I used to live with two Italian guys, both from Rome, and aside from teaching me how to hand-roll cigarettes while driving an unregistered Jeep Wrangler in L.A. gridlock traffic (which was really impressive on their part, looking back on it), they also shared their family’s recipes and cooking techniques. The thing that stuck with me most was Alessio’s meatball tutelage.
“Come on man, what the fuck are you even doing there?” he said in broken English as I sprinkled prepackaged breadcrumbs into my meat mixture. “You have to soak the bread in the milk, man — that’s what makes the polpette more tender.” I protested by pointing out that my breadcrumbs were “Italian style,” as the label clearly stated, making them well-suited for the job. But that didn’t stop him from making his own meatballs right beside me (using my groceries, which was kind of a dick move). It was like a dance battle, but way better, because there were meatballs involved.
I don’t like to lose, but I’ll step up to the plate and admit that I got smoked in this meatball-off. His were almost equal parts meat and non-meat, creating a sort of beef and parmesan filled Italian matzoh ball. Mine were the mediocre versions I’d been eating at Italian American red sauce joints since I was a kid. I’m not a role model. If you want to aspire to Alessio’s nonna’s ball deftness — as we all should — follow closely.
First, you need to get your hands on some meat. Traditional recipes might call for a mixture of pork, veal, and beef, and that’s totally cool, but by the time it’s mixed with aromatics, bread, eggs, and drowned in sauce, you’re not going to know the difference. Make your life easier and go all beef — somewhere around an 85/15 grind.
Now, you need to start thinking about ratios. Recipes are useless in the long run, but if you can remember simple ratios, you’re golden. If you’re using 2 lbs of ground beef, sweat one medium minced white onion (about 8 ounces) in a pan with 4 cloves of garlic and a few hefty handfuls of basil. Throw in some crushed red pepper for good measure. Once the onions are translucent, throw the mixture in a bowl and let cool.
Remove the crust from a bunch of white bread — the cakier the better — and cut into small cubes until you have about 4 cups. Toss the cubes in a bowl, then pour in just enough milk to fill halfway up the bread. Let the cubes sit for 5 minutes and absorb all the milky goodness. Then, throw the milk bread in a large mixing bowl with your beef and cooled aromatics.
Add two eggs (one egg per lb of meat), about ½ cup of quality pecorino cheese, and season with salt and pepper. Now, this is the important part: Do not overmix your balls. That’s a rookie mistake, and Alessio’s grandma would be pissed. Use your fingers and deftly mix the meat mixture around until everything is in relative harmony, then start rolling into small balls, about 2 inches in diameter.
Now, get an oven-safe pan heating on medium high with a few tablespoons of olive oil in it. When the oil moves freely in the pan, place your meatballs in without overcrowding. Sear on all sides until you get some good browning, then throw in a jar of your favorite marinara sauce. Or, if you feel like making your own, give yourself a round of applause, son.
Throw that sauced-up pan of meat spheres into the oven at 400 degrees for about 15 minutes, or until your beef is cooked through. By executing the sautée-then-bake method you get the best of both worlds: all those delicious charred flavors coming from direct pan contact, plus the tomato sauce penetration that you know and love.
Now, here’s where Alessio’s grandma and I would start to disagree. I finish the process by adding those meatballs into a hoagie roll and shoving it under the broiler with an ungodly amount of cheese. Alessio once told me that meatball subs were, and I quote, “fat American bullshit.” I didn’t disagree with him, I just kept on eating. Sometimes grandmas don’t know best.