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Polpette & Polpettoni

Polpette and polpettoni, meatballs and meatloaf, are in many ways a holdover from an earlier time, when refrigeration was not as dependable as it is today and trimmings and leftover meats had to be dealt with quickly or they would spoil. Meatballs, in particular, are true home cooking of the sort you are unlikely to encounter in any but the most mom-and-pop type trattorias that cater to a local clientele. Nor are you likely to be served them if you are invited to someone's house, unless you are considered family.

A pity, in some ways, because meatballs are easy to make, flavorful, and delightfully moist and tender too. One thing that may come to a surprise to people living outside the Peninsula is that in Italy they're generally served as a second course, with a salad or vegetable; spinach and beet greens are especially popular in Tuscany. I've only encountered meatballs in pasta sauce once in the 20-odd years I've lived in here, in the course of a week spent in Puglia. Pino Correnti does say that meatballs are an important part of the feast-day ragú made in Sicily, but the recipe is not common on the Continent.

Like meatballs, meatloaf is often strictly home fare of the sort one wouldn't serve to guests. However, since it requires a substantial amount of meat to begin with, it can be more elegant, and you will occasionally encounter it in a restaurant, especially one that specializes in traditional dishes.

One general note on technique: Italians often use bread -- not bread crumbs -- in meatballs: Take day-old Italian bread, trim away the crust, soak the bread for several minutes in milk, and squeeze most of it out. You don't want it dribbling-soaked, just well moist. Mix the soaked bread into the ground meat. How much? I usually go by eye, but the amount of bread is probably an abundant cup for a scant pound of ground beef. The bread should be day-old because the crumb is stiffer and doesn't simply collapse into paste.
When I mentioned this in connection with Joey's famous meatballs (see below) on Cosa Bolle in Pentola, my newsletter, Mary Jo wrote to say that in addition to using bread to soften her meatballs, she uses grated zucchini, which contribute moisture but no overpowering flavors. She also occasionally uses grated onions but has to be careful lest they overshadow everything else. Perhaps Vidalias?

Meatball and Meatloaf Recipes on Site:
Meatball and Meatloaf Recipes off site:
  • Anthony's Pasta Sauce and Balls!
    A son's tribute to his Dad: an exhaustive instructions on how to make pasta with meatballs in a tomato sauce. This is the best meatball pasta sauce recipe I have found on the Net by a considerable margin.

Buon Appetito!
Kyle Phillips

PS -- if you have a general Italian food or travel-related question or comment, post it on the Forum.

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Text & photo © Kyle Phillips.

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