This is a pretty tall claim: the best meatballs? Trust me on this.
I love meatballs. Every time I open up a menu at an Italian restaurant (or Italian-American, more accurately) the soaring sounds of Rosemary Clooney belting out “Mambo Italiano” echoes in my brain—it begs me to order the spaghetti and meatballs. I almost expect Sophia Loren to be dancing somewhere near by singing a sultry “Tu vuò fà l’Americano” a la It Started in Naples while sharply dressed maître d‘ fearlessly guides the busy wait staff through a jungle of red-and-white checkered tables.
Alas, most meatballs are a little disappointing. They’re either dry and crumbling, or overly moist, like a taut mousse and lacking any texture. I think meatballs should be a little bit of both. I don’t want something that’s dry and chewy, but I don’t want them springy and so flawless in their consistency when you cut one open—the mark of frozen packaged meatballs if there ever was one. Even in the event of perfectly textured meatballs, having both moistness and structure, the flavor is usually the next thing that’s lacking. Frankly, there often isn’t any.
But the perfect meatball isn’t as illusive as it may seem. First, a mixture of ground beef and pork is essential. Using exclusively ground beef is a little lackluster; they turn out more like Italian-flavored hamburgers than anything else. There are times when I am perfectly happy to make meatballs solely from ground pork, even to go along with a tomato sauce, but for the ultimate in taste and texture a mix of the two is ideal. I stick to a 1:1 ratio of pork-to-beef, and, no, I don’t bother with veal—frankly, I don’t think the distinction is that noticeable with all the other flavors going on here, but don’t let me stop you from using it with the beef and pork if you feel so inclined.
The fattiness of the meat is just as important as the animal they come from. I typically go for something around 90% lean for the beef in an effort to compensate for the pork, which is usually fairly fatty. Though it is rarely marked at your local supermarket, most ground pork clocks in at 80—85% lean at most. Usually coming from the shoulder of the animal, it has a great porky flavor and is incredibly tender, so using beef that’s a little leaner helps to keep these from being greasy (though, full disclosure, 85% lean beef is still perfectly acceptable—I just wouldn’t go much fattier than that for this recipe). This mix gives you the perfect balance of fat: just enough to keep the meatballs moist and juicy, but not overly so, making them squishy or greasy.
While the right fat ratio does keep these flavorful on its own, the difference between a decent meatball and a great one—or, the best—is more flavor. Sautéed onion, garlic, chili flakes, dried oregano, toasted and ground fennel seeds, and parsley add tons of flavor without masking the taste of the meat itself. It’d practically be sacrilege to not grate a generous bit of Parmigiano-Reggiano into these, too. Not only does this powerhouse from Emilia-Romagna add some salty pungency, fortifying the flavor of the meatballs even further, but also adds moisture to the mix.
Speaking of moisture, I want to mention panade. Basicall, panade is somewhat stale bread that’s been soaked in a bit of milk or water, squeezed of some of the liquid, and sort of worked into a paste. It’s the traditional bringer of moisture for meatballs. Now, please restrain your Nonnas for what I’m about to say: I don’t do the panade. There was a time when I would, but found I needed more bread to keep the shape of the meatballs. Bread is part of meatballs, sure, but so is the meat. Not only that, but, while it brought great moisture to the mix, it faltered in flavor. Using dried breadcrumbs mean that some of the fat from the meats are absorbed, which, along with the egg, extra yolk, and Parmigiano-Reggiano, leave these perfectly moist without pumping them full of panade, masking all the great flavors going on here.
The sauce is fairly simple: onion, garlic, oregano, chili flakes, tomato paste, and San Marzano tomatoes are all it needs. It’s so light and fresh tasting, almost as fresh as having made the sauce from tomatoes picked from your own garden. You can add a glug or two of wine if you’re opening a bottle, otherwise I don’t bother; in fact, I prefer it without the wine because it lets the taste of the tomatoes really shine. I think another key to both meatballs and sauce is the onion; I want their flavor, but I don’t want to bite into any. You can very finely minced the onion, sprinkle with salt and mince more until it’s a juicy paste; grate it coarsely on the large holes of a box grater; or, and perhaps most simply, cut the onion into chunks, tumble into a food processor and pulse until it’s finely minced. You don’t want them to be totally pureed and liquidy, but more of a juicy pulp—you’ll sauté the onion pulp, which will help to dry out the natural waters you’ve blitzed out of them, but also allow them to melt into an allium-sweet gunge that gives the meatballs and their sauce the best flavor.
The only thing this really needs alongside it is some rustic bread, slathered with olive oil and toasted before rubbing it down with garlic. You could always make up a small salad of arugula and shallot and toss it with a lemon-parmesan vinaigrette, or blanched broccolini tossed with chilies, garlic and olive oil or even the oh-so-Italian digestif of raw fennel, thinly shaven with a mandolin and dressed with lemon, extra virgin olive oil and sea salt, but frankly, spaghetti & meatballs are all I need! Piatto ricco, mi ci ficco!
Oh, and yes—you have to toss the pasta with the sauce. Other than that, saluti!
Don’t forget to follow me on BLOGLOVIN’!