Not Your Mama’s Meatballs


I wanted something simple. Specifically, I wanted spaghetti and meatballs. I’d never made spaghetti and meatballs before and last night was going to be the night.

But then I opened Lydia Bastianich’s book, “Lydia’s Family Table,” and after looking up meatballs in the index I found her recipe for “Long-Cooked Sugo and Meatballs.” Lydia explains, “Sugo, or gravy, is a long-cooking sauce that has a big component of meat in it, which releases its flavors as it cooks and transforms the sauce into a more complex and flavorful gravy.”

After doing more research, I discovered that spaghetti and meatballs is not an authentic Italian dish but an American Italian concession to America’s love for meat. So if I wanted to have street cred among Italian chefs I’d have to swap spaghetti for sugo. And that’s just what I did.

To make sugo you must first make a soffrito: “that essential Italian technique of cooking vegetables and aromatics in fat or olive oil slowly over low heat.”

What’s nice about Lydia’s recipe is that instead of chopping the two onions, the shallots, the carrots and celery she has you mince them in the food processor:



So here’s my soffrito cooking over medium heat:


I’m still wary of the produce I buy at Key Foods (the carrots always taste suspiciously of chemicals) but when you start cooking at 7 PM on a Monday night it’s difficult to get to the farmer’s market. I do think, however, that those small factors do add up at the end and if I had to do it again I’d buy really good carrots, onions, etc.

Soon you add bay leaves, tomato paste, and a 35-oz can of San Marzano plum tomatoes:


Then, because I was making her sausage meatballs, I added 2 Tbs orange zest, 1 Tbs thyme leaves and 1/4 tsp pepperoncino.

After that you add two quarts of piping hot vegetable stock (or turkey stock but my store doesn’t have turkey stock. Does yours?) My dutch oven was filled to the brim at this point so I was nervous about adding the meatballs later. But I just stirred it all together, put the lid on and let it simmer for an hour.

Meanwhile, I set to making the meatballs. First you saute 1 minced onion, 1/3 of a fennel minced and 2 cloves of minced garlic in 2 Tbs extra-virgin olive oil, just until it wilts but not til it’s brown. You let that cool and then place, in a bowl: 3 lbs of Italian sausage out of the casing, 3 large eggs well beaten, 3 Tbs chopped Italian parsley, 1/2 tsp pepper, 2 Tbs orange zest, 1 tsp thyme leaves and 1 heaping cup of dry bread crumbs:


Top with the cooled onion/fennel/garlic mixture and then squeeze it all together, gently (you don’t want tough meatballs) using your hands:


After that it’s a cinch. Get a baking sheet, put a cup of flour on it, and roll the balls slightly bigger than golf balls and coat in the flower:


Fill a saute pan 1/3rd of the way with vegetable oil and heat on high heat. (I was nervous after my frying disaster the other day, but I pressed on.) Once hot, I added the meatballs:


You roll them around for a few minutes until they’re golden brown all around:


Remove them to a cookie sheet (that’s the lead picture you see at the top) and then finish the rest.

After they’re all fried, you sprinkle salt on top and then you add the meatballs to the sugo. That’s where they’ll finish cooking. I had to drain out some sugo to add all the meatballs, but all the meatballs ultimately went in. You raise to a gentle simmer, half cover and leave for 45 minutes.

45 minutes later you have your meat, you have your sauce and all you need is something to contain the two. I decided to make instant polenta which I made in an instant!

I poured the polenta on three plates and then topped with meatballs:


On top of the meatballs went sauce:


Dinner was served!

The verdict?

Well Diana and Craig really liked them. I thought the sausage texture was a little too un-meatball-like for my taste. Too many little lumps and bumps in each bite. The sugo, also, had a disconcerting texture: all those minced vegetables never really morphed together into a sauce. Instead they remained tiny, gristly vegetable bits in an orange-scented tomato broth. Not my favorite.

But then again, it made a lot and we had it again for dinner tonight. This time I served it with rigatoni and in the fridge, over night, I think the flavors developed nicely. I’m not sure I love the orange but I did like the way the meatballs thickened the sauce and the way the sauce flavored the meatballs.

Am I a sugo/meatball convert? Or will I revert to spaghetti and more traditional meatballs next time around?

Don’t tell Lydia, but I think I see an Olive Garden in my future.*

[*Ok, I was being dramatic. No Olive Garden for me, but I’m not sure I’d make this again. If I did make it again I’d make it with the turkey meatballs. Or regular meat meatballs. And regular tomato sauce. Hmmm, maybe the Olive Garden isn’t such a bad idea after all…]

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