Polpette: The Italian Meatball
While Americans are accustomed to the famous Italian dish Spaghetti & Meatballs, what they don't realize is that it doesn't exist in Italy. This article explores the Italian meatball, or polpette: its variations, ingredients and how it is served.
By Piergiorgio and Amy Nicoletti
In Italy there is nothing humdrum or mundane about meatballs. In many culinary traditions—from North Africa to the Middle East and Asia—ground or crushed meat in the shape of balls or patties often yield the most exotic, unique and delicious tastes. So, when Italians make beef or veal meatballs (polpette),you can be sure some special ingredients are always added to lift them out of the ordinary—such as adding garlic, parsley, eggs and sometimes even Parmigiano, mortadella or béchamel sauce to the ground beef. Though the Italians’ fondness for polpette can’t rival the Americans’ love for hamburgers, it is certain that meatballs and their many variations must be included among the favorite recipes of Italian cuisine.
Classic Italian polpette are made with ground beef or veal; when they’re made with fish or vegetables, they are usually referred to as crocchette—a word of French derivation that was adopted to distinguish these delicacies. Crocchette di patate (potato croquettes), crocchette al formaggio (cheese croquettes) or crocchette al pesce (fish croquettes) are just a few examples. There are also vegetarian crocchette, which use cheese and/or potatoes as a binder. Polpette and crocchette can be fried, steamed (though this method is not used very frequently) or cooked in the oven—which is certainly the healthiest way to prepare them—on a nonstick cookie sheet sprayed with olive oil or covered with baking paper.
Although polpette cooked in a tomato sauce and served with pasta may be what most Americans first imagine when they think of meatballs, this dish is virtually nonexistent in Italy—though a variation of polpette in tomato sauce is found in southern Italy, it is served as a main course and not with pasta.
In most regions of Italy, polpette are often just fried and eaten as is—as a snack or served as a second course—without any sauce or topping. Italian meatballs are often quite elaborate all by themselves. For example, some polpette recipes recommend adding various ingredients into the raw ground meat—such as, finely chopped mortadella or salame, or a bit of béchamel sauce (if you have any left over from other preparations).
Another possibility is to insert a small cube of fontina cheese, or another good melting cheese, into the middle of each polpetta before flouring and frying. To make a complete meal of polpette, try serving them with a mesclun or arugula salad, or any lightly sautéed vegetables, such as spinach or chard. In Italy, to assuage children’s insatiable lust for fried food, homemade patatine fritte (french fries) are sometimes served with polpette.
Italian meatloaf or polpettone—which literally means “big meatball”—is another classic of Italian cuisine. There are variations of polpettone in just about every region of the country. In southern Italy, polpettone is often served with a tomato sauce that is prepared directly in the pan with some onions and diced canned tomatoes. In this variation, you’ll baste the polpettone with the tomato sauce. Remember to scrape the bottom of the pan well, or deglaze it, so that the delicious brown juices and meat bits are blended into the sauce. Leftover polpettone makes for delicious sandwiches. Add a slice of mozzarella or any other tasty, melting cheese to a slice of polpettone, grill or broil it until hot, and serve between two slices of toasted ciabatta bread or a baguette—the renowned classic French bread that has become increasingly popular in Italy.
Both polpette and polpettone are usually big hits with kids in Italy. In fact, though blatant bribery is spurned by today’s child psychologists, no doubt some Italian mothers still hold out the promise of a delicious polpette dinner in exchange for performing some household chore or homework assignment.