You have to watch this movie clip from The Big Night to understand what I’m about to tell you about spaghetti and meatballs. This is a very funny scene about a topic the Italians take very seriously. And, it’s no mistake that the main characters are called Primo and Secondo.
This is a very opinionated post, and I can’t help myself, and when you think I’ve gone too far, please go back and watch the clip again.
Spaghetti and meatballs is a beloved “American” meal. I say American because you’re more likely to find it on a menu in the States than in Italy. If it’s on a menu in Italy, it’s there for tourists in a restaurant one should probably avoid.
In Italy, meatballs are called polpette and the recipe is very similar to what I grew up with. Polpette are eaten as main course, or in a soup. When the meatballs are made very tiny, (like marbles), they are called polpettine, typically found in the Abruzzo region. As Italian restaurants popped up in Little Italy’s all over the east coast in America, they eventually started serving spaghetti and meatballs in one dish. They didn’t start out serving the meatballs with the spaghetti, but added them to adjust for the culture and the American tradition of eating the meat as the first course.
Hence, the dish you see pictured was never served in our home growing up. Although the meatballs would be cooked in a tomato sauce, they would never actually be served with the spaghetti. As Secondo (above) says in the movie “sometimes the spaghetti likes to be alone.”
The spaghetti was served first in a shallow bowl that was sitting on a flat dinner plate. We ate spaghetti only with a clean, simple, tomato sauce (flavored by the meat, but not containing meat) and freshly grated cheese. Then when those dishes were removed, we ate the second course of meatballs (or perhaps others meats) with a salad on the dinner plate.
Spaghetti is never served with a meat sauce and meatballs at the same time. There is no such thing as a tomato meat sauce. There is a meat sauce (called bolognese) that has some (very little) tomato in it and that is served with a wide noodle and used for lots of dishes. But, it’s not considered in the same family as spaghetti and meatballs.
There are many more meatball opinions. How to make the meatballs, what size to make them, garlic or no garlic, and how long to cook the sauce, which leads to what type of spaghetti should be served. You would think for such a simple, common, rustic kind of dish, there wouldn’t be so many strong opinions. But watch the movie again, and you’ll understand.
I accepted these “food rules” growing up, because I found my stability inside the rules. Food rules defined for me a “culture” to be a part of, and provided something I could rely on as a constant. I went to eight different grade schools, so my sanity required consistency and tradition. Sitting at the table, following the food rules brought an hour of predictable sanity. It could be my grandmother’s table which meant good times (usually), or it could be a table in a small apartment with my mom, my brother and I, during one of the times we weren’t talking to the rest of the family, including my father. At least during this predictable hour, I could forget the other twenty-three.
I wrote about meatballs in the meatball slider recipe, but I’ll give you a slightly different version. You can play with your meatball recipe, but don’t be tempted to fill a meatball with a lot of garlic and crazy spices. A good meatball doesn’t do well when one ingredient takes over, either in flavor or in texture. If you add garlic, you must be careful, that it’s not sitting on the edge of the meatball and gets too browned, causing your meatball and your sauce to taste bitter. This is why I recommend skipping the garlic. Remember that as the meatballs sit in the sauce, they are going to become more flavorful, and it’s much more important to use good meat and good cheese.
The Meat for Meat Balls
Many recipes have a mixture of pork, veal and beef. Many don’t have the access to affordable ground veal or choose not to eat veal, and in that case double up on the beef. Use a good meat, but not an extra lean meat. If you do happen to buy extra lean-lean, add in a little olive oil. Never use ground turkey; it’s not going to be the same. If you are concerned with fat, opt for leaner meat. In fact, never use turkey for anything except for turkey. Look at a cow, look at a pig and look at a turkey. Who deserves more to be called bacon, sausage, or meatballs?
The Tomatoes for the Sauce
The third most popular at Spinach Tiger is my Grandmother’s Homemade Tomato Sauce. It’s easy and consistently good.
I prefer a clean pureed sauce for spaghetti and meatballs, and will strain good tomatoes making sure there are no seeds.
Some regions of Italy insist on adding carrots, onions and celery to tomato sauce. Save this for bolognese. It changes the flavor and texture of the sauce. It’s like trying to mix the northern and southern regions of Italian cooking together. Sometimes that can work. I don’t think it works for a clean tomato sauce, with one exception. I will add butter to my tomato sauce to make it creamier. It’s not really necessary, but it’s a nice touch, and a northern Italian influence.
We like an authentic thick spaghetti, cooked al dente. For just a little more money, buy a high quality brand.
No canned cheese, but you know that, right? Only freshly grated parmigiano reggiano or pecorino romano at table. Tip: take cheese down to room temperature before serving. Grate as you use it, as the cheese can dry out within the hour, changing the flavor.
Spaghetti and Meatballs
Just recently, after 100 years of tradition in America, we started putting spaghetti and meatballs on the same plate. I am still unsure about how I feel about it, and this is proof of how deep food memories can go and how the food rules have shaped me.
Thus, today I give you the Retro Rose version of a great American tradition: Spaghetti and Meatballs.
- ½ cup milk, divided
- 3 large slices left over Italian bread
- 2 pounds ground chuck
- 1 pound ground pork (ask butcher to grind fresh) (or use all ground beef)
- ½ cup finely chopped parsley
- ½ cup freshly grated cheese you can mix parmesan and pecorino, but don’t use pre-grated cheese or cheese blends
- 1-2 cloves of garlic, minced (optional)
- 2 eggs
- sea salt, black pepper
- 2 Pounds Pasta
- ¼ cup salt
- 12 quarts water
- Take meat and eggs out 30 minutes before preparation. Put meat in large bowl.
- Mix pork and beef together.
- Soak bread in milk. Squeeze milk from bread. Set bread aside. Use all milk left over to soak meat.
- Add parsley, cheese, garlic, salt and pepper. Mix thoroughly. Add eggs. Mix. Add bread and now mix just enough to hold together. Don’t over mix, as there will be some pieces of bread throughout the mixture, unlike mixing a meatloaf with bread crumbs.
- Do one tester meatball on top of the stove. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed. You may need more cheese, salt or pepper.
- Fry until browned all over. Add to tomato sauce.
- My preference is to bake on parchment paper on cookie sheet for 20-25 minutes at 350. They don’t have to be completely cooked through as they will cook in the sauce.
- If you don't have a large enough pot to put in 12 quarts water, cook separately. Each pound of pasta needs six quarts water.
- Boil water. Once boiling add salt. Once water is boiling again, add pasta.
- Cook according to instructions. Drain.