Spaghetti and Meatballs

Columbus Day Special: Spaghetti and Meatballs

In Italian-American, pasta, piatti unici, primi piatti by Frank23 Comments

 Memorie di Angelina is dedicated to continental Italian cookery, but as long time readers will know, every Columbus Day we feature an Italian-American dish. This year’s feature: Spaghetti and Meatballs, which might be the most famous Italian-American dish of all time, a staple of ‘red sauce joints’ all over the country. It’s so famous, in fact, that it inspired a popular children’s song:

On top of spaghetti,
All covered with cheese,
I lost my poor meatball,
When somebody sneezed.

The meatball rolls out the door and into the garden. There’s some truth to this children’s song, I think. Truth be told, the combination of spaghetti and meatballs is a bit awkward, and the meatballs do tend to fall off the pasta. But then, that’s part of the fun. Maybe that’s why the song has a happy ending: the meatball turns to mush and grows into a meatball and tomato sauce tree…

For many people, Spaghetti and Meatballs it is practically synonymous with Italian cookery. The truth is, it’s an Italian-American invention, and you’d be hard pressed to find it in Italy. But more on that in the Notes below. For now, let’s get cooking:

Ingredients

Serves 4-6

500g (1 lb) spaghetti

For the meatballs:

  • 500g (1 lb) ground beef (or a mixture of ground beef, pork and/or veal)
  • 75g (2 oz) freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1 large slice of stale Italian bread, crust removed and  soaked in milk, crumbled
  • 1-2 eggs
  • 1-2 cloves of garlic, finely minced
  • A few sprigs of parsley, finely minced
  • Salt and pepper

Plus: olive oil or lard for frying

For the tomato sauce:

  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 1 clove of garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 large can of peeled tomatoes, run through a food mill, or a large jar of passata di pomodoro
  • Salt and pepper
  • A tiny pinch of oregano (optional)

For topping:

  • Freshly grated Parmesan or pecorino romano cheese

Directions

In a large mixing bowl, mix together all the meatball ingredients together into a smooth paste. (Your bare hands are the best tools for this job.) To eliminate any air holes in the mixture, smack it down into the bowl with some force, repeating a few times. Take a piece of the mixture, about the size of a walnut, and form it into a smooth ball by rolling it between the palms of your hands in a circular motion.

Spaghetti and Meatballs-8

Fry the meatballs in the olive oil (or, for extra savor in the Neapolitan style, lard) over moderate heat,  until they are nice and brown on all sides.

Spaghetti and Meatballs-7

Add the chopped onion and garlic, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and sauté everything together over gentle heat for a few minutes, until the onions are soft. Add the milled tomatoes and simmer for about 15-20 minutes, until the tomato and fat begin to separate. Taste and adjust for seasoning.

Spaghetti and Meatballs

Cook the spaghetti al dente and drain well. Dress the spaghetti lightly with the tomato sauce. Plate the dressed spaghetti and top with some more sauce and 2-3 meatballs. Sprinkle with freshly grated Parmesan or pecorino romano cheese, if you like, serve immediately, and enjoy!

Spaghetti and Meatballs

Notes on Spaghetti and Meatballs

I’ve used Angelina’s usual meat mixture for the meatballs, the kind she used for making her signature meatloaf. And I’ve employed some Italian touches, like using stale bread soaked in milk rather than the breadcrumbs that you’ll find in most recipes. I think the soaked bread makes for moister meatballs. And the lard, typical of Neapolitan tomato sauces, is a rarity these days in Italian-American cooking, but I really like the extra savoriness that it lends to the sauce. I usually leave out the oregano, even if it’s typical of American-style Italian cooking.

Meatballs—made as tiny as possible—do make themselves into some continental Italian pasta and rice dishes. They enrich Neapolitan classics like lasagna di carnevalezitoni al forno and sartù di riso, for example.  You can find them paired with orecchiette in Puglia, and the Abruzzese make a ragù with lamb meatballs. But spaghetti? In Italian food culture, spaghetti is usually paired with thin sauces, a plain tomato sauce or sometimes a light seafood sauce, like spaghetti alle vongole. I won’t go as far as to say spaghetti and meatballs don’t exist—Italian cuisine is so local and varied, who knows if you might come across the dish in some small town or province somewhere in the South—but it’s are definitely not a part of mainstream Italian cooking.

There are different explanations why Italian American immigrants came up with spaghetti and meatballs. One version, mentioned in this article from Italian Vanity Fair called Lo strano caso degli spaghetti con le polpette (“The Strange Case of Spaghetti and Meatballs”), says that the dish is basically a carnivore’s version of the classic spaghetti al pomodoro, another example of how Italian immigrants in America celebrated their newfound prosperity by turning a lean dish into one with meat, a bit like the way the parmigiana di melanzane (Eggplant Parmesan) got turned into Veal or Chicken Parmesan.

But there’s another, almost opposite way to look at this dish—as a simplified, week day version of Sunday Sauce, made with just meatballs rather than the usual extravagant assortment of meats. It’s a dish that takes less than a hour instead of a whole afternoon to make.  And while the meat from Sunday Sauce is eaten as a separate second course in the usual Italian style, Spaghetti and Meatballs combines primo and secondo on a single plate. An example of American time management applied to Italian cooking?

