My Cousin Marinella’s Meatballs

Palle di Marinella

This recipe has been a long time coming. In fact, this is actually the 4th rewrite. Each of the prior versions included time-sensitive references that no longer apply. (Let that be a lesson for us all.) Even this post is time-dependent, making me all the more determined to publish it post-haste — but more about that later.

My wonderful cousin, Marinella, graciously shared her meatball recipe with me the last time I was in San Marino — two years ago! While sitting around Zia Pina’s kitchen table one evening, I recorded a number of recipes in a small notebook and stored it safely away — never to be seen again. Well, I did find a meatball ingredient list on a piece of paper in my luggage but nothing more. Why did I write this list and how did it, alone, get into a pocket of my luggage are 2 questions that will probably never be answered.

“Wait a minute. ‘Luggage”? What was he doing with his luggage?” you might be asking.

Well, I’ll be heading back to Italy in but a few days and San Marino will be among the places we’ll visit. There’s no way I’d go to Italy without paying my Zia and cousins a visit. This time my niece, “G”, will be joining me for her first trip abroad, as will her brother, “M”, who accompanied me 2 years ago. We’ve planned our stops so that they can spend their days touring while I relax on a terrace and watch the watery horizon, if I so choose. A good time is sure to be had by all.

So, with our trip pending, I contacted Marinella and she guided me through this recipe. Perhaps its posting will soften the blow of my being so incredibly absent-minded. I can only hope …

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You may have looked upon the opening photo and wondered, “Where’s the spaghetti?” The fact is that the quintessential dish, spaghetti with meatballs, is not Italian in origin. The dish was actually created here in the States by Italian immigrants some time around 1900. Needless to say, the dish “caught on” and has become a staple of Italian restaurants — on this side of the Atlantic. Oh, sure, you may see “polpette” (Italian for meatballs) on menus in Italy but they will not be served with spaghetti. In fact, if you do see “spaghetti e polpette” on a menu, you’re probably in a place that is trying to attract American tourists.

Another difference you may notice is their size. In Italy, polpette are about golf ball-sized. Here, meatballs can be over twice that size or, when served as appetizers, quite small  No matter what size you choose to prepare, an ice cream scoop makes the process much easier.

That being said, let’s get to the recipe …

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Finding that ingredient list resulted in the first of many contacts with my cousin, all of which were necessary. You see, left to my own devices, I ended up with a number of tasty meat sauces with nary a meatball between them. In each case, the meatballs disintegrated in the sauce. Once I learned the correct amounts for the ingredients, our discussions turned to her method of preparation. Below, I’ve detailed her methods, as well as my recipes for meatball appetizers and meatballs simmered in marinara sauce.

The meatball recipe is actually quite simple. Grind/mince equal parts beef, veal, and mortadella (an Italian bologna-like product). Add a few tablespoons of chopped parsley, and season with salt & pepper to taste. Now add the ricotta. When I made today’s meatballs, I used 450 g (16 oz) of each meat. I used 150 g (5 oz) of freshly made and drained ricotta. (See Notes) To the mixture, add a splash of red wine and a slightly beaten egg. (See Notes.) Be careful when combining ingredients. Do not overwork the meat or the meatballs will be too dense. Pan fry a little of the meat mixture and taste for seasoning. Cover and refrigerate for a short while to allow the meat to set-up before proceeding. See Notes for tips on storage.

Once rested, form the balls in whatever size you prefer. To prepare, Marinella will sauté onion in a little olive oil until translucent. Add the meatballs and continue to sauté, moving the balls across the pan to ensure even browning. After 5 to 10 minutes, depending upon the balls’ size, add some chopped parsley and several plum tomatoes that have been peeled, seeded, and chopped. (See Notes) Continue to simmer for about 20 to 25 minutes. If you like, add a handful of peas — fresh or frozen — and continue cooking until peas are cooked to your preference. Serve. (See Notes)

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Mini-meatballs, “polpettini“, in red wine reduction, garnished with crumbled fried sage leaves.

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These meatballs are not heavily spiced, relying upon mortadella to deliver fantastic flavors. As such, care should be taken lest their flavor be lost in the preparation. This is especially true if serving them as appetizers with a wine reduction. After some experimentation, I found it best to bake the meatballs separately — (350˚ F, 175˚ C, for 20 minutes) — before adding them to the sauce just prior to serving. That will ensure that you taste both the meatballs and the sauce, with neither hogging the spotlight.

The wine reduction is easy, too. Sauté some shallots in a little olive oil until transparent. Add equal amounts of beef stock and red wine. (I used 1/2 cup of each, the wine being Pinot Noir.) Continue to simmer until the sauce is reduced by half. Pour the sauce through a fine mesh strainer and return to the pan. Whisk while adding a teaspoon of butter. Add the sauce to the bottom of a serving plate. Place the meatballs on to the sauce in the dish and serve. (Optional: garnish with crumbled fried sage.)

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A delight on both sides of the Atlantic

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Whether you call it a meatball sammich or uno panino con le polpette, something magical happens when meatballs meet marinara sauce and bread. If you ask me this sammich is the main reason for making meatballs but, as you know, I’ve a soft spot for sammiches.

