Is Spaghetti and Meatballs Italian?
Spaghetti and Meatballs. (Photo by Lynda Balslev.)
Meatballs—juicy goodness of meat, onions, breadcrumbs, egg, butter, and Parmigiano-Reggiano, soaked in red sauce over a pile of spaghetti. Nothing says comfort like a big bowl of spaghetti and meatballs. And, nothing says Italian food like a big bowl of spaghetti and meatballs—unless you are Italian.
If you go to Italy, you will not find a dish called spaghetti and meatballs. And if you do, it is probably to satisfy the palate of the American tourist. So if not Italy, where does this dish come from? Meatballs in general have multiple creation stories all across the world from köttbullars in Sweden to the various köftes in Turkey. Yes, Italy has its version of meatballs called polpettes, but they differ from their American counterpart in multiple ways. They are primarily eaten as a meal itself (plain) or in soups and made with any meat from turkey to fish. Often, they are no bigger in size than golf balls; in the region of Abruzzo, they can be no bigger in size than marbles and called polpettines.
Polpettes are more commonly found at the family table than on a restaurant menu and hold a dear place in the heart of Italian home cooking. Pellegrino Artusi was a Florentine silk merchant, who in retirement followed his passion for food, traveling and recording recipes. In 1891, he earned the unofficial title of ‘the father of Italian cuisine‘ when he published the first modern Italian cookbook titled La scienza in cucina e l’Arte di mangiar bene: Manuale practico per le famiglie (The science of cooking and the art of eating well: a practical manual for families.) Artusi was the first to bring together the variety of Italy’s regional cuisines into one book and also importantly, the first to write for the home chef. Of polpettes he writes, “Non crediate che io abbia la pretensione d’insegnarvi a far le polpette. Questo è un piatto che tutti lo sanno fare cominciando dal ciuco,” which translates, “Don’t think I’m pretentious enough to teach you how to make meatballs. This is a dish that everybody can make, starting with the donkey.” Needless to say, meatballs were seen as an incredibly easy dish to make, but a popular one nonetheless.