Columbus Day Special: Spaghetti and Meatballs

Rating: 51

Total Time: 45 minutes

Yield: Serves 4-6

Columbus Day Special: Spaghetti and Meatballs

Ingredients

  • 500g (1 lb) spaghetti
  • For the meatballs:
  • 500g (1 lb) ground beef (or a mixture of ground beef, pork and/or veal)
  • 75g (2 oz) freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1-2 eggs
  • 1 large slice of stale Italian bread, crust removed and soaked in milk, crumbled
  • 1-2 cloves of garlic, finely minced
  • A few sprigs of parsley, finely minced
  • Salt and pepper
  • Olive oil or lard for frying
  • For the tomato sauce:
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 1 clove of garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 large can of peeled tomatoes, run through a food mill, or a large jar of passata di pomodoro
  • Salt and pepper
  • A tiny pinch of oregano (optional)
  • For topping:
  • Freshly grated Parmesan or pecorino romano cheese

Directions

  1. In a large mixing bowl, mix together all the meatball ingredients together into a smooth paste. (Your bare hands are the best tools for this job.) To eliminate any air holes in the mixture, smack it down into the bowl with some force, repeating a few times. Take a piece of the mixture, about the size of a walnut, and form it into a smooth ball by rolling it between the palms of your hands in a circular motion.
  2. Fry the meatballs in the olive oil (or, for extra savor in the Neapolitan style, lard) until they are nice and brown on all sides.
  3. Add the chopped onion and garlic and sauté over gentle heat for a few minutes, until the onions are soft. Add the tomatoes and simmer for about 15-20 minutes, until the tomato and fat begin to separate.
  4. Cook the spaghetti al dente and drain well. Dress lightly with the tomato sauce. Plate the spaghetti and top with some more sauce and 2-3 meatballs. Top with freshly grated Parmesan or pecorino romano cheese, if you like, and enjoy!
http://memoriediangelina.com/2014/10/13/columbus-day-special-spaghetti-and-meatballs/

Comments

  1. The spaghetti and meatball dish is awesome. I don’t know who created this dish first but created a magnificent one which tastes really delicious.

  2. I have been struggling to recreate my mother’s meatball recipe which was heavenly. I never completely learned how to make them on my own before she passed rather quickly. 🙁 I think I don’t get the meat/bread ratio correct and so they fall apart when I fry them! I would love to try this recipe (which seems close to my mother’s, whose family was from Campania) but I don’t know how to use the soaked bread, quantity wise. She had done that at times, but when she taught me she used breadcrumbs. Could you estimate a conversion to breadcrumbs per pound of meat? Thanks in advance.

  3. Pingback: Angelina's Polpettone (Angelina's Meatloaf) | Memorie di Angelina

  4. Pingback: Peperoni ripieni di carne (Italian Meat Stuffed Peppers) | Memorie di Angelina

  5. My mother and Aunt Rose both soaked their bread in milk citing a richer meatball was the result. This was my favorite dinner as a child – always on Sunday. On holidays – they did all the various meats in a sauce and served them separately. I still know every line to the meatball song. This post has me reliving my childhood!

  6. I am hungarian, we have no ‘italian’ bread. Could you please tell me what type of bread I should use?

    1. Author

      You can use any firm, white, crusty bread—or breadcrumbs if you can’t find the right kind of bread.

  7. Your meatball recipe is perfection – and I have to say they’re just how my mom made them, and how I make them. I will be making spaghetti and meatballs like this for my son very soon – perfect meal before his next marathon.

  8. Oh boy, but this might also work for me for Mother’s Day. When I think of this Spaghetti and Meatballs I always think of my mom, whose given name was Josepha, but whom everyone called “Jeff.” She made the best meatballs, and they were a nice size, just like yours, made with only ground beef. She too moistened the bread with milk. Funny, because for her meatloaf, she used no milk – just plain old crushed Saltine crackers (remember them?) There was no added moisture, save what came from the eggs she also added, but for her meatballs, there sure was. I must add that I love the idea of frying the meatballs in lard.

    Funny, too about this thing this about Spaghetti with Meatballs being American. Perhaps the forerunner of our Spaghetti and Meatballs is the Pugliese classic “Stacchjoddi e Palpetta” (in dialect), a pasta reminiscent of orecchiette served with – wait for it – meatballs (as opposed to the eggplant meatballs you have previously discussed.) The meatballs are made with veal, pork, white wine, and other classic meatball ingredients, and typically the bread is moistened with water. What ever its origin, be it the old world or the new, it sure is good, real comfort food.

  9. Now I am in the mood to make meatballs….lol. You forgot to tell the story of trying to trick Nana into looking the other way so we could snag a meatball before dinner 🙂 And are those Nana’s dishes?

  10. I am Abbruzzese. We always used extra lean beef and coarse day old Italian bread …grated on the cheese grater…then moistened with cold water…for the Sumday sauce then added browned chicken, small chunks of lean beef, veal or pork. Not too much pork as that created a thinner red sauce. Did not mix veal or pork into the meatballs ….unless these were bits of leftovers…and also combined with an end of mortadella for a quite snack. Veal meatballs were made the size of a marble and put in broth…great for the very young, the old and the infirm!

  11. mi ricordano tanto quella scena così carina de film “Lilly e il Vagabondo” è un piatto galeotto ! Buona festa Frank !

  12. Another blogger I love reading just posted the same recipe and I commented on how it is true that that recipe is not usually seen in Italy, but that it is a true part of my childhood growing up on the East Coast. I love your comments in the notes section, so interesting.

    1. Author

      Food history is fascinating, isn’t it? Because it’s really about people, just as Brillat-Savarin said.

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