Thursday, February 12, 2004
‘Italian Meatballs and Spaghetti’: an Oxymoron
By ROGER M. GRACE
A common memory of childhood in the United States is that of being taken to a restaurant by one’s parents and consuming massive proportions of meatballs and spaghetti drowned in a tomato sauce. It was messy but delicious. The dish was encountered in smaller proportions in the school cafeteria, only lightly coated with tomato sauce, no doubt to prevent kiddies from coming home with stained clothing. Sometimes, at home, meatballs and spaghetti was provided for lunch, emanating from a can bearing the label “Chef Boy-Ar-Dee” or “Butoni.”
Such a memory does not exist, however, for those whose childhoods were spent in Italy.
“Polpette” (meatballs) are Italian. So is spaghetti.
But the combination isn’t. “Meatballs and spaghetti,” like chop suey, was invented in the United States in the early part of the 20th Century.
In Italy, diners customarily eat a pasta course first, then a meat course. So, if an Italian eats meatballs and spaghetti, it will be in separate courses.
What is billed here as “Italian meatballs” can take the form simply of hamburger (ground beef) fashioned into the shape and size of golf balls. But meatballs, as prepared in Italy, contain other ingredients, including grated cheese—and, like meatballs from other lands, often contain veal and/or pork in addition to, or instead of, beef.
And meatballs in Italy are often made from cooked meats.
In 1944, an English version of an Italian cookbook by Pellegrino Artusi appeared in print titled, simply, “Italian Cook Book.” It recommended “meat balls made with boiled meat,” but noted that “if raw meat is preferred, less ingredients for seasoning should be used.”
Here’s the recipe for Italian meatballs:
“Chop the boiled meat in a mortar. Chop a sliced ham separately. Add the ham to the meat and season everything with Parmesan, salt, pepper, and some flavor of spice. Add some raisins, pine seeds and two spoonfuls of bread, boiled either in soup or milk. Bind this compound with an egg or two, according to the quantity. Make meat balls as large as one egg, flatten them at both ends, cover them with grated bread and fry them in oil or lard. Make a fricassee with a little garlic and parsley, place it in a flat pan together with the fat left in the pan where the meat balls were fried, and add the meat balls. Sprinkle on egg-lemon sauce and let it take on flavor. If the garlic-parsley fricassee is objectionable, place the meat balls in the flat pan with a piece of butter only.”
That just might not comport with the common American concept of an “Italian meatball.”
A book by Robin Howe, published in Great Britain in 1954, also bears an unassuming title: “Italian Cooking.” The recipe for “Meat Balls, Florentine Style” (“Polpettine Alla Fiorentina”) calls for forming a ball of pre-cooked meat.
Ten ounces of beef are minced along with two ounces of bacon and an onion; the mixture is fried in butter or oil for five minutes, then two or three ladles of stock are added, and the ingredients are simmered. Once this combination has cooled, a beaten egg, two ounces of grated cheese, and three tablespoons of breadcrumbs, along with salt, pepper and nutmeg, are mixed in, forming a paste. Balls are formed, then rolled in flour.
A chopped carrot and a chopped stick of celery are browned in oil, then the balls are added, stock is poured in, almost covering the balls, and everything is simmered for a half hour. Then the meatballs are put on plates and the juice is poured over, through a sieve.
A ball formed from cooked beef does not whet my appetite. It sounds like something to be made from left-overs—and, in Italy, often is. But there’s also a recipe in “Italian Cooking” for “spiedini,” a meatball that starts with a pound of raw beef. The meat is minced and combined with two tablespoons of chopped parsley, two ounces of grated cheese, four ounces of breadcrumbs, a chopped clove of garlic, and salt and pepper. Balls are formed which are either deep-fried in oil, and served on skewer with risotto, or brushed with olive oil and grilled.
A 1996 Italian cookbook with special meaning to my wife, Jo-Ann, is Bugialli, “Foods of Sicily and Sardinia,” given to her as outgoing president of the Italian American Lawyers Assn. in 1997 and bearing messages inscribed by board members.
The recipe for “Polpette al Marsalla,” which starts with either ground beef or pork, includes typical ingredients plus one ounce of blanched almonds and one ounce of unblanched almonds, finely ground, and four tablespoons of dry Marsala wine. The meatballs are served hot, merely sprinkled with salt and accompanied by lemon wedges, or with tomato sauce, or baked in some more Marsala.
The addition of spaghetti is not mentioned as an option.
Next week: meatballs from lands other than Italy.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company
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