large one) peeled and finely chopped.
  • 1 egg
  • 3-4 tbsp breadcrumbs or grated pecorino
  • 3-4 fresh mint leaves
  • 1 tbsp pine nuts chopped
  • extra virgin olive oil for frying
  • salt to taste
  • ground black pepper to taste
  • 2 tsp lemon zest (use an organic lemon)
  • all purpose flour to coat tuna meatballs
For tomato sauce
  • 500 ml tomato passata or chopped tomatoes (17floz) or 1.5 kg peeled sauce tomatoes (3.5 lbs)
  • fresh basil leaves
  • 2 garlic cloves peeled
  • salt to taste
  • ground black pepper to taste
  • 1-2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 400 g pasta tubes (14oz) or spaghetti. I used genovesone from pastificio dei campi
  • salt for cooking water.
Make the fresh tuna meatballs
  1. Peel and finely chop the onion. Wash and chop the mint leaves. Grate the lemon zest. Chop the pine nuts.

  2. Cut the tuna first into slices (if it's one piece) and then into strips. Cut the strips into small pieces and then either mince in a food processor or chop with a knife like chopping parsley.

  3. Once you have cut all the tuna into small pieces, place it in a bowl and knead it a little with the back of a spoon so as to crush it a little more. (This isn't necessary if you used a food processor) Add a little salt to the tuna,  plus the chopped onion, chopped pine nuts, mint and the lemon zest.

  4. Mix everything and then add the egg and  breadcrumbs (or grated pecorino). Mix again.
    Best using your hands. Take a tablespoonful of tuna and work it with your hands into a round ball. Repeat until you have used up all the meatball mixture. The size isn't so important but try to make them all more or less the same for even cooking.

  5. Once all the meatballs are ready, take a frying pan and pour in enough olive oil to cover the bottom and start to heat the oil. Put the flour on a plate, roll the tuna meatballs in the flour and then fry them in the pan with the oil. Turn them so they brown on all sides. They don't need to be cooked through just browned. In this way, the surface of the meatballs will seal and your meatballs will remain soft while cooking in the sauce. When the meatballs are all browned transfer them to drain on some kitchen paper.

Cook the pasta

  1. Put a pot of water on to boil for the pasta. Add salt once it starts to boil and bring to
    the boil again. Cook the pasta al dente according to the instructions on the packet.

Make the tomato sauce

  1. While the water is boiling and the pasta is cooking make the sauce. Put a tbsp. of olive oil in a skillet or frying pan, add the two peeled cloves of garlic. Once they start to soften add the peeled tomatoes or passata/polpa.

  2. Dilute the tomato sauce with a cup of pasta cooking water, add the basil leaves and cook for about 5 minutes. (fresh peeled tomatoes make take longer to break down. passata or polpa are ready faster).

  3. At this point, add the tuna meatballs and cook them in the sauce for another 10 minutes, turning them halfway through cooking.

  4. Drain the pasta. Return it to the pan or put it in a warmed bowl. Mix it well with some of the tomato sauce. You want to coat the pasta with sauce. Then plate the pasta and add 2-3 fresh tuna meatballs and more sauce. Serve immediately.

Recipe Notes

These tuna meatballs can be made with swordfish instead or a mix of tuna and swordfish. You can use spaghetti or other types of pasta tubes such as penne, short ziti, paccheri or mezze maniche.

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Sicilian fresh tuna meatballs with pasta

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  • Avatar
    August 7, 2019 9:27 pm

    I love the dishes made from scratch. I loved that you made the meatballs and the dish looks delicious.

  • Avatar
    August 2, 2019 8:11 pm

    Oh my! this Sicilian pasta dish looks incredibly fresh and the flavours in there OMG! I must make this asap although I know matching these ingredients and the flavours would be challenging – these tomatoes from Italy taste a million times better than the ones here. Having said this, I do have my garden tomatoes coming on the table soon so this is definitely a dish to enjoy.

  • Avatar
    July 29, 2019 12:37 pm

    There is nothing better than meatballs + pasta, so yes, I agree with you. Delicious recipe that is so Italian!

  • Avatar
    July 29, 2019 12:35 pm

    I can only imagine how much flavor this pasta has. I mean, flavoring it with lemon zest and mint must be something incredible. Can’t wait to experiment with this recipe!

  • Avatar
    Amanda Mason
    July 29, 2019 5:47 am

    I’ve never made any meatballs out of tuna or swordfish before what what an amazing idea! This looks like the perfect authentic meal! Can’t wait to try this one!!

  • Avatar
    July 29, 2019 4:23 am

    I love the idea of tuna meatballs! I always love a unique meatball recipe, and this hits the spot. Thanks for sharing!

  • Avatar
    July 29, 2019 3:12 am

    I would have never thought to put tuna in a meatball. This recipe looks healthy and full of flavor!

  • Avatar
    July 29, 2019 1:07 am

    I have to admit I would never have throught to use fresh tuna for meatballs but I have to say this works so well! Such amazing flavours.

  • Avatar
    July 29, 2019 12:56 am

    Oh my goodness, sign me up! What a gorgeous recipe to serve for company. LOVE the whole idea of tuna meatballs with pasta. Sounds amazing!

