Meatball-Stuffed Zucchini in Tomato Sauce

squash in bowl 3

At least once before the end of summer, my mom would make stuffed zucchini. She used smallish to medium-size zucchini, filled them with seasoned breadcrumbs and baked them. We ate them alongside mozzarella and other cheeses, or with sautéed veal, or sometimes with a chicken from the nearby rosticceria.

Every so often she and my aunts would make an entire lunch or dinner of stuffed vegetables ~ zucchini, peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, even onions. Some of the vegetables would be stuffed with rice, others with breadcrumbs, and others with meat. They were served tepid or at room temperature, perfect on hot days or on cooler evenings in late summer. This was hands-down my favorite meal at the beach. Who knows why ~ maybe just the satisfaction of digging into a vegetable turned into a vessel for something else.

What appealed to me most were the zucchini, which were not cut in half for stuffing, but neatly hollowed out. This is not difficult to do, but it helps if you have a corer of some sort, or a slim vegetable peeler with a pointed tip.

squash corer

There is a tool called a zucchini corer, which I don’t have but which I may have to get. It’s longer and thinner than the all-purpose corer that I used and that you see in the picture above. A slimmer corer means there’s less chance of breaking through the wall of the squash (it happens).

My mother baked her stuffed zucchini “in bianco,” which is to say, without sauce, just a good drizzle of olive oil and maybe a splash each of water and wine. In The Glorious Vegetables of Italy I included a similar recipe for vegetarian stuffed summer vegetables, but I baked them in sauce. The other day, while reading my friend Maureen Abood’s beautiful blog, Rose Water & Orange Blossoms, I came across her recipe for Lebanese meat-stuffed summer squash in tomato broth, and had an immediate craving.

squash and stuffing

So I came up with this version, in which I filled the squash with a mixture of seasoned beef and bread ~ essentially a meatball mixture ~ and baked them in a light tomato sauce. I used a variety of summer squashes that I found at the farmers’ market. I hollowed out the long ones, and scooped out the insides of the small globes but left the bottoms intact so that I could fill them and bake them upright.

stuffed squas collage How were they? Just as good as they look, though my daughter felt they would have benefited from a sprinkle of Parmigiano cheese. People complain about the “glut” of zucchini at this time of year, but I can’t imagine such a thing. It’s truly a vegetable I never get tired of. So if you happen to have more than you need or want, please feel free to send them my way.

Makes 6 to 8 servings

Meatball-Stuffed Zucchini in Tomato Sauce

Stuffed zucchini was a childhood favorite of mine and I still love it. If you buy your squash at the farmers' market, choose a variety of shapes and colors ~ it makes the dish prettier at serving time. It's likely you'll have some stuffing left over. Use it to make meatballs or a small meatloaf.


  • For the tomato sauce
  • 2 pounds ripe Roma tomatoes, grated (see Note), or 1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for coating a baking dish
  • 1 large clove garlic, flattened
  • Fine sea salt to taste

  • For the summer squash
  • 12 medium summer squash ~ use a mix of long and round shapes and of green and yellow
  • 8 ounces ground beef
  • 1 packed cup fresh bread crumbs
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten
  • 2 tablespoons half-and-half
  • 1 teaspoon fine sea salt (or to taste)
  • Freshly ground black pepper to taste


Combine the grated tomatoes (or diced canned tomatoes), olive oil and garlic in a bowl and season lightly with salt. Set aside.

Cut the ends off the zucchini and other long squash. Cut the tops off the round squash and, if necessary, a sliver off the bottoms so that they stand upright without rolling over.

Use a zucchini corer or an all-purpose corer to gently hollow out a tunnel through the long squash. Use a melon baller, corer or a small spoon to gently dig out the insides of the round squash, taking care not to cut all the way through to the bottom. Set the squash aside.

Put the ground beef, bread crumbs, Parmigiano cheese, garlic, parsley, egg and half-and-half in a bowl. Sprinkle in the salt and pepper. Use your hands to combine everything thoroughly. With your fingers or a small spoon, fill the squash cavities with the stuffing, taking care not to pack them too tightly (the filling will expand as the squash bakes). Use any leftover stuffing to make meatballs or a small meatloaf. Set the stuffed squash aside on a plate.

Heat the oven to 375 degrees F.

