Turn on “The Godfather,” pour yourself a glass of red wine, and embrace Italian-American culture with this iconic dish—preferably on a Sunday. This is a meatball you can’t refuse.
When I learned that spaghetti and meatballs were not “authentic Italian food”—this dish that has brought my family together on so many occasions and accompanied fond childhood memories for me in the kitchen—I was a bit crushed. How could this dish not be “Italian?”
This is not fettuccine alfredo or pepperoni pizza for God’s sake—this is small tender meatballs in a rich, homemade red sauce with silky pasta. C’mon!
The thing is, while you won’t find meatballs served with pasta in Italy (although you may find polpette—more on that in a minute) there is a reason and interesting history behind this beloved dish that finds itself on red-checkered tablecloths across the country.
Polpette are small meatballs that are typically served during aperitivo or as a starter, and are never accompanied by pasta or even red sauce. I know, right? With so many meatball varieties in various cultures around the world, we don’t know the exact origin of the meatball—but we do have a pretty good idea of how pasta entered into the Italian-American meatball picture.
Just like young Vito on his way to America in “The Godfather Part II,” Italians immigrated from southern Italian regions like Sicily and landed in the U.S. with very little money. An affordable and accessible Italian dish, polpette were easy to recreate in the states. All you need is meat, eggs and bread to stretch a small amount of food into a satisfying meal.
“Leave the gun, take the cannoli.”
― Mario Puzo, “The Godfather”
But traditional polpette took a creative turn when Italian immigrants began pairing the dish with canned tomatoes, presumably to stretch it even further and make it more interesting as a meal, and then finally with spaghetti—a widely available and affordable pasta.
As Italian immigrants settled into their new homes, families (and paychecks) grew. And like most things in America, the meatball got bigger.
Now that meat was affordable, and no longer saved just for special occasions, Italian immigrants leaned into their new American world and elevated the once humble meatball into a culinary icon—a classic dish that Italian American families continue to cherish over a century later, with recipes passed down from one generation to the next. I for one am still hearing about my great grandmother’s pasta and meatballs!
It may not be real Italian food, but it did originate with real Italians, who found a way to adapt to their new home without losing the influence of their old one.
Spaghetti and meatballs, in a way, represent the very immigrants that created them: a unique blend of one place and another.
Sounds pretty “authentic” after all.
Taking a cue from my creative immigrant ancestors, I deviated a bit from the standard spaghetti and meatballs.
First, I chose to substitute bucatini in place of spaghetti to keep it interesting. And also because I think bucatini is actually spaghetti’s more-fun sibling. You may not know this, and you won’t be able to tell from the photos, but bucatini is hollow in the center. Compared to the thin, solid strands of spaghetti, bucatini is thicker in size and has a hole through it—which means more room for the sauce to go and a delightful, airy chew.
Plus, it’s just plain fun to eat.
Second, I use ground lamb for meat. Yes, typically you would use ground veal or beef, or a mix of both, which I have done many times, but I find that I actually prefer the lamb. It has a complex, subtly sweet flavor that cuts through the richness of it all, and I love how it transforms a simple tomato sauce. What’s great about this recipe, is you can use whatever meat you like.
Third, I don’t fry them. It’s just too messy, I like to keep it simple, and I find that it’s a touch lighter, which I appreciate. My method is to broil them instead, which gives you a beautiful, even caramelization (without the mess and headache of frying) and then finish them in the sauce for a couple of hours.
The result is a heavenly, warming pot of bucatini and meatballs that are perfect for a cozy Sunday dinner. And don’t forget about “The Godfather!” Or the wine!
But before I get the recipe, I want to briefly discuss the key to any great meatball—a delicate balance between meat, breadcrumbs and egg—and a couple of quick tips so you can get this meatball party started.
Eggs act as a binder for the meatballs and are a necessary component. But too many eggs can leave you with a spongy result. Breadcrumbs can also be finicky, because while they prevent your meatballs from becoming too tough, adding too much may leave you with a sad, crumbling meatball. This is one of those rare instances for me where I actually measure the breadcrumbs I’m adding to prevent such an atrocity.
Speaking of breadcrumbs, it’s important to note that traditional recipes often call for chopped stale bread soaked in milk, which sits for a bit before the liquid is squeezed out. From there, you add it to the meatball mix.
I have gone this traditional route many times, and it is delicious, and yes, it adds a little bit of extra moisture to the meatballs. But I can honestly say that using plain panko—with no added fake unpronounceable ingredients—with a splash or two of milk works just fine.
My last few tips include salting the meat properly (many people overlook the importance of seasoning the meatball) and using your hands to toss the mix together—but make it quick. Too much tossing and combining can make a meatball tough. You should have everything roughly combined in about 30 seconds. And when it comes to rolling them, oil your hands to prevent sticking.
I kept the recipe simple to allow for ease and flexibility, but you can certainly play with it and get creative with additional flavors. Adding dried herbs like oregano, fresh chopped basil, and finely grated parm are all great ideas that you really can’t go wrong with.
It seems like a lot of information on meatballs, I know. But once your meatballs are simmering in the tomato sauce, all you have to do is wait for the magic to happen. Stir once in a while. Taste the sauce here and there. Pour yourself another glass of wine. Resist the urge to try a meatball! It will all be worth it.
Bucatini & Meatballs
- red sauce
- 1 lb bucatini
- 1 lb meat (I highly recommend trying ground lamb)
- 1/2 cup breadcrumbs*
- 1 tsp salt (and a few cracks of pepper)
- 1 egg, lightly beaten
- fresh or dried herbs (This is optional. I sometimes add a few julienned leaves of fresh basil. You can also add oregano, crushed red pepper, etc – feel free to get creative!)
- Place breadcrumbs in a small bowl and add about 1/4 cup of milk. You can just eyeball this. You want the breadcrumbs to soak up some milk but not become too wet. I usually pour enough to barely cover them.
- Begin your red sauce on the stove, using a large dutch oven or a similar pot, and take out a baking sheet.
- Set the oven to broil.
- Combine all the ingredients, including the now moist breadcrumbs, gently, with your hands. Do not go overboard on the mixing.
- Oil your hands lightly, and begin forming meatballs (to your desired size) and placing them on the baking sheet. Be sure to keep a few inches between them.
- Drizzle a little extra virgin olive oil on top of each one, and place in the oven for 15-17 minutes, until browned on top. Depending on baking sheet/meatball size, you may need to do two rounds of this, and your broiling time may vary. Keep an eye on them!
- Carefully remove meatballs from sheet pan and add to your red sauce, tossing to make sure meatballs are mostly submerged.
- Simmer gently for three hours, stirring occasionally. And tasting the delicious sauce, of course!
- Put water on to boil. Just as it begins to boil, add salt (a small handful here) and pasta.
- Cook until al dente. Using tongs, or a pasta spoon, or a spider, begin picking up pasta from boiling water, letting most of the water fall off the pasta, and add to pot with sauce and meatballs. Continue with all the pasta and toss to combine.
- Serve with some grated Parmigiano Reggiano and fresh basil. Optional.