Spaghetti and meatballs. those wonderfully satisfying al dente strands of semolina and durum wheat served with those incredibly tasty orbs of ground meat, eggs, breadcrumbs, onions, garlic, cheeses and various other herbs and seasonings. Put them together and you have the quintessential Italian comfort food! Or do you?
A couple of years ago a cousin, we’ll call her Mary, finally had the opportunity to visit Italy. Being Italian-American, it was a trip of a lifetime to visit the land of her ancestors and something she really looked forward to, especially for the food. Shortly after she returned I called to ask how she enjoyed the trip. Part of the conversation went something like this:
Me: “So Mary, how did you like Italy?”
Mary: “I loved Italy, it was wonderful.”
For a few minutes we discussed the trip, what she did, saw and enjoyed, then I asked: “That sounds like a great time, would you go back?”
Me: “No! Why not?”
Mary: “Because I couldn’t find a bowl of spaghetti and meatballs anywhere.”
It’s a bit humorous, but a true story. Italian-Americans visiting Italy usually do so with the expectation of enjoying a great dish of spaghetti and meatballs. But they are always disappointed as such an integrated dish simply does not exist. Or, if found at all, it is at a tourist trap catering to Italian-Americans. So, if you can’t find the dish in Italy, where does it come from?
The answer is the Italian immigrants that first came to the United States, or in their words, “America”. According to the Ellis Island archives, from 1880 to 1920 around 4 million Italians emigrated from Italy to America. The vast majority, about 85 percent, came from southern Italy; from the regions of Abruzzo, Basilicata, Calabria, Campania, Molise, Puglia and Sicily, which are collectively known as the Mezzogiorno, or Midday. In those regions political and economic circumstances combined to leave the population in extreme poverty often forcing emigration.
Upon arriving in America and finding whatever work was available, to eat the immigrants had to make do with the ingredients they could find and afford. While still poor by American standards at the time, they were much better off than they were in Italy. There they were spending 75% of their income on food, but in America, they were only spending 25%. Having so much more money allowed them to have more food and this changed the dynamics of the family and how they ate..
In Italy, meat was a luxury and rarely enjoyed. When it was served, perhaps during a holiday or a special occasion, it was usually from the family’s domestic animal stock; for example chickens rabbits, a sheep or a pig acquired at great expense. Also, game such as hare, boars squab and pheasant were eaten. Whatever the source, the animal was killed and what wasn’t immediately eaten was preserved for future consumption. No part went to waste. There also, the southern Italian “contadina” or peasant woman, usually worked in the fields harvesting wheat and raising tomatoes and other domestic vegetables. After harvesting the wheat, it was brought to the “mugnaio” or miller for grinding into “la farina”, flour. After the miller took his share, the remaining flour was brought home and used to make bread or pasta. Tomatoes and other vegetable too were harvested for immediate use, storage or canning. It was not an easy life.
Now in America and with their newfound “wealth”, meat was easily purchased. In the grocery store the newly arrived contadina could also find flour, fresh tomatoes and other fresh vegetables; as well as herbs and spices. Fresh milk and eggs were often delivered to the door. Now Mamma and Nonna could put the “best” on the table everyday and without the additional backbreaking labor of doing so. It was from this newly found “Abbondanza”, or plentitude, of food that spaghetti and meatballs as we know it in America today evolved.
While you certainly do find various versions of meatballs in Italy, where they are known as “polpetta”, or plural “polpette”, they differ in their preparation and serving style from their Italian-American cousins. In Italy, polpette are typically the size of golf balls, and in the Abruzzo you also find a variety known as polpettine that are about the size of marbles. Traditionally, polpette are made with any meat or fish combined with breadcrumbs or chopped stale bread soaked in milk, egg, grated cheese such as Parmigiano or Pecorino, onion, garlic and other herbs. Importantly, the ratio of breadcrumbs is equal to or greater than the meat, and the greater amount of bread makes the polpette moister and softer than their American analogs. They are often, but not always braised in “sugo di pomodoro”, tomato sauce, and eaten on their own, perhaps with some crusty homemade bread, “Pane Casereccio“. In the case of Abruzzo’s polpettine, they are served in “brodo” or broth. For example, as in the regional version of Zuppa di Scarola e Polpettine, Escarole soup with Polpettine.
