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Nothing says Italian food like a big plate of spaghetti and meatballs, at least if you’re talking to most Americans. Little globs of meat coated in marinara sauce and served on top of a bed of pasta conjures up images of doting nonnas and restaurants with red-checked tablecloths. But what you might not realize is spaghetti and meatballs is distinctly an American dish.
When Italian immigrants settled in the U.S., they adapted their culinary traditions for their new environment, Smithsonian.com explained. Meat was cheaper, so meatballs became meatier (originally they were made with more breadcrumbs) and canned tomatoes and pasta took center stage since those were the ingredients available to home cooks. Thus, an enduring Italian-American dish was born.
Meatballs might be commonplace these days, but not all of them are good ones. The best meatballs are tender, flavorful, and perfectly browned, but too often home cooks turn out dense, tough, and generally disappointing meatballs. What’s going wrong with this deceptively simple dish? Everything from overworking the meat to not using enough seasoning to skimping on the breadcrumbs can produce an inferior meatball.
Of course, the best meatballs also start with a solid meatball recipe. The following version is a tried-and-true classic from an old-school Italian restaurant in New York. It calls for three different meats as well as a generous amount of Pecorino Romano cheese. Follow it and you’ll be rewarded with some of the best meatballs you’ve ever tasted.
Rao’s Meatball Recipe
Rao’s is a legendary Italian restaurant in New York’s Harlem neighborhood. The New York Times featured their meatball recipe, which they serve to the movers and shakers who dine at the exclusive spot. The meatballs are made with a combination of ground beef, veal, and pork and served with a homemade tomato sauce. Makes 4 to 6 servings.
For the meatballs
- 1 pound ground lean beef
- ½ pound ground veal
- ½ pound ground pork
- 2 large eggs
- 1 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese
- 1½ tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
- 1 small garlic clove, minced
- Salt and ground black pepper
- 2 cups fine dry bread crumbs
- 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 clove garlic, lightly smashed
For the sauce
- ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 ounces salt pork, thinly sliced
- 3 tablespoons minced onion
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 (28-ounce) cans imported Italian crushed tomatoes
- 6 leaves fresh basil, torn into small pieces
- Pinch of dried oregano
- Salt and ground black pepper
Directions: Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium-low heat, then add the salt pork. Sauté until fat has rendered, about 5 minutes. Remove and discard salt pork. Add onion and sauté until translucent, about 3 minutes. Add garlic and sauté just until softened. Add tomatoes with their juice and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer until sauce is slightly thickened, about 45 minutes. Add the basil, oregano, and salt and pepper to taste. Cook for 1 minute more.
In a mixing bowl, combine the beef, veal, and pork. Add the eggs, cheese, parsley, and minced garlic, then salt and pepper as desired. Add the breadcrumbs and mix well. Slowly add up to 2 cups water, ½ cup at a time, until the mixture is moist; all the water may not be needed. Shape into 1½-inch meatballs.
Heat the oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the smashed garlic and sauté until lightly browned, 1 to 2 minutes, then discard the garlic. Working in batches and taking care not to crowd the pan, add meatballs and fry until undersides are brown and slightly crisp, 5 to 6 minutes. Turn and brown the other sides, about 5 minutes more. Transfer cooked meatballs to paper towels to drain, then add to the marinara sauce. Mix gently and serve.
When mixing up these meatballs, don’t be afraid to use your hands, but take care not to overwork the meat. “The light touch of your hands incorporates all of the ingredients without crushing the meat. You don’t want to over-mix into a paste — full pieces of ground meat should still be visible,” according to Alison Roman, a former food editor at Bon Appétit. To keep the mixture from sticking as you shape the meatballs, lightly coat your hands with oil.
For the best meatballs, start with cold ingredients, The Kitchn advises, since this will keep ingredients like fat from breaking down before they are cooked. “Make the mixture in a chilled bowl, and if you are adding precooked ingredients like onions, let them cool down completely before adding them in,” Christine Gallary writes. More ambitious cooks might want to try grinding their own meat.
When making the sauce, splurge a bit on the tomatoes. You want imported Italian crushed tomatoes for the best results. Real Simple recommends the Pastene brand.