a meatball primer

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In the early days of her teaching career, the late Marcella Hazan used to startle people by pointing out that spaghetti and meatballs is not an Italian dish. If you see it on a menu in Italy today, it’s an indication that the restaurant is a tourist trap and that one should dine somewhere else.

The problem with the dish is that a plate of pasta should become one with its sauce, full integrated without a separation of pasta on the bottom and sauce on top. Meatballs and spaghetti can never become one. It’s a dish which is clunky and inelegant, violating one of the principal standards of good Italian cooking: balance.

And yet, meatballs themselves, served not with pasta but as a stand-alone appetizer or meat course is very Italian, and nearly every Italian region makes meatballs of some kind or another. Honestly, meatballs are one of my very favorite foods in all the world. Sadly, the quality of most meatballs out there is quite poor, even in Italy. I can’t count the number of times I’ve ordered them, even in a good restaurant in Italy, only to be disappointed. It’s made me obsessed with understanding what makes a good meatball, and where so many people go wrong.

The rarity of a good meatball has always puzzled me because making good ones is not especially hard. I did it right from the start, following Marcella Hazan’s classic recipe in her The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. Honestly, I’m not sure where so many people go wrong and why so many meatballs end up tasting heavy and dense, or worse yet, spongy and plastic.

For me, a meatball should be rich but delicate, hearty but soft, and meaty but fresh. To accomplish this, I think there are a few key things.

The first is to use meat which is not too lean. Fat provides flavor and juiciness, and so using lean ground meat can never provide the sort of meatball I’m looking for. If shopping at the store, I always buy 80/20 ground beef, the richer the better. Of course, shopping at the store is problematic because most meat there comes from industrial, confinement operations which are too nauseating to contemplate. Buying from a local farm makes me feel much better, except that local, grass-fed beef is often too lean and sometimes too gamey in flavor. It can be a problem. Sometimes I accept the leanness, usually I enrich the lean meat with ground pork fat (which I realize not everyone has), and sometimes I even shop at the store, despite my scruples. But there’s no doubt that the richer the meat, the better the meatball will be. Difficult types of meat will affect the meatball too – pork instead of beef for example – but most types of meat can produce a good meatball. Don’t believe anyone with over-specific instructions, explaining that it has to be an exact mix of beef, pork, and veal. One of the best meatballs I ever made was a mix of ground duck legs and beef.

A second essential principle is to use high-quality bread rather than Wonder bread or ground bread crumbs, as so many recipes recommend. High-quality bread, soaked in milk to soften, provides the essential counterpoint to the meat in a meatball. Dan Richer – who operates Razza, one of the best pizzerias in the US and one of the only places in the US to make meatballs which blow me away – spoke elegantly about the importance of the bread in an interview we did in 2018:

“I think people typically don’t use enough bread. We use really big chunks of our bread, and it’s light and airy so it produces this negative space in your mouth, like in a black and white photo. The bread is that negative space. When your teeth bite through it, your perceive that airiness – that negative space – in your mouth.”

Dan is the first person I’ve ever heard talk about the importance of bread in a meatball in this way, and he’s dead-on right. The bread needs to be good, light, abundant, and not too fine.

A third, and related principle, is that the meatball “dough” should be gently mixed and individual ingredients should retain their identity. The “dough” shouldn’t be mixed to a homogenous, heavy mass with no air. When the meatballs are shaped, it should be done gently, enough to keep the meatballs from falling apart but not so much that all the air is pressed out. Shaping a meatball with too much pressure can ruin the whole thing.

Finally, and this is a bit controversial, I think the best meatball is one which has been coated with bread crumbs and deep fried, and then braised with a sauce of tomatoes, cabbage, peppers, or whatever. Frying the meatballs creates a crisp surface which serves as a great counterpoint to the soft and tender interior. I have to admit, however, that Dan Richer has no fryer at Razza, and his meatballs go straight into his wood-fired pizza oven with no coating of any kind. They come out perfectly. But then again, the oven is heated to a wickedly high temperature that home ovens can’t produce. To me, baking a meatball in a home oven is always a disappointment.

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Dan’s amazing meatballs at Razza

Of course, there is no such thing as a definitive recipe for anything. This is my current approach, constantly being evaluated for improvements. There should be no dogmatism in cooking, and you should make your cooking your own.

Braised Meatballs

Begin by soaking about 100 grams of high-quality bread in a bowl with enough milk or buttermilk to almost cover. I often cut off some of the crust if it’s firm, but I like to leave some for texture.

While the bread is soaking, add 450 g (1 pound) ground meat to a bowl, and add an egg, some chopped parsley, two or three tablespoons of finely chopped onion, about ¼ cup parmigiano, a tablespoon or two olive oil, and a small grating of nutmeg. Add the soaked bread (squeezing out most of the milk) along with salt and pepper. The right amount of salt will be a teaspoon to a teaspoon and a half, depending on the salt.

Mix everything together gently, until just combined. You want to see chunks of this and that, not too homogeneous.

Coat in bread crumbs (no need to dip in egg first, the meatballs should be tacky enough) and fry until both sides are browned. For me, the best way is to deep fry them at 365 degrees in a pot with enough oil that the meatballs can float. If that kind of cooking is a turn-off for you, brown one side in a pan with a generous coating of olive oil, and then turn and do the other. They won’t be as good, but life is often a compromise!

Once browned, transfer them to a pan with some high-quality canned tomatoes, crushed by hand and well-seasoned with salt. No need for extra oil. The oil clinging to the meatballs will be enough.

Add a little water to the pan, bring to a simmer and then transfer to a hot oven (400 to 450 degrees), cooking for about 15 to 20 minutes until the meatballs are cooked through.

For an extra elegant touch, pass some high-quality canned tomatoes through a food mill, season well with salt and olive oil, and bring to a gentle simmer. Place this rather pure tomato sauce under the meatballs for an elegant presentation.

Serve at once, with a little garnish of parsley and parmigiano.

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