  • Avatar
    Marisa F. Stewart
    July 28, 2019 5:15 pm

    I’ve made many polpette in my lifetime but never out of tuna. What an interesting recipe – one that I’m sure to make. We really enjoy our seafood and what a great way to extend that tuna. I’m pinning the recipe.

  • Avatar
    July 28, 2019 3:36 am

    What a great and refreshing idea to make meatballs from fresh tuna. Looks and sounds delicious!

  • Avatar
    Cathleen @ A Taste of Madness
    July 27, 2019 9:04 pm

    Wow, tuna meatballs?? This is totally new to me. I would love to try this!
    I have never seen the pasta genovesone, but I will be on the lookout. Hope I don’t need to travel all the way to Naples for it!

  • Avatar
    Analida Braeger
    July 27, 2019 7:45 pm

    This now has me so intrigued to try a tuna meatball! I love the write up for this recipe, thanks for sharing !

  • Avatar
    Jenni LeBaron
    July 27, 2019 5:23 pm

    Making meatballs out of fresh tuna is absolutely brilliant! This recipe would produce absolutely zero leftovers in my house because both the fella and I would gobble everything up in one sitting. Can’t wait to make your recipe!

  • Avatar
    July 27, 2019 4:09 pm

    I’ve never had tuna meatballs, but I cannot wait to make this! I love everything about it, and it looks amazing.

  • Avatar
    July 27, 2019 7:38 am

    I’ve never heard of tuna meatballs, here in California it’s usually tartar or ceviche, so I’m really excited to try this recipe and have something fun and new to make with fresh tuna!

  • Avatar
    Vidya Narayan
    July 27, 2019 7:22 am

    Tuna Meatballs – Amazing! A must try pasta dish for all sea food fans! Easy and light summer recipe too.

  • Avatar
    July 25, 2019 9:50 pm

    What a great way to use tuna. This dish looks fresh and delicious.

  • Avatar
    Stine Mari
    July 25, 2019 4:06 pm

    Honestly, you had me at your first sentence – mint, pine nuts and lemon zest. And reading through the rest of the post and recipe I knew I had to make this asap! What a beautiful summer pasta dish.

  • Avatar
    Kelly Anthony
    July 25, 2019 2:02 pm

    I’ve never had a tuna meatball but they look and sound amazing. I can’t wait to give this simply delicious meal a try.

  • Avatar
    July 25, 2019 12:46 pm

    What a gorgeous recipe! Those tuna meatballs look perfect and that sauce sounds so tasty!

  • Avatar
    July 24, 2019 8:11 pm

    This sounds so delicious! I’ve never had fish in meatballs before (not to my knowledge). The tuna and the tomatoes would pair perfectly together! Can’t wait to try it!

  • Avatar
    Claudia Lamascolo
    July 24, 2019 6:23 pm

    My grandma during the 1960s made this all the time, what a flood of memories this brought, She was from Rome Italy. A great dish then and now BRAVO!

  • Avatar
    Jessica Formicola
    July 24, 2019 6:18 pm

    My family loves tuna, so I can’t wait to try these delicious meatballs for dinner this week! Thanks so much for sharing!

  • Avatar
    July 24, 2019 5:57 pm

    Beautifully done! I love that you made these with tuna, so delicious!

  • Avatar
    Lindsey Pine
    July 24, 2019 5:48 pm

    I’ve never had tuna meatballs but it looks fantastic! I am putting this on my must make list!

  • Avatar
    Lesli Schwartz
    July 24, 2019 5:45 pm

    Wow! This is a new one for me. Never made tuna meatballs before, only shrimp and fish balls. Can’t wait to try this new twist on meatballs!

  • Avatar
    Chris Collins
    July 24, 2019 5:37 pm

    Ooooo I’ve never thought of making tuna meatballs before, but after reading this I’m definitely going to have to try! Thanks for sharing!

  • Avatar
    July 24, 2019 5:33 pm

    Tuna meatballs sound amazing! This whole dish looks amazing!

  • Avatar
    July 24, 2019 4:56 pm

    Meatballs are a great way to add tons of flavor to pasta and sauce. I love these tuna meatballs as a way to make them not using beef.

  • Avatar
    Heidy L. McCallum
    July 24, 2019 4:32 pm

    I just love coming on your wonderful blog to see what you have created next. I actually passed along your link to my mother and grandmother who was born in Italy. They seem to enjoy your recipes as well. With that being said I definitely enjoy tuna and would love to try making this recipe for my grandmother. I will let you know how it all pans out. Have a wonderful day.

  • Avatar
    July 24, 2019 4:27 pm


  • Avatar
    July 24, 2019 4:18 pm

    I love tuna meatballs. Such a light and fresh summer meal.

  • Avatar
    July 24, 2019 4:16 pm

    I have never heard of tuna meatballs but now that I have, I know that I need to make these asap.

  • Avatar
    Paula Montenegro
    July 24, 2019 4:06 pm

    The Italians turn the most simple ingredients into these incredibly tasty dishes! Love the idea of making meatballs with tuna. This recipe is a winner!

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