My grandmother was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1922 after both her parents immigrated from Italy. Meatballs are a staple meal in most families and even more so in any Italian/American household. Every family has their own rendition, secret ingredient or ‘best ever’ meatball recipe. Some add milk to the breadcrumbs or ricotta to the mince for extra moisture. Some bake them, others fry them or even drop them raw, directly into the tomato sauce to simmer. With good ingredients it’s really hard to go wrong.
Meatballs or polpette as they’re called in Italian, were introduced to America in the form of the classic spaghetti and meatball combo by Italian immigrants in the 1800’s. Interestingly, when living in Italy I discovered that Italians will very rarely serve meatballs with pasta. The traditional meatball recipe is said to originate from the Abruzzo region. It’s very occasionally found served with short pastas in a pasta bake ‘al forno’ or with chitarra meaning ‘guitar strings’, a long pasta similar to spaghetti.
However, much more commonly, meatballs in Italy are about the size of walnuts (much smaller than the baseball sized variety found in America) and served as a main course with a side of vegetables like spinach or potatoes. The most important accompaniment is of course the fresh, crusty bread. Fare la scarpetta or ‘to mop up’ the tomato sauce is the best part about eating polpette.
I don’t have many memories of my grandparents but one thing that stands out in my mind was the day I was taught how to make grandma’s spaghetti and meatball recipe. In her small kitchen, we pulled out her old typewriter and I wrote the ingredients and method as she dictated them to me. As an 8 year old, I’d never used a typewriter before so the combination of typos, spelling mistakes and oil stains on the paper make it a particularly unique document that I’ve managed to hold onto for over 20 years. Below I’ve re-written it in a more legible fashion so you don’t mistake ‘mince’ for ‘mints‘ as written in the original!
Grandmas meatball recipe is served with spaghetti but she also added Italian pork and fennel seed sausages, as well as pork ribs into the sauce. I looked for this kind of ‘ragu’ in various parts of Italy and came to the conclusion that it must have been an Americanised recipe of her own invention. Until moving to Calabria, when I happened to have lunch in a random hole in the wall trattoria that served this exact dish. It seems that this recipe might have been handed down from our Southern Italian ancestors after all!
2 slices of good quality bread that’s dried out (a day or two old)
500g mince- half beef / half pork works well but can use one or the other
1 clove garlic finely crushed
handful flat leaf parsley finely chopped
handful good quality Parmigiano Reggiano grated, plus extra to serve
1 carrot finely chopped
1 celery stick finely chopped
1 small onion finely chopped
2 tins whole peeled tomatoes
- Unlike my grandma who tore up small chunks of fresh bread, I prefer to use a couple of slices of stale bread from a nice loaf I get at the local bakery. Blend the stale bread in a food processor until it creates a course crumb.
- Transfer the bread crumbs to a large bowl and combine with all of the other ingredients, cracking the eggs in last, one at a time. Depending on the size of the eggs you may only need one. The egg is to help bind the mixture together to aid in forming the balls.
- Mix with your hands to make sure all of the ingredients are stirred through evenly. Once well combined, begin rolling the meatballs. They should be about the size of a walnut.
- Line a large tray with paper towel and heat olive oil in a pan over medium heat.
- Sear the meatballs in batches. You want them to brown on the outside but remain rare in the middle because they will continue to cook in the sauce later. Once each meatball is browned, transfer to rest on the tray.
- Once the meatballs are all resting, lower the heat on the same pan and add some more olive oil followed by the carrot, celery and onion. This is the soffritto and is the base of most Italian sauces. Don’t worry if there is residue or slightly burnt bits in the pan leftover from the meat. This will add flavour to the sauce.
- When the soffritto has softened, add the two tins of tomatoes. Use some water to rinse out the tins, adding this liquid to the pan. Season with salt and pepper and allow to simmer on a low heat until the tomatoes have broken down.
- Add the meatballs to the sauce and allow them to simmer until cooked through.
- Bring salted water to the boil and add the spaghetti. At this point, remove the meatballs from the sauce and place a serving bowl, leaving the sauce in the pan. This will stop the meatballs from over cooking.
- Remove the spaghetti from the water two minutes before it is fully cooked, reserving a cup full of the pasta water. Transfer the spaghetti to the pan of sauce with the heat on medium so it can finish cooking in the sauce. Add a splash of the reserved pasta water as needed until you get the right consistency.
- Serve the pasta topped with the meatballs and some extra grated Parmigiano Reggiano