This brings us to our last of Google's most sought-after recipe requests. Even at position #10, this number undoubtedly represents thousands of pots of simmering tomato sauce begging for orbs of ground meat, mixed with spices, and love. "I love my meatballs," Italian cooking maestro Arthur Schwartz whispered to me just last night. This, from the man who helped put Neapolitan cuisine on the map, about the dish that, "along with pizza and spaghetti with tomato sauce, (meatballs) have to be the most internationally famous, even infamous specialty of Naples." And while other cultures have their versions, Jewish sweet-and-sour meatballs, albondigas from Spain, Swedish meatballs, Lions head meatballs from China, meatballs from India and the Middle East called kofta, I believe it is the southern Italian prototype that people most desire. According to Arthur in his delicious book Naples at Table, "often the meatballs of Naples are considered too bready -- too meager, too poor, too deceptive. But it is, in fact, the high ratio of soaked, dried bread they complain about that makes them so light, so crusty, so juicy, so really clever." The inclusion of mollica di pane -- the milk -or water-soaked interior dough of fresh bread -- gave way to dried breadcrumbs when Italians migrated to America. In this mecca of meat and gold-paved streets, they upped the ratio of beef to bread, and presto!, the meatballs became heavier. But no, not Arthur's. His are considered among many to be "da morire" (To die for.) Meatballs can be eaten as a main course with a vegetable, as they often are in Naples. Or, they can be fried and dropped into tomato sauce; or served atop a bowl of spaghetti. I personally love meatballs in a hero sandwich (some of you say "subs" or "grinders"), topped with melted mozzaralla. I adore the tomato-soaked bread that lingers behind. Arthur's recipe, which you will find below, has pine nuts and raisins in the mixture. These days, he laments, not everyone adds them -- it's up to family tastes -- "but these embellishments make for a much more interesting dish, a Baroque touch from the Baroque city."
All this talk about meatballs makes me want to run to the Film Forum next week to see director Pasolini's movie "Mamma Roma" starring Anna Magnani -- beginning 1/21. The movie itself tells the story of a life that, like Neapolitan meatballs, depicts poverty and deception. It is the tale of a middle-aged prostitute trying to put her sordid past behind her and fashion a good life for her teenage son. Pasolini, by the way, is considered one of Italy's greatest modern poets, novelists, and film directors (he died in 1975.) And Magnani, no doubt, is considered one of Italy's finest actresses. See you at the Forum!
Polpette alla Napoletana adapted from Naples at Table
3 cups dried crustless bread cut into 1-1/2-inch cubes before measuring 1-1/4 pounds ground beef (80% -- not leaner) 3 eggs, beaten well 2 large cloves garlic, finely minced 1/2 cup (loosely packed) grated pecorino cheese 1/4 cup (loosely packed) finely cut parsley 1/3 cup pine nuts 1/3 cup raisins 1 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper 1/4 cup vegetable oil 1 quart favorite tomato sauce
Soak the bread in cold water. Meanwhile, in a large mixing bowl, combine, but do not yet mix, the remaining ingredients, except the oil and tomato sauce. Squeeze the bread by fistfuls to drain it, then break it up into the bowl. First with a fork, then with your hands, blend the mixture very well, squishing it in your hands to make sure the bread blends with the meat. Do not worry about handling the meat too much. With your hands moistened in cold water, roll the mixture between your palms into 12 meatballs. When a drop of water sizzles immediately, it's hot enough for the meatballs. Gently place them in the pan and as soon as the first side looks brown, dislodge them and turn to another side. Continue rotating the meatballs, using a wooden spoon and/or spatula. After 10 minutes the meatballs should be well browned but slightly rare in the center. If serving without sauce, continue cooking them for 5 to 8 minutes, rotating them as you go. If serving with sauce, place them in the sauce now and simmer for 15 minutes. Makes 12 meatballs