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:
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)
- Freshly grated Parmesan or pecorino romano cheese
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.
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.
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.
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!
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 carnevale, zitoni 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?