Classic Spaghetti and Meatballs, Now That’s (Not Really) Italian

Spaghetti and Meatballs, now that’s Italian!

How many times have you heard that phrase? Well, probably fewer than you think. Because Spaghetti and Meatballs is not an authentic Italian dish, it’s an American adaptation. I’d even go as far as saying it’s an American adaptation developed as a reaction to the socio-economic forces experienced by a wave of Italian American immigrants in the late 19th century. Now that’s a mighty tall order for such a soothingly classic style of American comfort food.

But really, who cares where it’s from anyway? Some of my favorite “Italian” restaurant specialties aren’t typically found in Italy. Things like Baked Ziti, Pasta and Broccoli, Pasta Primavera, and Fettuccine Alfredo were all developed here and became popular not only on dining tables but as reflections of family traditions too.

Now I may not care where these Italian American specialties developed, but I am interested in why they developed.

Italian families 3 or 4 generations ago cooked up Spaghetti and Meatballs. It probably had its origins in several baked Neapolitan pasta dishes served at religious festivals. Because at that tumultuous time of Italy’s history (they were fighting over the concept of unifying all the regions of Italy into a republic) meat was costly. So these special occasion dishes used meatballs the size of walnuts as opposed to the egg-sized versions we are used to in America.

Palmina wine pairing from Sippity SupIn short, American-style Italian food is often about abundance and devolved the way it did because of Italian immigrants and their reaction to the food and culture of their new country.

In truth, many Italian immigrants of this era came to America on the brink of starvation. The abundance in this country probably shocked the newly arrived, as did the animosity and fear all too familiar to immigrants of any era. So it only makes sense that their food traditions adapted to their new circumstances. Pastas were dressed with sauce and more sauce. These sauces were made with as many tomatoes as could be shoved in the pot. Meat, instead of being served just three times a year, suddenly appeared as many as three times a day. One sausage in the sauce gave way to many sausages– beef, pork and veal.

As is typical in this country, acceptance into American society and prosperity was often slow in coming for the newly arrived. Still, the men, proud of the comfort they are finally able to provide their family, returned home from the steel mills, stone quarries, and railroads to the family meal that became the center of social life.

Part of this Italian-American lore revolves around some mythical Nonna. She stands in her tiny kitchen wearing her slightly stained apron– its ties barely reaching around her ample bosom. For many, this is the (stereo) typical picture of the Italian woman and her relationship to food and family.

This manufactured ideal permeates America’s vision of Italian home cooking so much so that even I (with no Italian lineage I am aware of) cherish these Italian traditions. The memory of this mythical woman is ingrained into my thinking about what constitutes comfort food, only in my case the mythical Nonna is assumed by a rather Jolly Chef Boyardee!

spaghetti and meatballsIn the culinary world there may be nothing quite like the endless search for and appreciation of the Italian food scene. Because it links Italian-Americans today to a rather false past, full of romantic notions about the old country and the food traditions of their Italian ancestors. How’s that old joke go? The one about the modern era Italian man who asks his grandfather why he’d left Italy and all its beauty. “Well” the old man answers, “beauty like that is not edible.”

So in honor of that Italian-American tradition celebrating the joy of abundance and the Italian-American immigrants so thankful for it. I bring you typical American-Style Spaghetti and Meatballs. Just like my Nonna never made!

American-Style Spaghetti and Meatballs serves 4 CLICK here for a printable recipe

Adapted from Lidia Bastianich


Greg Henry