For as long as I can remember, I have loved Italian food—pizza, spaghetti, lasagna. . . and meatballs—all smothered in marinara sauce. So I was a little disappointed to learn some of my favorite foods are not true Italian dishes. Spaghetti and meatballs, for instance, did not originate in Italy. According to Shaylyn Esposito, writing in Smithsonian Magazine, Italy’s traditional meatballs are called Polpettes. They can be made with any finely chopped meat, including turkey or fish. Since traditional recipes called for equal amounts of meat and bread crumbs, Polpettes were a family favorite, even when meat was scarce. Creative cooks learned which herbs and spices made the tastiest concoctions.
The recipe for Polpettes came to America in the hearts and minds of immigrants from southern Italy. About 3½ million of them arrived on our shores from 1880 to 1920. In Italy, 75 percent of their income was spent on food, but in the New World, the ratio was more like 25 percent. Consequently, the ratio of meat to bread in Polpettes also increased. And not only did the ratios change, so did the size of the meatballs—from golf balls to baseballs! So as Polpettes transformed, so did the women who created them. No longer did they have to scrape meals together. Now they experimented with new ingredients, perfected their recipes, and strove to outdo one another. I guess that’s why so many Italian restaurants are affectionately named “Mama” This or That. Those Italian women took dinnertime seriously, spending long hours making meals from scratch, and taking pride in feeding their families the tastiest homemade dishes.
Our family has its own favorite recipe for Italian meatballs. I’ve never tried to make them “baseball size”. Mine look more like golf balls. If you want to use them in Italian Wedding Soup, make them the size of large marbles.
Like a good Italian mama, I doubled this recipe. 3 pounds of ground beef makes about 5 dozen meatballs—enough to feed the whole neighborhood. If I’m not planning to feed the neighborhood, I freeze the extras. If I freeze them without sauce, I use zip-lock bags. If I put them in sauce, I use plastic containers with tight fitting lids. They freeze well, and are delicious with any pasta, served with marinara sauce and fresh parmesan cheese. Mangia! Mangia!
- 3 lbs ground beef
- 4 eggs
- 1 c. Italian flavored bread crumbs
- ½ cup onion
- 2 t. minced garlic
- ¼ cup fresh parsley (or parsley flakes)
- ½ t. oregano
- 2 ½ t. seasoned salt
- 6 T. freshly grated parmesan cheese
- 1 t. lemon juice
- Mix in ingredients one at a time, by hand or in food processor. Roll into meatballs and bake at 450 for about 10 min. Then turn them over and bake about 5 more minutes. I bake these on my broiler pan (but not in the broiler). Lone Star beef makes excellent meatballs. There is surprisingly little fat to drain.
- Serve over pasta with marinara sauce.
- To make these even tastier, use fresh herbs and garlic. And instead of flavored crumbs, try crumbling 1 cup of stale Italian bread into a small bowl. Pour a little milk over it and mix in ¼ cup chopped fresh parsley. Let the bread soak for about 10 minutes. Then add the mixture to your meat.