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  • Writer's pictureMichelle Iannelli-Rubin

Classic Italian Meatballs (Polpette)

Updated: Oct 26, 2021

October & Italian-American Heritage Month.

October is Italian-American Heritage Month, and I am thankful to be getting this blog post in, just in the nick of time. As a first-generation Italian-American, traditionally Sundays are a big family day serving a pot of fresh tomato sauce with a batch of homemade meatballs aka "polpettes"! My mom kept this tradition growing up, and I'm glad to pass it on to my family. I still remember the fresh aromas filling the house when my mom would start frying her meatballs. Nothing stopped me from heading to the kitchen to grab a few, hot out of the pan! I remember my sister and I would stand at the fresh pot of sauce, while it simmered, dunking slices of "Brooklyn bread" into the sauce before it was ready for dinner.


Both of my parents were born in Italy. My mother emigrated to the United States in 1960; she is pictured below with her mother. She was 10 years old when she left her homeland for a better life here in the United States. My mother's family resided in the Campania region of Italy, which is southern Italy, and lived in the city of Nola.

In 1967, my father and his family emigrated to the United States from a small town in the mountains called Sant'Angelo dei Lombardi. This town was also in the Campania region. Here he is pictured in his passport photo at 15 years old. He emigrated to the United States just before his 16th birthday.


My mother's family landed in Queens, New York. My father's family landed in Park Slope Brooklyn, New York and then Bensonhurst. My mother's family were skilled laborers and established a small car repair shop/gas station in Queens. My father's grandfather worked as a long shore-man on the docks of Brooklyn before he went back to Italy. My father's mother and father became seamstresses in the sweatshops of Brooklyn, before my grandfather took a security job position at the Metropolitan Museum. In 1968, my father dropped out of school, and took on the pizza trade in Bensonhurst Brooklyn. He learned from the best pizza-makers on 18th Avenue.


My parents met through mutual friends in 1969. They fell in love, and within a year of dating got married. My mom was 20, my dad 19. Both of their families had strong connections to their cultural roots, and I, along with my brother and sister, benefited tremendously from being raised as 100% Italian. We are first generation Italian-Amercian and that meant that our grandparents spoke Italian to us; our parents preferred English. Our day-to-day life was not as Americanized as our peers. We had no clue what some common place things were in America. From food to tv shows, we were totally disconnected. Our holidays were filled with lots of Italian speaking relatives and deep rooted cultural traditions. While my parents were more progressive to Americanize than other member of our family, they established a strong pride and connection to our Italian heritage none-the-less.


Classic Italian Meatballs aka Polpette.

In Italy, I learned that meatballs are a separate main course, and are never served with pasta. They are typically fried and eaten as a snack or served as a main course plain without sauce. Pasta is considered a first course and the pairing of pasta with meatballs is actually an American invention. Here are a batch of my freshly fried meatballs:

Meatballs are typically made from ground meat (either beef or veal, or a combination of beef, veal, or pork) and mixed with a delicate balance of flavors (typically garlic, eggs, parsley and in some cases cheese such as Parmigiana) that are then shaped into a balls that can be fried and/or baked. The history of the meatball is unclear. Many people that believe that the meatball first originated in Persia where leftover meat was used to make a dish known as Kofta. From there, it is said to have traveled throughout the Middle East to China. Some claim that Venetian traders brought the meatball to Europe through trade routes while others believe the Ancient Romans developed a similar recipe and deserve full recognition for the meatballs humble origin! History is fascinating, isn't it?

Today, the meatball exists all over the world and is made from a variety of meat depending largely on what is readily available. The Chinese version, for example, is made from pork or fish, while the Middle Eastern and North African version is made from lamb. Swedish meatballs are a smaller version of their Italian cousins and served with cream sauce. Most Americans prefer meatballs made from beef although some cooks will make them from ground turkey.


My classic recipe is here. It's the only recipe I have used to make this balls of deliciousness for my family. Let me know if you give it a try! I'd love to hear all about it!

 

Michy's Classic Italian Meatballs

Ingredients

  • 2 pounds ground beef, 80% to 90% lean meat

  • 2 large eggs

  • freshly chopped parsley, basil, and oregano (I vary the amounts to taste, as should you)

  • 1 medium onion, chopped

  • 2 garlic cloves, chopped (more or less to taste)

  • 1 cup breadcrumbs

  • ½ cup parmesan cheese, freshly grated, plus more for garnish

  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt

  • 1 teaspoon black pepper


Directions

  1. Add ground meats and other meatball ingredients to mixing bowl.

  2. Toss mixture by hand gently and break meat up with fingertips until ingredients are evenly mixed.

  3. Form into 1 1/4 inch balls.

  4. Heat 3/4 cup olive oil in large non-stick skillet over medium heat. Fry in batches, making sure not to overcrowd, and turning until golden brown, about 4 – 6 minutes. Transfer to paper towels to drain.






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