First, start by creating a marinara sauce, Here I make a sauce that’s even less complicated than the one I shared HERE. Chop an onion and sauté in olive oil, over medium heat, until soft. Add sliced mushrooms, if using. Once the mushrooms have softened, add 2 cloves of minced or grated garlic. When you can smell the garlic (about 90 seconds), add 2 tbsp tomato paste. Cook for about 3 minute before adding about 4 ounces of red wine or 3 ounces of balsamic vinegar. Your choice. Continue to simmer until most of the liquid — and all the alcohol — has evaporated. Add 2 large (28 oz) cans of diced tomatoes. Season with salt, pepper, and marjoram, to taste. Stir thoroughly. Bring to a boil before lowering to a soft simmer.

After 30 minutes, give the sauce a good stir before carefully adding the meatballs. Do not stir the pot again for at least 20 minutes more. Stirring before the meatballs have a chance to set-up a bit may cause them to break apart. Continue simmering the sauce, carefully stirring occasionally, for another 45 minutes. Taste and season with salt and pepper, as required.

Now, turn your attention to the bread. I prefer a roll with a not-too-hard crust but the choice is all yours. Slice each roll lengthwise and remove some of the bread from both top and bottom. This will help keep the meatballs from falling and rolling “off of the table and on to the floor …” Spoon a bit of sauce into the trough you’ve just created and, with a slotted spoon, add as many meatballs to the bun as will comfortably fit. Place a slice or two of cheese — provolone, mozzarella, asiago, etc., — atop the meatballs before adding a garnish of fresh basil leaves. Buon appetito!

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You really didn’t think I could look upon a pot of sauce with meatballs in my fridge and not whip up a dish of spaghetti with meatballs, did you? In fact, I found the sight so moving that I pulled out the pasta machine and made the spaghetti, too.

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Notes

I prepare my own ricotta for use in this recipe. You can see how easy it is to prepare HERE.

Use caution when using smaller amounts of meat for the meatballs. I learned, the hard way, that too much liquid will cause the meatballs to crumble during cooking. A delicious tomato sauce resulted but that’s not quite what I had in mind.

You can use white or red wine for your wine reduction sauce. You can also add whatever herbs you prefer. If added early on you’ll derive more flavor from them, especially given that the sauce is being reduced. It’s for that reason, I prefer to add them at the end, to be briefly simmered before the sauce is strained.

The meatballs can be refrigerated, covered, for a short period, although it’s never safe to keep ground/minced meat in the fridge for long. Frozen, they will keep for weeks. Whether I cook them before freezing depends upon how I intend to use them. If making appetizers, I’ll bake the meatballs before freezing. If using them in tomato sauce, I’ll freeze the meatballs raw, to be thawed before being placed into the sauce. Both the sauce and meatballs will benefit being simmered together.

How you serve the meatballs will determine how much tomato will be needed. Less will be needed for sandwiches, for example, than is required for to create a marinara sauce.

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It’s déjà vu all over again …

As of this rewrite, we are coming out of what is hopefully winter’s last stand. So, before saying farewell to comfort food for the season, let’s take a look at the short rib recipe I posted way back in March, 2012.  The recipe was very well-received and it remains a personal favorite. I’m currently looking into modifying the recipe to utilize a pressure cooker. If all goes well, I’ll either write a new post or update the old. In the meantime, you can check out the original recipe HERE.

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Coming soon to a monitor near you …

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Arrivederci! A presto …

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51 thoughts on “My Cousin Marinella’s Meatballs

  1. First things first – what a delight to hear from, you ere you step on that plane, meet up with your niece and nephew on the ‘other side’ and get ready to have that first glass of vino overlooking the Mediterranean Coast. May the sun shine and gentle winds blow . . . . Meatballs: have made many in my day but none with this simple but different ingredient list . . . may not make my own ricotta but cannot wait to try – surprised there is no pork attendant . . . . . . . thank you . . . . shall eagerly wait for your travel musings . . .

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Eha. Things are moving along and I’m getting ready to take Lucy to the boarder. Then I’ll pack and hope there are no last minute things to run out and buy. I’ll be on that plane before I know it. See you on the other side …

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Whenever I teach the university students about Italian traditions vs. Italian-American traditions, I use meatballs as my example. I try to prep them for what they will encounter in Italy!

    I can’t wait to try these meatballs… they sound exquisite!

    Buon viaggio! When do you leave?

    A presto, d

    Liked by 2 people

    • Meatballs would be a very good example of the differences in our eating habits on either side of the Atlantic.
      I leave tomorrow afternoon and should be in Castiglioncello by suppertime on Tuesday. How’s that for timing?

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  3. The best way to serve meatballs is in a sandwich, IMO. I particularly like them in a Hero/Hogie/Grinder roll. I almost never make meatballs, and never serve them with pasta — I much prefer a meat sauce. But they’re good all by themselves, aren’t they? Sounds like a terrific way to make meatballs — I gotta try these. 🙂 Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re so welcome, John, and we’re in total agreement. A meatball sandwich is the only way to go. I’m not much of a meatball maker myself, and probably ade more for this recipe than I have in my adult life. It is nice, however, seeing them sitting in my freezer. I see sandwiches in my future!!!

