What’s with the meatball? It’s become the hot, trendy food item lately. You see them everywhere, made from all kinds of things. Lamb, beans, raisins, pine nuts, chicken, turkey, and salmon are just some of the ingredients you might find in what is loosely called a “meatball.” Then they serve it with brown gravy, chili sauce, salsa verde, or whatever else they might think goes well with their particular “meatball.” There’s even a place here in New York called The Meatball Shop where that’s all they serve—five different kinds of meatballs daily including a “special.” I haven’t been there yet, but when I do go, I want my meatball straight up.
When I was young, my family didn’t even call them meatballs. They were, I always thought, “porpetta;” the Calabrese dialect my grandparents used instead of the classic Italian “polpette.” Or maybe my grandparents pronounced it correctly and it was I who skewed it to “porpetta,” but I don’t think so. Anyway, my grandmother’s “porpetta” were as close to perfection as anything she made, and that’s saying a lot. And I’m grateful that the smell of the meatballs frying on a Sunday morning is permanently ingrained in my memory. When I got older and was on my own, I would watch her make them, but never really took notes and she refused to give out her recipes. I’ve tried to replicate my grandmother’s porpetta, but have always fallen short in some way; too tough, too spicy, whatever.
About a decade ago, after moving into a new apartment building, I befriended an Italian-American neighbor who I bonded with through our mutual love of food, and Italian food in particular. He was a skilled, home-style cook and the smells emanating from his apartment were similar to what I remember coming from my grandmother’s kitchen. He often invited my family to dinners at his apartment where he would mix cuisines in the menu of the evening usually combining Italian with Puerto Rican food in respect for his long time partner who hailed from that Caribbean island. It might be, for example, spaghetti with homemade pesto (using basil grown on his terrace) along with pernil (roast pork) and rice and gandules. But no matter what was on the menu, you could always count on some sort of pasta dish. One of our first dinners together, my friend, Giuseppe, who I kiddingly called “Mamma G” because of his prowess in the kitchen, served my family meatballs. After a taste of one, I was astounded. Did he know Anna Magaro, my grandmother? These were very close to hers. I needed the recipe.
A few days later he emailed me his detailed meatball recipe, he titled “Goomba Joe’s Polpette.” I’ve copied below exactly what he sent me many years ago with a few of my own notes added, and it’s as reliable as you will find if you have any interest in making the traditional Neapolitan Italian meatball.
1lb of ground chuck
½ lb of ground pork
(both in a large bowl)
Hard Italian bread (no shortening) about 1/3 of the meat volume. Soak in H20, squeeze well and crumble (irregular sizes ok) over the meat. (Never use bread crumbs, you get cement balls).
Never use bread crumbs!
Salt (careful, if cheese is salty)
Black pepper (I like corns, medium grind). I’m not stingy
2-3 eggs (size counts)
Romano or Parma grated cheese (more; less?; ample)
Fistful of Italian flat parsley, chopped coarsely (not minced)
2-3 cloves of garlic* minced coarsely (I have occasionally used minced onion, but that’s not Napolitano traditional).
The mess before mixing.
Mix the whole mess with hands so that all the stuff is more or less evenly distributed.
Roll into balls, size matters—whatever you want. (My Ma used to dip her hands in a bit of cold water as she rolled; I don’t seem to find that necessary).
Estimate ½ the altitude of the balls and pour olive oil (could be veggie), but don’t waste XV** for this. Bring to solid frying heat and FRY your balls. Don’t crowd. If oil is deep enough, you may get away with turning them over ONCE. They should end up golden brown. They may not be totally cooked inside, but since they will go into gravy***, not to worry. Drain on a brown paper bag (Ha Ha!). Cover lightly at back of stove till ready to “sauce.”
Don’t crowd them.
Eliz**** adds the polpette to the gravy only for the last ½ hour or so before serving. She says they rob the gravy of the liquid; also, they may break up. A longer time at low or warm would not be a tragedy.
Note: MB’s are not meant to flavor the gravy, so your marinaras should work well.
Another note: After frying, strain the fry oil for future use. Put some sauce in the pan and deglaze all those goodies. Put the stuff in the sauce (or gravy) pot for even added flavor.
*I don’t believe my grandmother used garlic in the meatballs and I’ve since eliminated it. Garlic is my very good friend, but I put plenty in my sauce so a double whammy, I find, isn’t necessary and the meatball has a milder flavor and closer to what I remember from my grandmother’s.
**Giuseppe’s “XV’ was his abbreviation for Extra Virgin.
***He called it gravy. I called it sauce. The right terminology for what we were making was a constant battle between us but more on that for another day.
****Eliz was Giuseppe’s mother, now deceased.
Goomba Joe’s Polpette
In memory of Joseph “Goomba Joe/Mamma G” Peluso, July 17, 1929-February 7, 2011.