Meatballs are so much more than food to me. They embody a big piece of my childhood, and dear loved ones whose memory I’m able to keep alive each time I make them. The moment preparation begins, I’m instantly transported to happy memories, and one ritual in particular.
My late brother Bob was an incredible cook, particularly when it came to Italian food. He spent so much time at the stove, his proclivities earned him the nickname “Meatball.” I spent many a Saturday or Sunday watching him at the stove, carefully rolling out each meatball, then rolling each again before it went into the oil. The smell would fill the house, beckoning me like a wanton lover.
When meatballs were on the menu I was never far away; this was a necessity, as I had to strike at the perfect moment. You might say I have a “thing” for meatballs, but with seven kids in the family, rations were pretty strict. I also like my meatballs without sauce, so if I wanted to sneak one, I had to do it between the time they came out of the frying pan and went into the pot of sauce. The moment my brother turned his back I would spring, grabbing a scorching hot meatball and running for the bathroom, where I would lock myself in and blow on the meatball to cool it and savor each second of its ambrosia-like qualities. Sometimes I was too hasty, and spent the next couple of days with a burnt tongue.
The batch I made today brought me to what I’m calling Meatball Nirvana. The texture and flavor were PERFECTION. Since many people have requested the recipe over the years, I thought it was time to share.
This recipe comes from my Gramma Crucciti (dad’s mother), and there are two important secrets: (1) you must use stale bread; and (2) you must not be squeamish. The only way to ensure the meatballs taste good is to sample the raw mix before it goes into the frying pan. You only need a little pinch to taste. The rest is easy, but a lot of the measuring needs to be done on-the-fly, as your taste preferences may differ from mine. Play with the recipe until you get the flavors where you want them.
Actually, there is a third secret: These must be made with love, and so much of it, it fills the kitchen. It improves the taste ten-fold.
2 lbs chopped meat (no more than 80% lean — embrace the fat, it tastes good)
Equal amount of stale Italian bread (approximately 1 1/2 large loaves for 2 lbs meat)
1-2 cups Pecorino Romano cheese, finely grated, to taste
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped or pressed
1 Tbsp parsley, finely chopped
Vegetable oil for cooking
Prepare the bread:
Soak the stale bread in a large bowl of water until the bread is completely soft. Break the bread apart in large chunks, removing the crust. Squeeze each chunk with your hands to get as much of the water out as possible and set aside on a plate.
[Chef's Notes: It is important that you have a 1:1 ratio of bread to chopped meat to achieve the proper texture. Please do not substitute bread crumbs for the squeezed bread, as you will get nowhere near the same results in texture.]
Prepare the meatball mix:
Add the bread to the chopped meat and mix together by hand, squeezing to ensure an even distribution of bread throughout. Add 1 cup of the Pecorino Romano, then the remaining ingredients and mix my hand. Taste a pinch of the mixture to see if the flavors are to your taste. Add more cheese if necessary.
Roll the meatballs:
Using a spoon or your fingers, take a scoop of the mixture and roll it between your palms to form the meatball. (The size is entirely up to you, but a soup spoon usually makes a good guide.) Place the raw meatballs on a large platter in a single layer.
Fry the meatballs:
Half-fill a large saute or cast-iron pan with vegetable oil. Heat under high heat until the oil shimmers. Carefully add the meatballs, re-rolling them if they have fallen out of shape. Fry until a solid brown crust has formed on the bottom half of the meatballs, about 4 minutes, then flip over with a metal slotted spoon. Cook for another 4 minutes. (You can remove one and cut it in half at this point to make sure it’s fully cooked.) Remove to a plate or bowl lined with paper towels to drain the grease.
[Chef's Notes: You can also use a deep-fryer to make these, but you must be careful to load the basket in a single layer at a time or the meatballs will stick together.
You might be inclined to use olive oil for cooking the meatballs, but I don't recommend it. It imparts an additional layer of flavor that is not necessarily ideal, and doesn't play well at high temperatures.]
If you’ve made a pot of sauce (I’ll save that for another recipe), add the meatballs to the sauce and mangia!