Though polpette are more traditionally found on the family table, they may at times be found in a trattoria or a more formal ristorante. If polpette are on the menu, they are served in the typical progression of an Italian meal where they may be offered in a zuppa as a “primo piatto” or first course. Or, offered as “carne”, ostensibly a meat dish, in the second course, or “secondo piatto”. But they are never combined with spaghetti or other pasta, which is a standalone primo piatto itself.
In Italy, the contadina also made her own fresh pasta usually in the form of spaghetti or tagliatelle and a typical condiment was sugo di pomodoro, a simple sauce of tomatoes, olive oil, onions, garlic and basil. Purportedly this sauce was first developed in Naples where it was used in Spaghetti alla Marinara, or “sailor’s style spaghetti”. Note that in Italy “Marinara” is always used as an adjective, as in the aforementioned example, denoting the type of preparation, “sailor’s style”. In America, Marinara evolved from an adjective to a noun used to describe a specific tomato sauce. So in Italy, you’ll not hear that “Nonna makes a great Marinara”; instead, “Nonna makes a great sugo di pomodoro for Spaghetti alla Marinara”.
Now, for the new Italian-Americans, with the abbondanza of meat and other foods, the transformation began. Why use so much bread in the polpette when we can enjoy all this meat? Why make them small? After all, we’re in America where everything is bigger! And so the polpette evolved into the Italian-American meatballs. The meatball uses more meat and less bread resulting in a dryer, denser but no less tasty concoction. Instead of golf balls, they were made in the size of baseballs or even larger. Finally, adopting the American style of starch, protein and vegetable together as a main course, the meatballs were combined with their favorite starch, spaghetti or other pasta, topped with their favorite sauce, Marinara; and maybe served with a side of rapini, more popularly known as broccoli rabe. So there you have it, the complete transformation to the red and white-checkered tablecloth main course delight found in every Italian-American restaurant today. But not found in Italy.
So, spaghetti and meatballs is but one of the great Italian-American dishes not otherwise found in Italy as such; and, I know that my readers have enjoyed eating the dish their entire lives. So, next time the urge strikes for a big bowl, give my meatballs a try with your favorite spaghetti sauce and tell me what you think.
- 1 lb Ground meatloaf mix (pork, beef, veal)
- 1 lb Bulk Italian sausage
- 1 Medium yellow onion, finely chopped
- 1 Medium red pepper, finely chopped
- 2 - 3 tbsp. minced garlic (to taste)
- ¾ cup Italian breadcrumbs
- ¾ cup Parmesan cheese
- 2 large eggs, beaten
- 2 or 3 tbsp. Dried parsley (to taste)
- 1 or 2 tbsp. Italian seasoning (to taste)
- 2 tsp. Salt (to taste)
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees
- In a medium skillet, sweat the finely chopped onion and red pepper until softened, making sure the mixture doesn’t burn. Add the minced garlic and cook about 2 more minutes. Set aside.
- In a large mixing bowl, add breadcrumbs, Parmesan cheese, parsley, Italian seasoning and salt if desired and mix well. Then add milk, a little at a time, and using a fork mix until completely wet and the consistency is slightly softer than the ground meat.
- Add the ground meatloaf mix, bulk sausage, the sweated peppers, onions and garlic, and eggs to the breadcrumb mixture; then using both hands, combine all ingredients making sure the result is totally homogenous and there are no lumps of the breadcrumb mixture.
- Roll into 2½ oz balls and place on a cookie sheet lined with greased aluminum foil. Using a cooking spray works well.
- Bake in the oven for about 15 - 20 minutes, until cooked through.
- Braise in your favorite tomato sauce for at least 30 minutes
- Serve with your favorite pasta or as a sandwich
Image: Pasta with meatballs and parsley is used under license from Adobe Stock: © Nitr – stock.adobe.com