Quintessential Italian is the basic spaghetti and meatballs. Not pizza, not eggplant parm, nothing. Don’t let anyone tell you differently, unless its a Sicilian and they tell you its a Sicilian dish, then that would be correct. If you go back far enough, it came from Northern Africa and was called makeroni (macaroni), and meatballs may or may not have been a later descendent of falafal (fried chickpeas) or even kofte. Once Columbus brought back tomatoes from the new world (Mexico), we saw it incorporated into what we now know today as Italian food, lots of red sauce. Not always, but it is Italian. Not Northern Italian, not what they were eating almost a thousand years ago, but yes, Spaghetti and Meatballs are Italian. I know my family has been making it here in the USA for closer to 100 years. If you want to go back further than that, be my guest. If you can’t find it on a menu in Italy, that is because no one orders it out since they make it at home. And, it is peasant food. I never seen eggs and peas or pasta con sarde on a menu either, but it is authentic Italian food, here, there or anywhere. The only debate left is, is it gravy or sauce? It is whatever your family called it.
Gravy is technically a sauce made from meat drippings (like turkey, chicken or meatloaf). Italians migrating from the old world did not have the right vocabulary or word for this staple dish. Another theory is that Italians found the tomatoes in the United States too acidic so they tried to add sugar, and later when money became more abundant, they added scraps of meat which improved the flavor. Eventually, like today, we have meatballs, sausage, braciole, even short ribs. Even my Italian relatives who lived down at the Jersey shore on the bay used to throw in crabs. If you love crabs, its even more delicious in tomato sauce simmering for a few hours.
What every true Italian has romanticized about from The Godfather when they are at war, to the Sopranos when Tony is talking about his mother, and even recently on Celebrity Tastemakers where Vincent Pastore talked about what it is like to grow up Italian and the only thing that got them out of bed was the smell of his mother frying meatballs for the sauce on a Sunday morning.
Naturally you could use a food processor, but if you want to do it the way it was done many years ago, do it yourself, and get a sharp knife. One modern day item you might want to use however, would be a kitchen scale. Each meatball should be about 2 ounces each, or the size of a golf ball. If you don’t want to get so fancy, use an ice cream scoop or something similar to get them all consistent in size.
Combine all ingredients in a bowl, mix well with hands, but don’t reduce the meat to much, handle it gently, mixing well. Roll into balls, 1.5 lbs should easily make 15 meatballs. 2 Meatballs per serving with pasta should be fine.
Once you get your your whole cloves of garlic browned in a pan of olive oil, put your meatballs in one at a time and be careful not to splatter yourself with the hot oil. Be patient, and turn them with a spoon until they are deep golden brown on all sides. Transfer them to a plate with paper napkins to absorb the excess oil and start preparing your pot of sauce. Once it comes to a simmer transfer the meatballs into the pot and allow to simmer on low for at least 2 hours. You could cook it less, but plan for 2 hours. If you cook it more, it just gets better, this is one thing you can’t overcook.
- Parsley 1/4 Cup
- Grated Cheese 1/2 Cup
- Onion finely chopped/diced 1/4 Cup
- 1.5 lbs Chopped Meat (mix of beef, pork, veal)
- Breadcrumbs 1/2 Cup
- Egg (one large or 2 small, enough to bind the meat and dry ingredients together)
- Olive Oil
- Garlic 5 Cloves
- Salt & Pepper to taste
- 1 can of crushed tomatoes
- 1 can of plum tomatoes or tomato sauce
- 1/2 can of tomato paste
- 1 can of cold water
- Salt, Pepper, Basil (oregano is optional, but not necessary)
Simply add all ingredients into a heavy pot, stir while bringing to a boil, continue to stir, add meatballs and/or sausage, once boiling, reduce to a low simmer (usually the lowest setting on the stove), walk away for 1.5 to 2.5 hours, and once you see it thicken to your desired consistency, you have the most perfect meal you will ever create for yourself and/or your family. Leftovers freeze and reheat easily. Just remember to freeze them in “portions”. For example, if you are one person, 2 meatballs and enough sauce per package; if you are 2 people, 4 meatballs and enough sauce, etc… don’t be afraid to label how many meatballs are there and when it was made. Either way, I tend to make a big pot of this and even if I eat it twice a week, I have enough for a month or more.
So, that is your basic recipe, which is adapted from my mother’s recipe, but I know people who add in braciole, short ribs, some add sugar to take away from the acidity of the tomatoes (although today’s canned tomatoes are fine, that has improved since the previous century) but some will fry onions with the tomato paste then deglaze with a glass of red wine. Many will argue not to add water, and even talk about the brand of tomatoes that are best. Some will say add day old bread soaked in milk instead of breadcrumbs. They are all valid arguments, variations, but if this recipe is new to you, just go with what is above, and make your variations as you go along to make it your very own traditional family recipe.
There will be variations which include braciole, but this is the basic stuff. Its done cooking when you can coat the back of a spoon. If it sticks and its thick, its done, if it runs off and drips, you have about another hour to go.
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