Classic Italian Meatballs

Classic meatballs, Italian-American style

Meatballs are personal.

Let me rephrase that: Show me your meatball, and I’ll show you mine.

Oh, wait. No. Not that personal. That’s the sort of thing that goes on in other blogs, the after bedtime, Not Safe for Work kind.

What I meant was, meatballs for me are like Proust’s madeleine. Like any childhood comfort food, meatballs represent a time, place and taste that exists only in my memory. But when prepared in just the right way - today, right now- one bite into a really good meatball could transport me back to my parents' Sunday afternoon dinner table.

My mother would set out a large platter of meat that had spent the better part of the day braising in thick, rich tomato sauce – the gravy. On it, there would usually be a beef chuck roast, a braciole (a rolled beef flank steak stuffed with cheese, breadcrumbs and fresh parsley), sweet and spicy pork sausages handmade by my grandfather, and meatballs. I always went straight for the meatballs.

Meatballs are so personal that even among family there can be great disappointment. My bias unfailingly (some might say stubbornly) swerved toward my mother’s meatballs. Even as much as I loved my grandmother’s Sunday gravy, I was ambivalent about her meatballs. And because each person’s meatball is as unique in form as their own fingerprint, it was always immediately apparent to me when someone other than my own mother or grandmother had shaped meatballs and surreptitiously slid them into the family gravy pot.

There was that one Sunday gravy which has traumatized me for life. I can’t remember the distant relative who’d prepared them, all I know is this: one hopeful bite of her meatball revealed something dark, chewy and slimy-sweet, an alien nugget that could only be... a raisin. A raisin.

Who would go and put a raisin in an innocent-looking meatball? Why?

Later, my mother explained to me in a stage whisper that it was because great aunt Carmella was Sicilian. Oh.

Needless to say, my family was spoiled by my mother's stellar meatballs and as a result grew very particular. It was standard for us to rate the quality of the meatballs whenever we ate at a restaurant. We could spot inferior execution every time. Like meatballs made with stale, dried, seasoned breadcrumbs or those that were so firm and rubbery you could set one on a billiard table and smack it into the corner pocket.

Because I believe my mother made the very best meatballs, hers are the standard by which all others are judged. They were generously portioned - almost the size of a baseball; crusty on the outside, tender and almost fluffy within. They were strewn with flecks of fresh parsley, garlic and soft bits of milk-soaked Italian bread. They were sharp with the salty tang of Pecorino Romano cheese. They were big juicy spheres I couldn’t wait to stick my fork into.

My mother is no longer with us, and sadly, she took her meatball recipe with her. She’d told me her meatball secrets, probably more than once, but that was a while ago and the details are sketchy. Did she say to remove the crusts from the bread before soaking in milk? To squeeze out the milk thoroughly or to keep the bread dripping with liquid? To flatten the meatballs slightly while frying? Can’t remember. I didn’t write it down.

Unfortunately, I don’t seem to have inherited the gene for meatball mastery from my mother, and I’ve yet to work out her perfect ratio of meat-to-seasoning-to-filler. I hang my head in frustration, but I’m working on it.

I’ve turned to cookbooks lately, and recently found a recipe in Two Meatballs in an Italian Kitchen that seemed eerily familiar. I played with the recipe a bit and came up with this one. They are very close to my mother’s in method and taste, but just not as light as I’d like them to be. Back to the mixing bowl.

As always, I’ll keep you updated with breaking meatball-recipe news as it occurs.
Until then, what are your cherished food memories? Visit the comment section at the end of this post and share them with me.

You might also like Rigatoni with 20-Minute Sunday Gravy.

Classic Italian Meatballs

3 thick slices Italian-style bread, crust trimmed
1 ½ cups whole milk
1 pound ground beef chuck
½ pound ground pork
2 egg yolks
½ cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese
1 tablespoon kosher salt or 1 ½ teaspoons table salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
½ cup fresh Italian (flat-leaf) parsley
¼ cup olive oil

1. Tear the bread into small pieces and place in a medium bowl. Cover with the milk and soak 5 minutes. Squeeze the milk out of the bread until just moist.

2. In a large bowl, use your hands to combine bread, beef, pork, egg, cheese, salt, pepper, garlic and parsley until evenly mixed. Break off ¼-cup sized pieces of mixture and roll into balls. They don’t have to be perfect – craggy meatballs have character and hold the sauce better.

3. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add as many meatballs as will fit in the pan without crowding. They should sizzle as soon as they hit they pan or the pan isn’t hot enough.