Lightly coat the inside of a large baking dish (or two smaller ones). Spoon a layer of tomatoes on the bottom of the baking dish. Arrange the squash in the dish so that they fit snugly together. Spoon the remaining tomatoes on top of the vegetables and drizzle a little olive oil over them. Cover with foil and bake for about 1 1/2 hours, until the squash is very tender and can be easily pierced with a fork. Let the squash cool for at least 5 minutes before serving. Serve warm or tepid.

NOTES To grate Roma tomatoes, cut them in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds. Set a box grater on a cutting board with a moat. Hold the cut side of a tomato flat against the large holes of the grater and grate the tomato, pressing gently, until only the skin is left in your palm. As you work, transfer the pulp and any juice that collects in a bowl.

Before baking, sprinkle the squash with a little grated Parmigiano cheese. Remove the foil for the last 10 minutes or so of baking to allow the cheese to brown a bit.

I served the stuffed squash over cooked rice. I highly recommend it.

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15 Responses to Meatball-Stuffed Zucchini in Tomato Sauce

  1. Helen August 26, 2013 at 7:59 am #

    Thank you! For someone like me who can’t eat (though I love) stuffed peppers, this is a terrific alternative. Farmers’ market tomorrow. Yay!

    • Domenica Marchetti August 26, 2013 at 2:33 pm #

      Helen ~ bummer about the peppers, though I must say I’ve never really liked stuffed green peppers. Now stuffed red and yellow peppers? All over those. Still, I prefer zukes and summer squash as my favorite stuffing vessel. I’m making these again tonight for my family ~ though I may do a meatless version (more bread! more cheese!). Thanks for your comment.

  2. Adri August 26, 2013 at 7:12 pm #

    I just saw your response about the green peppers. I do not care for them either. DItto for Bart. But we adore red, yellow and orange ones, which is just as well as those three are positively head and shoulders aboue th green ones and packed with nutrients. The figures are quite astounding.

    This recipe sounds wonderful. I do something similar, either with zucchini or peppers, as a matter of fact, but I use sausage and sometimes rice. The use of sausage is perhaps the lazy woman’s way to make a filling as the seasoning is already taken care of, but it makes a satisfying dinner. Now you’ve got me craving your version. And you are right about the rice; if it is not in them it ought to be under them.

    • Domenica Marchetti August 27, 2013 at 6:54 pm #

      I thought about using sausage, Adri, but ground beef is what I had in the freezer. Janie over at Panini Girl posted a recipe last week using veal, which also sounds delicious. I made it again tonight using the vegetarian bread crumb filling. Serving it with salumi.

  3. paninigirl August 27, 2013 at 9:21 am #

    Great minds think alike!

    • Domenica Marchetti August 27, 2013 at 6:55 pm #

      Got that right Janie 🙂

  4. Laura (Tutti Dolci) August 27, 2013 at 11:39 am #

    I love stuffed zucchini! The variety of colors and shapes makes this such a pretty dish.

    • Domenica Marchetti August 27, 2013 at 6:56 pm #

      I agree Laura. The only thing missing were a couple of patty pans. Next time.

  5. bettyannq @Mango_Queen August 27, 2013 at 12:04 pm #

    Oh my gosh, this is so delicious-looking and your photos are so pretty. I am inspired to do this. I’m always looking for something new to do with zucchini and I know our family will enjoy this. Thanks for sharing this recipe for meatball-stuffed zucchini, Domenica!

    • Domenica Marchetti August 27, 2013 at 6:57 pm #

      Betty Ann, I’ll bet you could come up with a marvelous Filipino twist on this dish. Your recipes always sound so good. Thanks for your comment.

  6. Chiara August 28, 2013 at 1:53 am #

    Un piatto unico molto gustoso, fa anche una splendida figura in tavola, bellissima ricetta Domenica, buona giornata!

    • Domenica Marchetti August 29, 2013 at 9:08 pm #

      Grazie cara Chiara. Uno di miei piatti preferiti per la fine dell’estate…e purtroppo ci siamo arrivati. Un abbraccio

  7. ciaochowlinda August 30, 2013 at 8:38 am #

    There are a limitless number of fillings you can give them but yours are a favorite of mine. I always plant some of those globe zucchini in the garden with seeds I bring back from Italy. They make the perfect vehicle for stuffing.

  8. Rosa Mayland September 3, 2013 at 3:29 am #

    A wonderful flavors! This dish must be really enjoyable. I love meatballs and stuffed vegetables, so this recipe is for me!




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