Ciao Amici (hello friends),
Growing up in a large Italian family full of old world traditions, one of my fondest memories was coming home from Sunday mass to the smells of simmering meatballs, sausage and braised meats in an enormous pot of tomato sauce (or “gravy” as we called it in New Jersey). All of my brothers and sisters would line up as our mom would let me dunk some crusty bread in the sauce for a quick taste. Spaghetti and Meatballs…is there a better comfort food in America today? This month’s article answers the age old question of the origination of this time-honored dish.
I’ve traveled to Italy many times and rarely see meatballs on a restaurant menu there, and I’ve never seen spaghetti and meatballs served together on any menu as a singular dish. So, could you tell me where spaghetti and meatballs originated? I thought maybe you would know the answer.
Best regards, Roger G.
You’ve heard the old saying – “All roads lead to Rome” … well in this case, “all meatballs lead to Rome”. There is only one cookbook that has survived from the ancient Roman days, which was written by Apicius about 2000 years ago. Apicius spent his life categorizing ingredients and recipes from both the Greek and Roman cultures in an effort to please the emperors and rulers of Rome. Many of his recipes were often created for use as aphrodisiacs during the orgies of Rome and Pompeii. From his writings, we learn that the Italian word for meatball – polpette- is derived from the Latin word for pulp, pulpa. In this case, the word pulp refers to meat without bones and ground up. Apicius mentions many types of polpette-type recipes in his book, many of which are also either vegetarian, made with fish, and even ones for dessert. You can imagine that polpette were the perfect food for the times – precooked and delicious even at room temperature plus they could be eaten without utensils.
Today’s polpette and polpettoni, meatballs and meatloaf, certainly evolved from these earlier times, before refrigeration and when meat trimmings and leftovers had to be dealt with quickly or they would spoil.
But you are right – meatballs are often hard to find in Italy. Polpette are generally found in Southern Italy, but never served with pasta. They are served as a second course (after the pasta course) and often with a platter of other braised meats. Meatballs are true home cooking and unless you are invited into someone’s home and considered family, you may never be served this simple but quite delicious food.
My family in Napoli makes meatballs from the meat of the water buffalo. These buffalo give us the milk for bufala mozzarella and when they are too old they are slaughtered and certainly the meat is too tough for grilling or roasting, but the flavor they give to meatballs is sort of earthy with a hint of wild game and quite lean.
At Buca Lapi, my favorite restaurant in Florence, which is famous for its steaks, the owner Luciano Ghinassi makes his meatballs from the trimmings of the Chiannina beef. As the meat is also very lean, he adds some lardo (pork fat) and sautés them slowly in extra-virgin olive oil. He always has some cooking and serves them as antipasti (appetizer).
But here in the USA it is the recipes from the immigrants of Southern Italy for meatballs cooked in tomato sauce that we mostly relate to. For the over 26 million Americans who can trace their heritage back to Italy, the typical Sunday dinner (actually served at lunch in the old days) was antipasti, pasta with a tomato sauce, then followed by a salad and a platter of meatballs, sausages and bracciole (braised meat). Then during the week, it was meatballs sandwiches, either served hot on an Italian roll or sliced and served cold on toasted white bread with lettuce.
Who was the person who first put the spaghetti together with the meatballs? I can only imagine this was done in an effort to save time and serve everything in one course. Maybe that’s what we call progress here in America. Or maybe Apicius’ polpette did work as an aphrodisiac after all and people had other things on their mind and had to rush through dinner!
Here is my recipe for Grandma Celia’s Meatballs
At my restaurants Little Napoli and Vesuvio in Carmel, California, I serve my Grandma Celia’s recipe for meatballs of which I am very proud. And yes, we do serve them with spaghetti. Of all the choices on my menu, this is the one dish that guests comment about on how it brings back memories of their childhood and continue to thank me for keeping up with the old family traditions.
In a large bowl combine gently:
- 2 cups broken up old bread or panko
- 2 eggs
- ¾ cup milk
- 1 cup Parmesan cheese
- ½ cup chopped yellow onion or shallot (I don’t use garlic)
- ¼ cup chopped parsley
- a pinch of Italian seasoning
- salt (to taste)
- crushed red pepper (to taste)
In another large bowl fold gently together:
- 1 pound ground chuck
- 1 pound ground pork
- 1 pound ground spicy sausage
Now combine all ingredients together, but be sure to fold gently and briefly or the meatballs will be tough. Shape the meat into small balls in the size you like. Lay the meatballs on a pan, cover and chill for at least 1 hour.
Option 1: Heat 1 cup of olive oil in a large skillet, over medium-high heat. Brown the meatballs on all sides (approx. 5 minutes).
Option 2: Brown the meatballs in the oven at 375 degrees for approx. 15 minutes.
Cooking meatballs in sauce: After browning of your choice, cook meatballs in your favorite tomato sauce for 1-1½ hours either on top of the stove over a low flame in a covered pot or in the oven at 350 degrees in a covered roasting pan. Let the meatballs cool naturally in the sauce in the refrigerator and heat up at a later time, or enjoy immediately served with spaghetti, of course.
That’s some spicy meatball! Italians always have had a wonderful way with words, especially when it comes to slang. In Italy, if you call someone a polpettoni, you are usually telling him he is dumb (or lazy) as a meatloaf. In baseball, the early Italian-American players referred to an easy pitch as a meatball, cause it was so easy to hit (meatballs are easy to make, right?). And my favorite is when Italian men refer to a pretty girl as a polpette, and here in the USA if a beautiful girl is sexy, Italian-Americans say, “that’s some spicy meatball”.