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  4. I can always count on you for an entertaining read. The meatbslls remind me of a recipe I made for a job, the release of Toronto Cooks, a compilation of Toronto chefs’ recipes. For this job, I made meatballs from one of my favourite Neapolitana Pizza places (yes, it is VPN certified). Chef Rocco has a meatball recipe that is TDF, but also, so caloric that I shared one healthy-sized meatball for a taste with three prople! His secret was not mortadella but pork belly! Yes, pork belly! Equal portions of beef, pork and pork belly! It was, most likely, the most caloric recipe ever to hit my kitchen, but boy, they were good.
    I have to confess, I am not a mortadella lover, but I can certainly see how that cured luncheon meat would add a depth of flavour to your lovely cousin’s meat balls. And I can see why you may have ‘misplaced’ said recipe because there is nothing more rich than the sharing of a recipe woven in conversation about family. This is the reason we pass recipes down, traditional, history and family.
    Hope you and your niece and nephew have a safe holiday, I know it will be wonderful. Please bring back stories to share on your beautiful blog.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Eva. Pork belly meatballs?!?!?! Oh, I gotta try these? Thanks for the tip. I bet it will take a few tries to get it right, too. (I can only hope!)
      I am certain that we’ll have a great time together. My nephew, like me, loves to eat. My niece, also like me, loves to sight see. We’re going to have a swell time! All morning my cousins and I have been messaging back and forth. The anticipation builds …

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  5. Ah…a wee adventure is in store for you where you can relax and enjoy warmth, sunshine and family! Thank you for the recipe. I’m heading to the local market to gather ingredients…then practice for tonight meal! And WITHOUT spaghetti just a lovely salad.

    Have a great trip!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I certainly hope you enjoy her meatballs. I’ll be sure to mention you to her when I see her. Being this is my niece’s first tri overseas, I canot wait to see the sights through her eyes. Fun, fun, fun!

      Liked by 1 person

        • Oh, boy! I love looking in my freezer and seeing meatballs waiting for me. I hope you’ll enjoy them. I know my cousin will be happy to hear that you’ve tried her recipe. I’ll be leafing shortly but will check-in whenever I get to a free WiFi area to get your critique. Buon appetito!

          Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, I agree. One of the best parts of writing this recipe was preparing those meatballs in wine for the photo. Once a “good” one was snapped, someone had to eat them. Lucky for me, I was the only someone around. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you & cousin Marinella for a value packed post… so much marvellous meatball inspiration, which will via the magic of the interwebs be transformed into yummy offerings -each and every one I’m thinking- in my kitchen and very shortly thereafter our stomachs.
    Happy & safe travels ♡

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Dale. Marinella is going to be thrilled reading all of these lovely comments. She’s promised to bring the wine for our little reunion so I had better show her this post early on. 😉

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  7. Good to hear from you, John. What’s not to love about a good meatball? Although polpetti sounds better. Great tip on adding mortadella to the meat mix for flavour. And…the ricotta will keep it moist. Love the wine reduction sauce and fried sage. Will be trying these soon. Buon viaggio!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Sounds delicious. It’s fascinating how many variations there can be on a recipe that, as you mention, is pretty simple at the end of the day. In my family we never added mortadella (or ricotta) but I do like the idea. I’m sure the mortadella gives them great flavor. I’m going to give it a try that next time I make meatballs, which may have to be soon.

    Liked by 1 person

    • We rarely were served meatballs when I was a boy. Mom & Zia were much more likely to make and serve sausage. Meatballs were a real treat. I have to admit, though, I do prefer sausage. Marinella’s are the first I heard that used mortadella and that’s why I requested the recipe. Love the flavor it brings. Hope you will, too, Frank.

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  9. You’re on your flight to Italy as I’m reading this blog post. Fabulous! I love this recipe and almost laugh wondering who could read this without salivating. My goodness. And I’m delighted to be reminded of you ricotta recipe. It’s lovely being retired. I’m so much better prepared to try new “experiments” in the kitchen. Happy travels….

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  10. I did not know that meatballs with spaghetti was American ,not Italian. Go figure. I never was a meatball and spaghetti person, but I do love a nice meatball sammish and yours looks fabulous!! I’d also just like to eat these yummy meatballs and sauce with a loaf of homemade bread. That’s my favorite. Have a great trip!

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  11. Bon voyage! I hope you’re having a wonderful time on your trip.

    Thanks for this tasty meatball recipe and your advice to not over-spice them. That’s something I tend to get carried away with when making meatballs. I always forget that sometimes Less Is More.

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  12. Hi, somehow I missed this. I have never made polpette with mortadella or ricotta and am definitely going to try it. With that egg to meat ratio I am not surprised these polpette are prone to disintegrating. Always a pleasure to read your posts. Hope to ‘see’ you again soon!

    Like

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