The amazing meatball in Italian called polpette or polpettine, truly is a masterpiece if there ever was one. But much question surrounds the origin of this beautiful and delicious ball of meat. Is it American? Is it Italian?
In my eyes, meatballs are Italian in origin; they just got Americanized along the way. What does that mean? Well, Italians do not usually put the meatballs with the pasta. For example, you would not go to any southern Italian town and sit in la cucina italiana and eat spaghetti and meatballs on the same plate. You are right in thinking—Italians eat pasta. Italians eat meatballs. But they usually do not eat the pasta with meatballs. Writing in 1897, Pellegrino Artusi, author of La Scienza in Cucina e L’Arte di Mangiar Bene, The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well, includes three recipes for meatballs, none of which involve pasta. But the Italian immigrants who first opened restaurants in the Little Italy communities were not cooking so much for their fellow Italians as for their non-Italian clientele.
Those that do not have a close knowledge of Italian cuisine may not understand that something such as a meatball could be savored as a course on its own. And so, among the American immigrant populations, the difference persisted. Those of non-Italian descent became accustomed to having meat and starch together on the same plate, meaning— meatballs on their pasta. So some Italian restaurants abandoned the practice of serving the meat separately and began to serve together.
Whatever theory you believe, know this…I have eaten meatballs after pasta in southern Italy in an authentic Italian kitchen in a small town called Baiano. Also, I grew up going to my grandparents’ house every Sunday morning specifically for meatballs as was my family tradition. So I will tell you something, made properly; a meatball is as Italian as my great grandmother was from the boat to Ellis Island. I think the solution is simply to enjoy. Whether you put the meatball on or off the pasta plate—it doesn’t matter. However, I think many would agree that a meatball is a little ball of love that has the power to bring families together with the warmth that only a true comfort food can. So go ahead in the words of my ancestors, Mangia, Mangia!!!!!
Check out our recipe for Rigatoni con le Polpettine and our wine pairings to compliment the dish.
Donna Picciocchi, Editor