Saturday, August 10, 2013

Cafe di Napoli's Spaghetti Sauce and Meatballs

My earliest memories of Cafe di Napoli are courtesy of my grandfather, Frank J. Dunleavy. When I was born, he was a dick. A private dick, that is. He was founder and the sole employee of the Frank J. Dunleavy Detective Agency. His mother, Bridget, was a police officer...a pretty rare job for a young Irish woman in the early 1900's. He followed in her footsteps and became a member of the Minneapolis Police Department early in his career.

While on the police force, he served as body guard to Mayor Hubert Humphrey. He often accompanied Humphrey for lunch at Cafe di Napoli. The iconic restaurant had opened in 1938 on 8th and Hennepin. Frank liked it so much he started  taking me there when I was a little kid. We'd go for lunch, but my grandfather would never order a meal. It was Crown Royal on the rocks for him. I asked him why he never got the spaghetti like me, and he said he "couldn't eat because he was on duty".

At Cafe di Napoli, he used to tell me stories about when he was on the Minneapolis police force. One day he and his partner were on foot patrol in downtown Minneapolis when they got a call about a commotion over on Marquette Avenue. When he and his partner got there, they found a dead horse in the middle of the street. He said neither he nor his partner knew how to spell Marquette, so they dragged the horse over to 1st Avenue to fill out the police report.

Me, Frank and my sister Kathy, circa 1958

As you can tell from the photo, Frank had a girth of some significance. This was attributable to a complete abstinence of any sort of athletic endeavor and a diet which consisted primarily of Crown Royal and butter. While his consumption of Crown Royal was the stuff of legend, not a single morsel of solid food ever crossed his lips unless it had been slathered with butter. My grandfather was probably  the greatest butter cognescenti of all-time...he makes Paula Deen look like an absolute rank amateur. At no time, however, did I personally observe him putting butter in his Crown Royal.

The best part about Cafe di Napoli was their spaghetti and meatballs. My grandfather's good friend and fellow Crown Royal aficionado, Halsey Hall, estimated that the cafe served 2,284 miles of spaghetti each year. I was quite impressed with Halsey Hall, as he, too, never ate while on duty. Between he and Frank, I'll bet the cafe served 2,284 miles of Crown Royal each year.

So here it is, from my childhood to you, the original Cafe di Napoli recipe for their spaghetti sauce and meatballs. The exact same recipe I started marveling at 56 years ago. Cheers, Frank!


For the Sauce
2 cloves garlic
1/4 cup salad (vegetable) oil
1 pound coarsely ground beef
1/2 cup of chopped onions
12 ounces tomato paste
5 1/2 cups water
2 teaspoons of salt
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 bay leaf

For the Meatballs
1 pound ground beef
1 egg
1 cup very dry bread
1/4 cup diced onions
1/4 cup of bread or cracker crumbs
3 tablespoons grated parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1/4 teaspoon salt
Pinch of black pepper


For the Sauce

  1. Brown garlic in oil for 15 seconds. Add beef and onions and brown thoroughly.
  2. To the ground beef mixture, add tomato paste, water, salt, sugar, pepper and bay leaf. Simmer over low heat until thick, about 75 to 90 minutes. Stir regularly to prevent scorching.
For the Meatballs
  1. Combine ground beef, egg, dry bread (which has briefly been soaked in water and squeezed), onions,  bread or cracker crumbs, cheese, parsley, salt and pepper. 
  2. Roll into golf ball-sized balls. Brown in a greased pan or in the oven.
  3. Add meatballs to the sauce for the last 20 minutes of cooking.
  4. Serve over spaghetti.

There have been numerous people who have questioned the authenticity of this recipe. I received an email from a follower yesterday telling me that she had tried the sauce recipe and it was horrible. So I tried it this morning and I concur. The above recipe is horrible and it is not at all what I remember from Cafe di Napoli. Hence, I have put hash marks through the entire recipe.

I got the Cafe di Napoli recipe from the book "Minnesota Eats Out". This 2003 book by Kathryn Koutsky is available at Amazon ( I'm not sure where Kathy got the recipe, but along with my readers, I, too, question it's authenticity.

If you are looking for a good red sauce recipe, here are two of my favorites. The first is from Melissa Clark: . The second is from Marcella Hazan: .


  1. I would do anything to get some of their pasta sauce or pizza! Please share the recipes or offer catering (happy to pay!).

    1. Me too - I'm investigating this and will let you know if I hear anything

    2. I'm interested in their sauce recipe and salad recipe. 🤤

  2. I need their manicotti recipe big time.

    1. Me too I loved that , never have been able to find Manicotti like that before.

  3. When my parents were young and dating, they went to Cafe di Napoli in the 50s, and took me there, after I was born. My dad always laughed as he spoke of the fuss the waitresses made over me.

    Dimly remember going there once in college, but not often enough. Wish I had gone more.

    Thanks for this!

  4. after 55 years out of the blue my husband asked for Cafe di Napoli's spagetti and meatballs for Christmas dinner.