An iconic dish from the Abruzzo region in the cucina povera tradition, pallotte cacio e uova—cheese and egg balls—probably got its start as a way to use up leftover bits of cheese and stale bread. The mixture is then bound together with egg and formed into balls and, just like meatballs, fried and simmered in tomato sauce. As they simmer, the pallotte swell and absorb the flavor of the sauce. You’ll be surprised how much they actually taste like ‘real’ meatballs. Its a perfect example of how the poor in Italy would take simple, humble ingredients that other might discard and then them into something incredibly tasty.
Originally served as a vegetarian second course to replace costly meat, in these more prosperous times this dish is just as likely to show up as an antipasto.
Serves 4-6 as an antipasto or vegetarian secondo
For the balls:
- 400g (14 oz) of mixed grated cheeses (see Notes)
- 4 eggs
- 100g (4 oz) of best-quality white bread, crusts removed and soaked in water and squeezed dried
- 1-2 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely chopped
- A few sprigs of fresh parsley, finely chopped
- Salt and pepper
- Tomato sauce (optionally, with sliced or diced red bell pepper addedto the soffritto)
Mix all of the ingredients indicated above together in a large mixing bowl. Let the mixture rest for a good hour in the fridge to allow the flavors to get acquainted and the mixture to firm up.
While the mixture is resting, make your tomato sauce, using any of the Southern Italian-style sauces indicated in our post “Tomato Sauce 101“, made with a soffritto of garlic or garlic and onion, like Sauces #2 or #3. Many recipes call for adding chopped or thinly sliced red bell pepper, a typically Abruzzese addition. (Personally, I’m not very fond of tomato and bell pepper together.)
Take the bowl out of the fridge and form them into ‘meatballs’.
Deep fry the cheese and egg balls, or shallow fry them in olive oil, until they are nice and golden brown all over. Make sure the balls are well spaced, as they tend to stick together, especially when they first start cooking, as they cheese starts to melt and before the egg binding takes hold.
Transfer the fried balls to the tomato sauce and let them simmer there for a good 15-20 minutes. The balls will swell a bit as they cook and take on an almost spongy texture.
Recipes for pallotte cacio e uova typically call for a mixture of sharp, aged and milder, semi-aged cheeses, and cow’s and sheep’s milk cheeses. The local pecorino abruzzese, of the relatively mild semi-aged variety, is de rigueur. A typical mixture might include 200g of pecorino abruzzese, 100g of Parmesan or grana, and 100g of a sharper fully aged pecorino, like pecorino romano. If you can’t find pecorino abruzzese, which is awfully hard to find outside Italy, the much easier to find pecorino toscano can substitute nicely. I wouldn’t sweat the cheeese too much—remember, this is a poor man’s dish, invented as a way of using up scraps of cheese, so you can do the same. Hey, I even read one online recipe by an ex pat abruzzese living in the UK who likes to add Cheddar to her pallotte cacio e uova.
Like meatballs, these cheese and egg balls are also very nice eaten by themselves, fried but without simmering in tomato sauce. Eaten that way, they become ‘finger food’ suitable for serving with cocktails. Just make sure to make them a bit smaller and fry them rather darker than you would otherwise, so they are firmer and fully cooked through.