Nothing says Italian food like spaghetti and meatballs, right? Well, no, not if you’re talking to Italians.
If you travel to Italy, you won’t find spaghetti and meatballs on a restaurant menu (except possibly to cater to the expectations of American tourists). Italians do have their own version of the meatball (as do most cultures around the world), but these polpettes, as they are known, are never served with pasta. Instead, they are either served as a meal by themselves, or in soups. They are also made with any meat, even turkey and fish.
Moreover, polpettes are rarely served in restaurants, rather, they are more commonly seen on the family table as the province of the home cook. In addition, they have a different proportion of meat to breadcrumbs – about an equal ratio, as opposed to our meat dominant American version.
So, the dish we are familar with here in America is really Italian American – developed by immigrants who, with better jobs in America, were able to afford more meat in their diets. Red sauces began to dominate since canned tomatoes were one of the few ingredients available in grocery stores. Spaghetti became an accompaniment either because it was one of the few Italian foods available here, or because early Italian restaurants needed to offer it to satisfy the tastes of Americans who were used to having a starch served with their meals.
But, no matter what the origins, what we Americans call Italian meatballs are a favorite. My version has been developed by attempting to take the best of several recipes I have tried over the years.
One of the most important elements, in my opinion, is to use a blend of ground beef, pork and veal. I firmly believe that you can never have the best meatballs using ground beef alone. Pork adds flavor, and the veal makes the meatball more tender. Most groceries carry a beef, pork and veal blend known as meatloaf or meatball mix. If that is not available, simply buy the three meats separately and mix in approximately equal proportions. If you can’t find ground veal, at least do half and half beef and pork. (Since the pork is fatty, use a leaner beef). The meatballs won’t be as tender without the veal, but the flavor will be superior to beef alone.
- 1&1/3 lb ground meatloaf mix (equal parts beef, pork and veal)
- 1 medium onion, finely diced
- 4 cloves garlic, finely diced
- 1/4 cup parmeson cheese, grated
- 1/4 cup romano cheese, grated
- 1 egg
- 1/2 cup dried breadcrumbs
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1/4 tsp black pepper
- 1 tsp dried basil
- 1 1/2 tsp dried oregano
- Place all ingredients in a medium bowl, and mix with hands until everything is incorporated. (Do not overwork, or meatballs will be tough).
- Form into golfball sized meatballs (will make about 22-24), and place in a single layer in a pan. (Parchment paper makes for easier cleanup).
- Bake at 350° for 20 minutes.
- Use immediately by heating in sauce, or freeze until needed.