Yes, Italians make meatloaf. They call them polpettoni, or ‘big meatballs’, which is, in fact, what they are, if you think about it–using the same mixture of minced beef, veal and pork that you would use to make polpette, or Italian meatballs.
Angelina made a very typical polpettone: you take equal amounts of minced (chopped) beef, veal and pork (about 1kg (2 lbs.) serves 4-6 very hungry people, with leftovers), then add lots of grated parmesan cheese (about 100g for 1k), two eggs, and two kaiser buns (or large slices of bread) soaked in water, squeezed dry and shredded into the bowl, finely chopped garlic (to taste–I put 4 cloves for this amount of meat) and parsley, salt and pepper. Mix very well–you’ll need your hands for the job–until you have an evenly amalgmated mixture. Form into a ‘loaf’.
Angelina, like many Italians, liked to stuff her meatloaf with mozzarella cheese. If you want to, then open up a fairly deep well in the middle of the loaf and add slices of mozzarella or another meltable cheese. Close up the well and reform the loaf.
Now place the loaf in a baking dish. Angelina liked to add potatoes wedges to the dish to roast with the meatloaf–something I heartily recommend, because they soak up and absorb the wonderful flavor of the cooking juices. You can also add a few pachini (cherry tomatoes) or wedges of regular tomatoes if you like. I also like to add a few garlic cloves, with their jackets still on to prevent them from burning, to the dish. Sprinkle with olive oil, season the potatoes and other vegetables if using with salt and pepper. Splash on a bit of white wine and bake in a hot oven (200 C, 400 F) for 45 minutes to an hour, tossing the potatoes and basting the loaf from time to time with the cooking juices, until the polpettone is nicely browned and the potatoes are tender and just lightly spottled on the outside. You can test the internal temperature of the meat (it should be at least 65 C, 150 F). The potatoes are done when you stick a knife in them and the potato stays where it is when you lift it out. (Thanks to the Rouxbe Online Cooking School for this useful tip!)
Serve the polpettone whole, if you like, directly from the baking dish for a ‘family style’ meal, or slice it attractively on a serving plate, surrounded by the potatoes. Either way, don’t forget the cooking juices, which are absolutely fabulous–there will be little bits of coagulated milk floating around. They may look unattactive but they really delicious. If you want to be fancy, you could smooth out the sauce by either sieving or blending it.
NOTES: If you prefer, the polpettone can be made entirely from beef, or I suppose entirely from pork, although I haven’t tried it. I would think that a veal-only meatloaf would be a bit bland, though I cannot say that I’ve tested my impression.
Besides cheese, there are a variety of stuffings that you can try out. Some common ones include vegetables like spinach, mortadella, prosciutto and hard boiled eggs, but really, you should feel free to use your imagination and suit your own taste. The possibilities really are endless.
It is very common for Italian recipes to call for browning the polpettone on all sides in butter or oil in a Dutch oven and then simmering it, covered, on top of the stove. I’ve tried it that way and the initial browning can be tricky–it is all too easy for the polpettone to break apart when you turn it–so I prefer the oven method. But if you prefer–and in summer turning on the oven is something to avoid–do try the stove-top method. When making meatloaf this way, tomato is often added to the pot to simmer along with the loaf, which makes for a delightful sauce to serve with the loaf (or to dress pasta).
Artusi, by the way, has two recipes for polpettone, one using leftover boiled beef but otherwise quite similar to the recipe above and the other, which he calls alla fiorentina or Florentine style, using a mixture of minced veal and ham, and simmered in broth, which is thicken in the end with a egg yolks mixed with lemon juice. (A technique that is quite common in Italian cooking, and some say comes from Greek influence.) Artusi even mentions in a short note polpettone alla piemontese, which is stuffed with hard boiled egg. Non e’ un piatto da disprezzare, he says–it’s not a dish to turn down your nose at–and I would fully agree.
This same meat and cheese mixture, by the way, is the stuff for making polpette (meatballs), which are wonderful on their own, simmered in a Sunday Sauce or, made particularly small, as stuffing for a Neapolitan-style Lasagna di Carnevale. In fact, polpettone simply means ‘big meatball’ in Italian, showing how closely associated the two dishes are in the Italian culinary mind.