MEATBALLS AND SPAGHETTI
“Non crediate che io abbia la pretensione d’insegnarvi a far le polpette. Questo e un piatto che tutti lo sanno fare cominciando dal ciuco.” (Don’t think I’m pretentious enough to teach you how to make meatballs. This is a dish that everybody can make, starting with the donkey.) Pellegrino Artusi, author of the first modern Italian cookbook, La scienza in cucina a l’arte di mangiar bene: manuale practico per le famiglie (The science of cooking and the art of eating well: a practical manual for families) published in 1891.
Meatballs are featured in the earliest Arabic cookbooks, in the ancient Roman cookbook written by Apicius, and in Chinese culinary traditions that date back to the Qin Dynasty (221 to 207 BC). They are called frikadeller in Denmark, lihapullat in Finland, kottbullar in Sweden, klopse in Germany, polpette in Italy, albondigas in Spain and Hispanic America, kofte in Turkey, faggots in United Kingdom, and wanzi in China. Their history is long and their reach is wide.
According to Claudia Roden (The New Book of Middle Eastern Food) “It is the Arabs who brought meatballs to Sicily, and in the Arab world meatballs are highly regarded and considered refined and sophisticated. This is partly because they require labor. In the old days, the meat was chopped by hand or put through a grinder two or three times then pounded with a pestle and mortar until it was a smooth soft paste. Nowadays, those who have one use a food processor.” And, by some accounts, pasta also arrived in Italy with the Arabs when they invaded Sicily in the 8th century. Once tomatoes appeared after the “new world” was discovered, the primary ingredients for spaghetti and meatballs were in place. Nevertheless, examples of meatballs served with pasta in southern Italy are rare.
Some propose that spaghetti and meatballs actually is an innovation of early twentieth century Italian immigrants in New York City. About 4 million Italians immigrated to America from 1880 to 1920. Most (85%) came from impoverished conditions in southern Italy, where they were forced to spend as much as 75% of their income on food. In America, food required only about 25% of income, and meat became a staple, not a luxury.
In Italy, meatballs were primarily eaten as a meal in itself or in soups, they were made with many different types of meat, and they typically were home, not restaurant, dishes. Usually the size of golf balls (polpettes), they also could be the size of marbles (polpettines). In America, meatballs moved from golf balls to baseballs and, made with more meat and fewer fillers like breadcrumbs, they were much denser. According to Mario Batali (Molto Italiano), “The fortune and success found by immigrant Italians in America had a great effect on their cooking. The reason a meatball tastes so good and is so tender in Italy is the reliance on day-old bread, soaked in milk or water, to bring lightness to a firm texture of pure protein. Newly wealthy Italian Americans saw such frugality as a sign of weakness and started to make their meatballs without the bread, losing a whole world of texture.”
Moreover, in Italy pasta was considered an appetizer rather than a main course or side dish. In America, where starch, usually potatoes, was expected to accompany protein, newly established Italian American restaurants quickly moved pasta from primi to secondi piatti. Some also argue that those same restaurants may have made marinara, or tomato sauce, ubiquitous because canned tomatoes were one of the few Italian ingredients readily available in American groceries.
The recipes that follow are for main course (golf ball sized) meatballs but, made smaller, many could be served with picks as appetizers.