As fiercely contested as homemade tomato sauce, every household doggedly defends its own cherished version of the meatball. In fact, some of the most heated debates on this hot issue have occurred amongst my dearest family and friends. In an attempt bring harmony to years of controversy, I convened a summit with some of the most highly esteemed chefs in my family: my first cousin Frank Buono, my brother-in-law Joe Mele, my paternal grandfather Fiore L. Pignataro, and my mother Marianna Pignataro. With their recipes and methods in hand, I set out to create the first non-partisan meatball.
I collected a wide range of methods and ingredients, as well as some surprising hints and colorful commentary. According to my sources, the basic ingredients for meatballs include the following:
1. Beef, and oftentimes some other meat
4. Grated cheese like pecorino or parmiggiano
5. Seasonings such as salt, garlic, herbs, or spices
Advice on exact recipes and methods was a little less standard, ranging from “You can do whatever you want—be creative” to “Well, I’ll tell you the recipe!” to “Forget about it—he doesn’t know what he’s talking about!”. And within the confines of the five ingredients listed above, the details got blurry: beef was amended with pork, veal, and even Jimmy Dean sausage, breadcrumbs were substituted with bread soaked in water, and eggs ranged from 0—4. Through interviews and my own trial and error, at the end of the day I found that dishes like these are highly adaptable and difficult to botch, though a really special meatball is hard to find. Here is my current recipe...
- Soak one thick slice of bread sans crust in warm water for 1-2 minutes. Squeeze out water, shred, and set aside.
- In a large bowl, combine with your hands 1/2 lb. lean (but not overly lean) beef, 1/2 lb. pork, and, against even my grandfather’s advice, 1/2 veal. Again, you could try any meat you like—I am personally tempted to try some ground lamb next time around.
- Now add about 1/2 cup breadcrumbs (I just use a food processor to make my own using stale bread), 2 beaten eggs, 5 or so heaping tablespoons of grated pecorino cheese, a handful of chopped parsley, 4 large cloves minced garlic, salt and freshly ground pepper. Mix together all ingredients thoroughly with your hands.
- Now roll into 1.5 inch balls. A tip that I learned from cousin Frank is to dip your fingers in a little bowl of olive oil and the meat mixture will roll up into a ball nicely without sticking to your hands.
- Drizzle a large skillet with a little bit of olive oil (one recipe called for Crisco) and warm to medium heat. Fry meatballs until lightly browned on all sides, turning as necessary. Then add to your favorite homemade tomato sauce and let simmer for 30 min. or as long as you can.
- Serve over the pasta of your choice with a hearty red.