In Search of Meatballs

For my first video blog, I have chosen Neapolitan meatballs. I chose them for a variety of reasons. Most of them technical. I have made these many times before. So I can absolutely pull them off without a hitch. And of course, I love to eat them! So for my purposes here, they are a true comfort food.

But the main reason I chose the meatball is I could see the whole video in my head before I even started. Each shot, each angle, made sense and helped “tell the story”. Or in this case “tell the recipe”. When something is right, I just know it, and I do it. So here goes…

Meatballs. Not just any meatballs, Neapolitan meatballs. Of course, Naples is very closely associated with pizza. Thin crusted, simply prepared, rustic, and delicious. But Naples is also home to many of the tastes and flavors Americans have come to think of as Italian. It is the home of the red sauce, eggplant Parmesan, and buffalo mozzarella. So attacking head-on pre-conceived notions about Italian food sounded fun to me.

Earlier this year I learned (through an article in the Boston Globe ) that spaghetti and meatballs served together is simply not authentically Italian. Though I swear I have had them together in Italy. (I hope the waiter wasn’t snickering at me…)

I guess enterprising Italian Americans somewhere down the line brought the meatball and the noodle together. Whether it happened to accommodate the tastes of their adopted country, or it was an economics driven decision, I just don’t know. But it did intrigue me enough to try and define what an authentic Neapolitan meatball would be.

One thing I did learn was that every Italian family, both here and in Italy, seems to have their own perfect recipe. This would just not do! I needed one definitive recipe. So I decided to make up my own.

“How?” you ask can one man living in California be so bold as to decide the one right way to do something that he had not actually ever done before. Well, the answer is simple…because I decided to. You are welcome to disagree (yeah, right).

I started with research. I looked at cookbooks. I watched TV. I surfed the web. I went out to eat. I traveled. I slept on it. I meditated. It’s a tough life, but I am just that dedicated.

Finally, the key to the problem came on “Molto Mario”. He had a recipe that seemed to incorporate everything I thought a Neapolitan meatball should be. He even had the chunky stale bread in it that my memory has attached to an authentic Italian meatball. His version was the right size…somewhere between a golf ball and a tennis ball (his phrase and I love it). He even used pecorino as opposed to Parmigiano-Reggiano. Which just seemed like a “well duh” to me.

I was excited. I made them. I was disappointed. So I made them again, and yet again. Okay, I’ll say it here for the first of many times. I am not a chef. But the recipe was coming up short on of all things FLAVOR!

Still, I had a blueprint and a new mission. I got to work.

I started thinking about the ingredients all together, rather than as separate entities. I came across the idea that all the ingredients together would make a pretty good meat sauce, but not a great meat sauce. Now for a great meat sauce, you look to Bologna! Anything Bolognese makes me smile.

I had already spent a good part of 2005 coming up with a perfect Bolognese sauce. The key to that problem was milk. I do not know why, but a touch of milk in a meat sauce transforms it. Somehow it is the glue that makes all the ingredients stick together.

So I decided I would add milk to the recipe. But I needed to add the qualities of milk without adding too much liquid. Too much liquid and a perfect meatball gets mushy and will not hold its shape. I decided to soak the very stale bread in milk for a few moments and then squeeze most of it out as the first step in my meatballs. I felt like Dorothy on the Yellow Brick Road. I knew I was on my way home!

The next big change was obvious; so obvious I can’t really believe Mario didn’t think of it. Like Italians have for generations, I used half pork. I am not even going to elaborate on that decision!

Besides some minor spice changes, the last area of tinkering came straight from almost every Italian recommendation I could find. Once the meatballs are cooked through in the sauce. Turn off the heat and let them cool completely. Overnight if you want too. This is perhaps the most important step!

Now, I’m no scientist. But I have been swimming in the chilly Pacific for too long. When you get out, not only are you damn cold but also you are thirsty as hell.

This is from osmosis. A cool liquid is like a great big sponge. It sucks the juice out of everything around it. This is pertinent here, because as the sauce cools it sucks all that sweet porky juiciness out of the meat and into the sauce. See what I mean. The sauce improves in its flavor immensely! Then as the meat cools some of the flavorful liquid from the sauce seeps back into the meatball…through osmosis! So, there you have it. Neapolitan Meatballs. GREG


Greg Henry