Picture this…Sicily 1922..Somewhere, the echoes of a tenor singing “Ole Sole Mio” carries down the narrow, winding brick-laden streets of Southern Italy. Wafting through the air is the pungent smell of tomatoes and spices gently bubbling in an aged pot on the back of a wood stove nestled in the kitchen of a crumbling limestone house. Sitting alongside the simmering tomato sauce is a stock pot of sorts with many years of dents and a blackened smoked bottom awaiting the strands of home made pasta that will soon be plunged into the boiling water. And there she is…a grandmotherly lady in a faded bib apron, leisurely moving about in her small, but quaint Italian kitchen. The beam of sunshine that managed to peer through the single window in the room, focuses on the worn, wooden bowl sitting on the stained table in the center of the room. A closer look reveals a bowl containing a mixture of freshly ground meats and fragrant spices of fennel and dill. This mixture would soon be formed into giant meatballs by weathered, loving hands and placed on a well-worn baking pan and into a hot oven….. and…and …and the Meatball is born!!!!
It is widely believed that spaghetti and meatballs was an innovation of the early 20th-century Italian immigrants in New York City in the 1920’s.
New York City??? Say it isn’t so!
It is also said that Italian writers often mock the dish as pseudo-Italian or non-Italian. However there is a recipe for rigatoni and meatballs in an old Italian cookbook first published in 1894 by Pelegrino Artusi.
“…though Spaghetti with meatballs are rare in Italy there are Italian precursors: I have had spaghetti with tiny meatballs in Puglia, [Sicilian food authority] Pino Correnti notes that meatballs were a common addition to feast day pasta sauces in Sicily…”
Reading further, I find that even though we think of spaghetti with tomato sauce as the quintessential Italian dish, tomatoes didn’t become part of the Italian diet until the 1800’s. Wait, there is more….the first recipe for pasta with tomato sauce actually appeared in a French cookbook from 1797.
The conclusion is that the tomato-based pasta sauces we tend to think of as typically Italian – bolognese, pomodoro, puttanesca – are actually more recent developments….well, not that recent but you get the picture. 😉
So let us talk meatballs and sauce…particularly spicy sauce. I don’t know when the Arribbiatta sauce came into Italian cooking…..forgive me if I don’t burst that balloon, but I can tell you this:
Arrabbiata sauce, or sugo all’arrabbiata in Italian, is a spicy sauce for pasta made from garlic, tomatoes, and red chili peppers cooked in olive oil. “Arrabbiata” literally means “angry” in Italian; the name of the sauce refers to the spiciness of the chili peppers.
Ok… now we are talking! My Southwest cooking background makes me love, love, love this tomato sauce! And when I am “picturing Sicily” (forgive this and the above reference to the Sophia Petrillo character on “Golden Girls”)…..I can only imagine two Italian ladies arguing the merits of which type of tomato sauce is the best as they gesture with their hands, wooden spoons clutched in their fingers.
Sorry, forgive my drama, but I just can’t help it!
My large (and growing) cookbook library just found a new friend. I found yet another cookbook…I think I need a cookbook intervention. “Hello, my name is Kari…and I am a cookbook addict!”
But before I start visiting Cookbooks Anonymous, let me tell you about The Farmhouse Cookbook. I love this book as it is filled with many comfort food recipes…and since the author, Sarah Mayor grew up and still lives on a British Farm that has been in her family for generations, the recipes are amazing! A few of the intriguing recipes include Sponge Cakes, Herby Scotch Eggs, Honey-Roasted Goose… (Tiny Tim says ‘God Bless Us Every One’) and wait for it…..Meatballs!!!!! Yep! that good ole Italian Meatballs and Pasta!
The recipe in the book called for smoky bacon in the ground beef and ground pork meat mixture and yes, that sounds perfect! However, I couldn’t resist using Panceatta….come on now….remember? Italian?
