I have to chuckle when I think of this very witty Alka-Selzer, television commercial aired frequently in the early 70’s. Mostly, because I remember my Sicilian Father’s hilarious, but meager attempts at mimicking the American, turned temporary Italian, Actor! While you had to be there to truly appreciate daddy’s efforts, this was one of the finest examples of “life imitating art” that continues to ring loudly from the archives of my memories.
So, in honor of daddy and to all reading this, I will explore the nuances surrounding a scrumptious, mysterious, edible orb called “the meatball” Is it American or is it Italian? Let’s compare some history and facts, shall we?
America’s celebrated, mouth-watering meatball in Italian is actually called polpette or polpettine. Truly a culinary masterpiece if there ever was one. While many questions surround their origin, in my opinion, meatballs are Italian in origin; they just got Americanized along the way.
What does this all mean? Well, Italians do not usually serve meatballs with pasta. For example, you would never go to any southern Italian town and sit in “la cucina italiana” and eat spaghetti and meatballs on the same plate. You are correct in thinking—Italians eat pasta. Italians eat meatballs, but they usually never eat pasta with meatballs.
Writing in 1897, Pellegrino Artusi, author of La Scienza in Cucina e L’Arte di Mangiar Bene, The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well, includes three recipes for meatballs, none of which involve pasta. However, Italian immigrants who first opened restaurants in the Little Italy communities were not cooking so much for their fellow Italians as for their non-Italian clientele.
Those that do not have a close knowledge of Italian cuisine may not understand that something such as a meatball could be savored as a course on its own. So, among the American immigrant populations, the difference persisted. Those of non-Italian descent became accustomed to having meat and starch together on the same plate, meaning— meatballs on their pasta. So, some Italian restaurants abandoned the practice of serving the meat separately and began serving pasta and meat together.
Whatever theory you believe, know this…I have eaten meatballs after pasta in Sicily in my Aunt’s authentic, Italian kitchen in a small town called Ramacca. Also, as I grew up,our family frequently visited my grandparents’ house on Sundays specifically for pasta and meatballs, it was a family tradition.
So, I will tell you something suitably; a meatball is as Italian as my mother and father were fresh off the boat from Ellis Island. I think the solution is simple; whether you put the meatball on or off the pasta plate—it doesn’t matter. However, I think many would agree that a meatball is a little sphere of love that has the power to bring families together with the warmth that only true comfort food can.
This week I will share my version of a very special recipe, created by my mama Carmela, brimming with this said delicious “love.”