03/02/2012 04:12 pm ET Updated May 02, 2012

The Mighty Meatball

I guess it was only a matter of time. The craze for meatballs has taken hold in a big way. Food magazines cannot stop writing about them; restaurant chefs have elevated them to super-food-star gourmet status on their slick menus; food bloggers adore them. All this time the lowly meatball has been under the food radar and often thought of as just something to go with spaghetti.

Let me tell you the story of how meatballs (polpette) came to be part of Italian cuisine. And for that we need to place ourselves around One A.D. when the Roman gourmand, Caelius Apicius, was writing his De Re Coquinaria, or Things Concerning Cooking. In his cookbook he describes how to "grind chopped meat with the center of fine white bread that has been soaked in wine. Grind together pepper, garum (which was fish sauce) and pitted myrtle berries. Form small patties, put in pine nuts and pepper."

And the meat that Apicius preferred for making these patties? Peacock, followed by pheasant, rabbit, chicken and pig.

Since that time, the meatball has undergone worldwide changes, making it hard to say for certain what the true Italian meatball is. There are countless versions to be found in Italy, from north to south. For example, in Modena, in the region of Emilia Romagna, meatballs called polpette are made with cooked, not raw meat and combined with nutmeg, egg and sometimes mashed potatoes. In Sicily, meatballs are called purpetti and are made with pine nuts, raisins and raw meat, and they are often served with a sweet and sour tomato sauce.

The meatball is a trans-cultural food, found in some form around the world. For instance, the Danes have the famous fried Danish meatballs (frikadeller) made from pork and often mixed with feta cheese.

Greece makes meatballs (keftedes) with lamb, pork, or goat, onions and mint leaves. They are always floured and fried in olive oil. They are often round, oval or flattened in shape and even skewered.

Swedish meatballs (kottbullar) are made with ground beef or a mix of beef and pork, and flavored with milk soaked bread crumbs and chopped onion. They are traditionally served with gravy, boiled potatoes, lingonberry jam and fresh pickled cucumber.

But it is Italy that is most associated with the origins of meatballs here in the U.S. Many recognize them as an Italian-American invention because during the nineteenth century, when Italian immigrants arrived, the meat grinder became available and changed the look and taste of the meatball, making it possible to grind inexpensive cuts of meat and mix them with a variety of ingredients. For every Italian nonna you ask how to make meatballs, you will get a different answer. This has survived until today. There just isn't just one recipe for meatballs, which is no surprise when we think of the regional nature of Italian foods.

So what is this fascination we have with meatballs? We serve them in mini size for a buffet, we cloak them in buns for a meatball sub, we hide them in casseroles and most importantly, we cook them in tomato sauce and serve them on top of spaghetti (a true Italian-American invention because, of course, spaghetti and meatballs does not exist in Italy).

Suffice it to say that meatballs are true comfort foods like meatloaf, lasagne and macaroni and cheese, no matter what their origin.

Simply knowing all of this, however, is not enough. How does one really make a good Italian meatball? Here is my criteria:

  1. A combination of meats like ground chuck and pork works best for flavor; you need some fat or the meatballs will be dry in texture and taste.
  2. Use the soft crumb of fresh bread, not the crust, torn into small pieces and soaked in milk, water or wine.
  3. Use real cheese, grated Pecorino or Parmigiano Reggiano.
  4. Use fresh parsley and mince the stems as well; there is great flavor there.
  5. Not too much garlic; a clove for a pound of meat. Mince it fine and cook it first in a bit of olive oil before adding to the meat mixture.
  6. Bind all the ingredients with an egg yolk, no white, which tends to dry out the meatballs when they are cooking.
  7. Use fine sea salt and coarsely ground black pepper for seasoning.
  8. Fry a small marble size ball and test for taste before forming and baking all the meatballs. Add salt and pepper as needed.
  9. Form the meatballs tightly by rolling them under the palms of your hands.
  10. Place them on a non-stick baking sheet and refrigerate them for 30 minutes. This will help them keep their round shape when baked.

Meatballs should have a tender texture when cooked. Bake them slowly in a 325F oven for 30-35 minutes or until nicely browned. Then add them to tomato sauce and simmer until hot.