4. Cook meatballs until browned on all sides and cooked through, 6 -8 minutes total.

5. Serve hot with your favorite tomato sauce.
Makes about 15 meatballs

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Catherine Wilkinson said...

That's such a beautiful story! I remember and tell my history with food, too. This is a great recipe, perfect for adaptation to our own memories.

Emiline said...

I am in awe...those look fantastic!
I know I've said this before, but, I'm jealous of your Italian heritage. I want to be Italian!
I've never made meatballs before. I should try.

My family has always grown lots of vegetables in our garden. Asparagus, squash, cucumbers, tomatoes-you name it, we've grown it. So I guess most of my fond memories are of vegetables.

Chef John said...

very well written! thanks! btw, there is no mention of the bread in step 2. Cheers.

Karen said...

Hi Catherine, thanks.
I'd love to hear about your food history. Tell me more.

Emiline, I bet there's a step-by-step on how to become Italian. First one should be to make some meatballs!
I'm jealous of your garden. My dad only started growing tomatoes after I was long gone from home.

Thanks, Chef. I just fixed that typo - glad you caught it. Cheers to you...

michelle @ TNS said...

my favorite meatballs and gravy are my zia lilliana's. you can't beat those with a stick. nor can i exactly reproduce them myself.

personally, i always go for the sausage first, and then the meatballs. the braciole is a good flavoring agent for the gravy, but i never understood why you would eat that when meatballs and sausage were available!

Patricia Scarpin said...

Karen, my husband is absolutely crazy for meatballs - these look wonderful, he'd have a dozen in the blink of an eye!

Anonymous said...

Can't wait to try these. I am also in search of the perfect meatball.

AnticiPlate said...

These look great! What a wonderful story:)

Susan from Food Blogga said...

You used to have the braciole too? Oh, this post brings back a flood of delicious memories for me, Karen. I may be making meatballs this weekend.

CamillaCooks said...


These look incredibly delicious. Equally delicious is your prose: you are such a gifted writer, akin to Laurie Colwin. Brava!

p.s., I saw that you like Donna Leon's mysteryies, too--I'm also hooked! I love her descriptions of Venetian food. umm...

Stella (Sweet Temptations) said...

Hi Karen
your meatballs look irresistible. That'll be make a meatlover at once!

Anonymous said...

I think I want meatballs for dinner. Tonight, if I can wait that long. Keep the great recipes coming! I loved the look of your professional chef service blog as well. The menus make me drool and wish you were my neighbor. Hope all is well with you and your family! Erin Mylroie

Karen said...

Michelle, I do love sausage too. My grandfather was famous for his, but for some reason the meatballs were tops with me. Maybe it's their nice, round shape.

Patricia, I guess you'd make him happy if you whipped up a batch!

Beth, let me know if you like them...

Anticiplate, thanks!

Susan, we didn't always have the braciole but it was memorable when my mother would throw it in. Probably when it was on sale or something.

Thanks, Camilla. You're a pretty talented gal yourself! Yes, those Guido Brunetti mysteries make me want to take up residence in a dark, damp Venetian palazzo.

Stella, next to bacon, meatballs are probably the biggest temptation for those who don't eat meat. One meatball and you might never go back.

Hi Erin, I'd truly enjoy having you as a neighbor. Wouldn't that be fun? Thanks for saying hello - it seems like it's been a while.

Judy said...

Have been silently reading your posts for a while. Loved this meatball story. My husband is Italian and comes from a line of great Sicilian cooks. His aunt cooked for Dean Martin and owned restaurants in New Jersey. She taught me--a Hungarian-German--to make spaghetti sauce and meatballs. I now have a food blog and am sharing some of the great Italian recipes I learned, then tweaked, from my husband's family of cooks. My blog is judyskitchen.blogspot.com. Please come visit. I love your blog.

Meena said...

Those looks delicious! Spaghetti and meatballs are my all-time favourite comfort food. I always make a big batch and freeze some for a rainy day.

Emiline said...

Guess what I found today? Quinoa!!

Anonymous said...

i am intrigued - why kosher salt when you are using pork??!!??

Anonymous said...

Thank you for a truly impressive recipe! These are hands down the best meatballs I've ever had! Thanks again!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this great recipe. I was in the mood for some spaghetti and meatballs and Googled the meatballs recipe and found your page.
I tried your recipe, minus the pork of course, and it was perhaps the best meatballs I had in many years. Since then I have tried it a few more times and have passed on your recipe to family and friends.
Thanks again and good luck. Loved the story as well.