Polpette, Italian Style

Polpette with sofritto
As a teenager in New Jersey, I thought I knew what Italian food was. There was pizza, of course, but also my favourite foods from the "fancy" Italian restaurant in the small town where my high school was. Penne alla vodka. Garlicky Caesar salad. Mozzarella sticks, dipped in marinara sauce, eaten quickly before the cheese congealed. And, of course, meatballs -- on top of spaghetti, dusted with real Parmesan from a twirly cheese grater, or wedged into a sub roll, covered with more marinara sauce and melted Provolone.

I was actually eating Italian-American food -- most of it barely related to Italy. Penne alla vodka was invented to sell vodka to Italians in the 1970s. Caesar salad was invented by an Italian, Caesar Cardini, but he invented the salad one night in 1924, after emigrating to the United States and opening a restaurant across the border in Tijuana, Mexico. A recipe for breaded, fried cheese comes from a 1393 French cookbook Le Menagier de Paris, but mozzarella sticks are unknown in Italy. And while meatballs, or polpette, are eaten all over Italy, serving them with spaghetti and red tomato sauce is an American invention. After all, meatballs were designed as a way to stretch out expensive meat with cheaper fillers such as leftover bread.

Meatballs aren't limited to Italy, either: cevapi are eaten wedged into flatbread in the Balkans, while kofta or kefta are eaten from Morocco to Lebanon to Pakistan and most places in between; meatballs float in bowls of Vietnamese pho and roll on Chinese dim sum carts. I was surprised to find faggots on the menu in a pub in Oxford, England; there, I learned that they are softball-sized pork meatballs served with onion gravy. Essentially, wherever you find meat-eaters, there you will find meatballs. And, in spite of the köttbullar  on offer at everyone's favourite Swedish furniture store, in North America, "meatballs" are most often associated with Italy. I felt that an examination of Pellegrino Artusi's first Italian cookbook would be remiss without mention of his meatballs.

"Faggots" (pork meatballs), chips and mushy peas, Oxford, England

Artusi clearly felt that including meatballs was almost overkill in his compendium of Italian cooking.

He wrote:
"Do not think for a moment that I would be so pretentious as to tell you how to make meatballs. This is a dish that everyone knows how to make, beginning with the jackass, which was perhaps the first to provide the model for the meatball for the human race." (238)

Well, that sentiment made me feel under even greater pressure. Luckily, I'm used to making meatballs -- though I didn't have any leftover boiled meat, bread or milk in the house. I also had my father, who doesn't eat gluten, visiting for a couple of weeks. Considering the rising incidence of celiac disease in Italy and the resulting market for wheat substitutes there, I decided that it would be fitting to make my meatballs gluten free. Therefore, I made them with corn-based breadcrumbs instead of with the milk-soaked bread I typically use in my own thrown-together recipes.

American-sized Italian meatballs

Another difference between my typical meatballs and Artusi's recipe was the over-the top richness of the Italian meatballs I made. I blended chopped prosciutto with the ground pork and veal I used, adding currants and pine nuts to the mix. While I was supposed to make the balls the size of an egg, my American instincts won out. Prior to cooking, my polpette were closer to softballs. With all the fat inside, they basted themselves while cooking, giving off fat to the garlic and parsley I'd sprinkled on top. The direction to make a sauce for them out of egg and lemon juice confused me. Was I supposed to make a Hollandaise, without the butter? That's essentially what it tasted like.

Though  I wouldn't make the sauce again, I did really like the base recipe for meatballs provided in Artusi's book. Also, to be fair, the meatballs were much richer because I used fresh, high-quality minced meat, rather than the leftover meat this recipe was designed to use up.

Polenta, close-up

What Artusi did not mention is what foods I should serve alongside the polpette. Italian-German-American food writer Luisa Weiss notes that Italian meatballs are often served with rice or polenta, rather than pasta. I made polenta with cornmeal, water, milk, a chunk of dried-out mozzarella, and a healthy grating of Grana Padano. I felt it made a nice foil for the rich polpette, and an excellent addition to the communal meal the Historical Cooks enjoyed on the edge of Montreal's Little Italy. I have nothing against the red-sauced meatball subs of my youth, but I think I'll try putting prosciutto and pine nuts in my meatballs the next time I make a batch.

Strawberry wine spritzers for the Historical Cooks' Italian meal