Classic Italian-American Spaghetti With Meatballs

[Photographs: Vicky Wasik.]

There is no more iconic Italian-American dish than spaghetti with meatballs. It’s also arguably the Italian-American dish that’s most often described as not being “real Italian food.” How many times have we heard someone declare that while spaghetti and meatballs both exist separately in Italy, spaghetti with meatballs does not? How often have so many of us repeated it? How many times have I said it? But it’s a claim that’s unsupported by the evidence.

What is true is that combining pasta with meatballs isn’t anywhere near as common in Italy as it is here in the States; the practice has remained a hyperlocal specialty in one form or another, and never became well-known throughout all of Italy. Its relative obscurity has led many people—Italians included—to assume it’s a purely American invention by Italian immigrants. Dig just a little deeper, though, and examples to the contrary abound.

There are many possible ancestors of the spaghetti with meatballs we eat in the United States today. One of the most compelling candidates comes from Abruzzo, where tiny marble-size meatballs called pallottine (bullets) are cooked in tomato sauce and tossed with spaghetti alla chitarra—fresh noodles cut on wire strings that resemble those of a guitar. The similarities are striking, and it’s probably not insignificant circumstantial evidence that half a million Italians emigrated from that region to the States around the turn of the century.

Whether spaghetti with meatballs really does descend from spaghetti alla chitarra con le pallottine or from another regional Italian dish of pasta with meatballs (recipes are hard to find, but others have flagged Puglia’s pasta seduta, orecchiete al forno con polpette, and Sicily’s maccheroni alla sposa as ancestral candidates), what seems clear is that spaghetti with meatballs wasn’t just a flight of fancy produced by an Italian immigrant looking to change things up in the New World.

Solving Spaghetti With Meatballs’ Biggest Problem

One of the main criticisms made about modern spaghetti with meatballs is that it fails to achieve an essential quality of any good pasta dish: the seamless marriage of pasta and sauce. The problem, more specifically, are those hulking fist-sized meatballs plopped on a pile of noodles. Like a baby elephant as a house pet, bouldery meatballs are out of place on thin strands of spaghetti. There’s some charm to the mismatch, but it’s also objectively not a good fit—while they share the same plate, taking a bite usually means alternating between one or the other, and never eating both together.

This is what I wanted to address with my recipe, and the solution is simple: First, make enough meatball mixture to not only form balls but also to have some extra on hand to break down into the sauce, forming a hybrid, meatball-flavored ragù as the base. Second, form smaller balls closer in size to a golf ball, so they can better nest into the tangle of pasta; comically large meatballs are better left to a pasta-free version. I could have gone even smaller, down to the marble size of Abruzzo’s pallottine, but I wanted to honor the Italian-American spirit of the dish by keeping them just a tad oversized.

What’s funny is that I knew from the start that breaking some of the meatball mixture into the sauce was going to be a part of this recipe, but only learned later, while doing research into the dish’s origins, that that’s similar to what they do in Abruzzo, simmering the meatballs in an already meaty tomato sugo. (Just to give credit where it’s due, the idea of a meaty tomato sauce with meatballs is also known to Italian-Americans in the form of Sunday gravy, so my “innovation” here is hardly a new idea.)

The Keys to Meatball Success

This recipe isn’t my first foray into Italian-American meatball-making. I spent a lot of time perfecting my “ultimate” recipe years ago, and have refined it in the years since. My mission here was to adapt the basics of that recipe to this version—streamlining a few of the more ambitious steps, like adding gelatinized stock and using buttermilk to soak the bread—to make it a little less of a project. In the context of a big plate of pasta, those small improvements get lost in the shuffle and aren’t as important for meatball success (they are, frankly, optional in the original recipe as well).

Otherwise, the bones of that recipe stand:

  • Incorporating a panade made from fresh, milk-soaked bread, not dry breadcrumbs, makes a lighter and more tender final meatball.
  • A mixture of ground beef and pork offers the best of both worlds: more robust flavor from the beef, tempered by pork’s relative mildness, and a good combination of meaty textures that produces a meatball that’s hefty without being heavy. Pancetta adds even more porky fat to the party, for added flavor and juiciness.
  • A stand mixer fully mixes the panade, flavorings, and egg yolks with some of the meat, and then the rest of the meat is incorporated by hand to prevent over-mixing the meatballs, which can result in a bouncy, rubbery texture.

Meatballs Serving Sizes and Cooking Process

The meatball mixture here is sufficient to make 32 golf ball-size balls, with enough extra to cook down into the sauce like a ragù. The total batch size and meatball count is enough for eight servings with four meatballs each, or six servings with five meatballs each and two leftover, which, let’s be honest, is probably a good thing since it’s hard to resist popping a meatball in your mouth in the kitchen.

It’s admittedly a lot of meatball sauce. But my feeling is if you’re going to go to the effort of making this, it’s nice to be able to either feed a large crowd or have plenty of leftovers—the meatballs in their sauce freeze nicely anyway.

Here are tips for portioning the sauce and pasta as needed:

  • For every one serving: Use 1/4 pound (115g) dried spaghetti, about 1 cup sauce, 4 or 5 meatballs, and 1/2 ounce grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.
  • For four servings: Follow the instructions in the recipe below.
  • To serve all the pasta and sauce at once: It will be difficult to fit all of the sauce and a full 2 pounds of spaghetti into the same pot, so we recommend either following the recipe instructions below for 4 servings, but using two pots to make double the amount, or, if you don’t have the confidence to juggle two pots of spaghetti at once, simply toss fully cooked al dente spaghetti with the sauce and cheese in a large, heatproof serving platter, adding pasta cooking water as needed to loosen.