I got to thinking about meatballs this week and the fact that there are far too many gutsied up, fancy pants versions of meatballs. I usually (ahem, always) fall hard for the fancy, over-the-top versions of things. I mean why shouldn’t I try and add chipotles, Mexican oregano, and lime juice to my meatballs to make a Tex-Mex version? Why shouldn’t I try serving a Thai meatball in a coconut broth with noodles instead of the traditional tomato sauce ? I realized as all these thoughts swam through my head that there is a reason why one should stick with the traditional meatball recipe and that is that it’s pure comfort food (except we all know I will never stick with the traditional versions of things but on occasion traditional is best). I know a real Italian would be horrified to see us serving meatballs atop of spaghetti but I, like millions of other American’s enjoy this Italian-American classic especially when you serve these Neapolitan meatballs atop your pasta. These are the lightest and tenderest meatballs I have ever encountered. They melt in your mouth in a way you didn’t think was possible. I think, they are the single most perfect thing one can eat on a cold Sunday evening in February.
Neapolitan Meatballs (Polpette alla Napoletana)
Recipe adapted (barely) from Molto Italiano by Mario Batali
Serves 6 making 18-24 meatballs (depending on size)
3 cups day old bread, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 ¼ pounds ground beef
3 eggs, beaten
3 cloves of garlic, minced
¾ cup pecorino romano, grated
1 (small) bunch of Italian parsley, finely chopped to yield ¼ cup
¼ cup pine nuts, toasted for about 2 minutes in a 400 degree oven
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (optional)
½ teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon ground pepper
To serve: tomato sauce (recipe below) and pasta of your choice (I love bucatini)
In a shallow bowl soak the bread cubes in enough milk or water to cover (milk gives more flavor). Soak for about 10 minutes. Remove the bread cubes and squeeze by hand to wring excess moisture.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. (You can also form the meatballs into the balls and store them in the fridge to bake-off later in the day.)
In a large bowl, combine the bread, beef, eggs, garlic, pecorino, parsley, pine nuts, crushed red pepper, salt, and pepper and mix by hand to incorporate bread into meat. With wet hands, form the mixture into balls about the size of a golf ball (you can always make them bigger if you prefer, but baking time will be longer then). Place the meatballs on a foil lined baking sheet that has been greased with a little bit of olive oil.
Bake the meatballs in the oven for about 20 minutes until cooked all the way through. When done cooking, gently remove the meatballs from the foil and place them in the tomato sauce, turning them so all sides get coated with sauce. Serve on a bed of pasta with additional cheese for serving.
About 4 cups of sauce
I can barely consider this a recipe but for the sake of this blog I will record it here. This could not be any easier and it’s about 1000 times better then any jarred pasta sauce out there. I tend to make a lot of this at one time and then freeze it individual containers so I always have tomato sauce ready for pizza night or pasta. Frozen, the sauce will keep for a couple of months.
2 28-oz. cans of crushed tomatoes (I love the San Marzano crushed tomatoes but any crushed ones will work – try and pick the ones with the least amount of salt!)
4 cloves of garlic, minced
¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
In a large heavy bottom sauce pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and red pepper flakes, and sauté for about 30 seconds (you want the garlic to be just golden), then add the tomatoes, bringing the sauce to a gentle boil. Cook the tomatoes, stirring occasionally until the sauce begins to thicken, about 20 – 25 minutes. Taste and add salt and pepper as necessary.