Meatballs are everyone's favorite
Meatballs are currently the rage in America. They are everywhere—even in restaurants which serve them almost exclusively—and everyone loves them. For good reason, too, because they are easy to make, economical and simply delicious.
Many cultures have their own ethnic version. In the Middle East, they are shaped like small footballs and called Kofte. Traditionally, they are made with ground meat, often lamb, in addition to either rice, bulgur or even mashed lentils. In Scandinavia, they are made of beef and sometimes lean pork, seasoned with nutmeg and allspice and served in a white cream sauce made with the pan drippings. Swedish meatballs were my go-to in graduate student when I wanted to impress dinner guests. They were more exotic than their Italian counterparts but were still cheap, quick to assemble and festive.
In Spain, they are called Albondigas. “Lion’s Heads” is their name in China and in Holland, they are Bitterballen. The Germans have their version, too, Königsberger Klops, which they season with paprika and lemon. You have to love these playful names!
It Italy they are called Polpette and are very different from our Italo-American version of today. Tracing back their origin is quite difficult as it appears the Romans may have adapted them from the Greeks who may have stolen them from the Persians. At least we know from the ancient Roman food blogger, Apicius, the first versions of “Italian” meatballs were made of just about anything, from cuttlefish to chicken. Even today, it is rare to see them on a restaurant menu in Italy, as they are such a basic dish that they are usually only served at home. There, Polpette are usually served in a broth rather than with spaghetti and tomato sauce.
In fact, there are many regional interpretations of meatballs in Italy. In the South, the ingredients include raisins and pine nuts. In other parts olives or pieces of Mortadella are added to the mixture which can also be cut with ground pork or veal to add complexity. No matter the variation, for any Italo-American, your Nonna made the best.
My Grandmother, Maria, who immigrated at the turn of the previous century from Northern Italy to Cincinnati, used to make a mean meatball. My mother passed down her recipe to me as I was heading off for marriage #1. As typical of all of Maria’s recipes, the index card only listed ingredients. Apparently, in Italy, you inherit the technique in your DNA. Maybe, watching La Mama or La Nonna enough times in the kitchens probably also helps!
Look for the recipe in the Dessert Section of the blog under Maria’s Meatballs. I promise to add cooking instructions!