Polpette, or meatballs in Italian, is traditionally made from ground beef or veal. Its larger-sized cousin – the polpettone – is comparable to American meatloaf. In southern Italy, these meatballs are usually prepared and served in tomato sauce.
In the States fresh tomatoes were not generally available in the late 1800s, so canned ones were bought from grocery stores. Spaghetti, of course, was another Italian import that had already become widely used and could be procured locally.
While Italians contributed all the ingredients for making this recipe, this dish has been an American favorite on dinner tables ever since, perhaps due to its minimal time and labor constraints. I first learned to make this from my college friend Chieh, who grew up in New Jersey.
Chieh loved to travel. At nineteen, she had already trekked through Africa, studied Russian for a semester in Moscow, and majored in Mass Communication at Georgetown University. She devoured Russian literature over Russian vodka like no other person I know. She could start a food fight and bring it to roaring laughter – and soulfully celebrate while attending a classical recital. She, in my opinion, is the ultimate definition of a bonne vivante.
I followed Times recipe with a few exceptions that I learned from Chieh. And I actually had a bowl of it ready to eat in 30 minutes exactly (yes, I was checking to see if I could make it within the 25-minutes marked on this recipe)! When you’ve been working 10- to 12-hour shifts, cooking a recipe this fast makes it extremely nurse-friendly. Just as good, you can always use any uneaten meatballs for lunch on another day in a baguette garnished with fresh basil.
The NYT recipe is a close rendition of how she taught it to me one lazy summer afternoon in Tulsa, Oklahoma. We had music blasting out Italian opera, and were cracking jokes over a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc (or was that two?).
I followed the recipe with a few exceptions that I learned from Chieh. I actually had a bowl ready to eat around 30 minutes exactly (yes, I was checking to see if I would make the 25 minutes mark printed on this recipe)! When you’ve been working 10 to 12 hours in a shift, cooking a recipe this fast makes it nurse friendly. Additionally, you can always use the meatballs on a baguette bread garnished with some basil for lunch at another day.
2 tablespoons olive oil
12 ounces ground beef
6 ounces Parmesan, or about 1½ cups
1 bunch fresh parsley
¼ cup breadcrumbs
1 large onion
3 garlic cloves
6 cups canned crushed tomatoes (a little less than two 28-ounce cans)
3 bay leaves
1 pound spaghetti
- I used 1½ cups of freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano in my recipe
- I used flat-leaf Italian parsley as its more robust in flavor
- Instead of the breadcrumbs, Chieh taught me to use about half a package (2.5 oz) of prepared croutons, either Caesar- or Italian-seasoned. I crushed them until coarse but not fine in a plastic bag.
- I used San Marzano canned tomatoes with juices
- I used my hands to shape the meatballs and did not pack them tightly together, just shaped them enough so they held together in 2-inch spheres. I find that this way they’re moist and tender.
- Be sure to remove the bay leaves after cooking – they are dangerous if swallowed
- Garnish with fresh flat-leaf parsley and additional grated Parmigiano-Reggiano