Or you could substitute prosciutto….you might ask what is the difference between bacon, pancetta and prosciutto? These three pork products look alike, taste somewhat similar, and even get regularly substituted for each other. Simplified, one has to cook bacon and pancetta, while prosciutto can be eaten uncooked or in the “raw” stage much as we would eat smoked ham.
Now that we have all this history ingested….lets get down to the meatballs.
Mix the ingredients, form into a ball about the size that would fit in the cup of your hand (you can make smaller if you like)…place on a greased cookie sheet and into a hot 450 degree oven to begin browning.
Make the Arrabbati sauce or buy in the jar at the super market …add the meat balls to the sauce and cook until cooked through and serve over your favorite pasta while listening to Pavarotti sing all the Italian classics. In my mind, meat balls and spaghetti are Italian. Who can believe these history books anyway??
The handy dandy printable recipe is below:
Happy Monday! and keep smiling!
- 12 ounces Pancetta (or you can use bacon)
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 large onion, finely diced
- 4 cloves garlic, finely minced
- 1 lb ground beef
- 1 lb ground pork
- 1¼ cups plain breadcrumbs
- ¾ cups grated Parmesan cheese
- 1 tablespoon dried oregano
- 1 tablespoon dried basil
- 2 teaspoons fennel seeds
- 1 teaspoon red chili flakes
- ½ cup of fresh parsley, chopped (or you can use 1 tablespoon dried parsley)
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 2 eggs whisked with ¾ cups warm water
- pasta of your choice (about 2 pounds)
- freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- For the Arrabbiata Sauce: (or you could substitute Arrabbiata Sauce in a jar)
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 small onion, minced
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 1/2 cup pitted black olives, coarsely chopped
- 2 tablespoons drained capers, rinsed
- 1/2 teaspoon salt, (do the taste test)
- 1 tablespoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 1/2 cup white wine (or chicken broth)
- 1 28-ounce can crushed Italian tomatoes (if using plain, crushed tomatoes... add 2 Tablespoons Italian Seasoning)
- I also like to add a pinch of sugar (optional)
- salt and pepper to taste
- Preheat over to 450 degrees. Lightly spray a baking sheet with cooking oil spray and set aside
- Finely chop the Pancetta or you can place in a food processor and pulse until very finely chopped.
- Heat the olive oil in the bottom of a dutch oven until hot and carefully add the pancetta, onion and garlic stirring to combine and brown slightly (about 5 minutes)
- Use a slotted spoon to remove the pancetta mixture to paper towels to drain.
- Add the ground beef, ground pork, bread crumbs, Parmesan cheese, fennel seeds, red chili flakes, oregano, basil, parsley, whisked eggs/water mixture and the salt and black pepper to a large bowl and using your clean hands, gently combine the ingredients (do not over mix as the meat balls will be tough)
- Shape the meat balls to desired size...I like to make large meatballs, about 2 inches in diameter and place on the prepared cookie sheet
- Bake for about 10 minutes
- Remove the meat balls from the cookie sheet and place into the previously used dutch oven or deep pan
- Add the sauce (recipe below) or you can use the jars of Arrabbiata Sauce
- Simmer the meat balls and sauce for about 15-30 minutes or until the meat balls are cooked through.
- Serve over spaghetti or your favorite pasta and sprinkle with Parmesan Cheese
- Add olive oil to a hot pan over medium-high heat and add in the onions. As the onions begin to soften, add the garlic, black olives, capers and red pepper flakes, stirring to mix. Whisk in the wine (or chicken broth)
- Cook until the liquid reduces by half and add the crushed tomatoes stirring to combine. Add a pinch of sugar and taste test for additional salt and pepper to taste.
- Reduce the heat to low, add in the meat balls and simmer for 30 minutes.
- To Serve, add freshly grated Parmasan cheese
- You can use a food processor to finely dice and chop pancetta, onions and garlic. Or you can hand chop depending on your preference for finely minced veggies or chunks in your meat balls.
- Recommend using 2 jars good-quality Arrabbiata sauce if you are not making your own.
- The Arrabiata Sauce can be made ahead and divided into freezer bags and placed in the freezer for future use.