Genius Recipes

Rao's Meatballs

By • June 12, 2013 • 59 Comments

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Every week -- often with your help -- Food52's Senior Editor Kristen Miglore is unearthing recipes that are nothing short of genius.

Today: Just in time for Father's Day, ultra-tender meatballs with a surprising magic ingredient: water, and lots of it. 

I don't care what your grandma says. Spaghetti and meatballs doesn't have to be a meal that you slave over and simmer all day, nor does it need to put you into hibernation once you've eaten it. 

This is why Rao's famous meatballs -- in particular, this version from owner Frank Pellegrino -- are surprisingly perfect for June (and especially Father's Day).

Rao's

Other great meatball recipes rely on milk, or salty cheese, or even mayonnaise for their tenderness and personality. This one has the most unexpected secret ingredient of all: lots of tepid water.

  mixing meatballs

It's going to look like way too much -- two cups for two pounds of meat? You will also doubt you can serve very many people with this. But that's before you dump your water over the rest of your ingredients, and see the breadcrumbs quickly start rehydrating. 

meatballs

Like little sponges, they suck up all available liquid, expanding and lightening the mix. Now you have meat, garlic, cheese, and herbs, all delicately clung together with a little egg and a lot more wet, willing bread. 

Now back to that thing your grandma said: I've found that you can mix, shape, and fry these meatballs in exactly the time it takes for Marcella Hazan's tomato, butter, and onion sauce to cook (or even this 20-minute marinara, if you're really fast). Then you'll plunk them into the sauce for 15 minutes to finish cooking.

  fried meatballs

You could just slip them straight into the sauce instead, but when you fry until they're good and brown first, you're invoking the Maillard reaction -- which might be my favorite reaction -- caramelizing all the cobbled surfaces and cranking up the rich, meaty flavor, which it then generously shares with the sauce.

meat a balls

The caveats: 

• Make your own fresh breadcrumbs (i.e. grind up some stale bread) or, if your crumbs are purchased and quite fine, cut back by half, and don't use quite as much water. I can't be responsible for your stiff, mealy dumpling-balls and sad dad if you don't heed this.

• Use local, pastured, not very lean meats if at all possible. Good flavor and fat go a long way here. 

Whether you want to tell the dad in your life that this took 1 hour, not 10 (and mention the pint of water), that's up to you. It won't matter once you serve them forth.

meatballs 

Rao's Meatballs

Adapted slightly rom Rao's Cookbook by Frank Pellegrino (Random House, 1998)

Makes 28 Meatballs

1 pound lean ground beef
1/2 pound ground veal
1/2 pound ground pork
2 large eggs
1 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese
1 1/2 tablespoon chopped Italian parsley
1/2 small clove garlic, peeled and minced
Kosher or sea salt, to taste
Freshly ground pepper, to taste
2 cups fresh bread crumbs
2 cups lukewarm water
1 cup good quality olive oil, for cooking
Your favorite marinara sauce (we recommend this one or this one)

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Got a genius recipe to share -- from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected].

Photos by James Ransom 

 

Tags: Genius, genius recipes, meatballs, pasta, Italian, Raos, Frank Pellegrino, spaghetti, New York, Fathers Day

Comments (59)

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about 1 month ago Kylee

Rao's is a wonderful dining experience! I was inspired to make these meatballs for my grandson's first birthday. I made them smaller and served them as sliders to rave reviews. They didn't last long. So good!

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about 1 month ago Kylee

One more note: I baked the meatballs instead of frying them. They came out really good and I didn't have to deal with the frying mess!

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about 1 month ago ginger beck

Aren't these just the best?!!! Split open a baguette, stuff in a couple of meatballs, slather on your favorite marinara sauce. And Rao's -- what an experience,and I'm not talking about the food.

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3 months ago Eileen

I've had the pleasure of eating at Rao's twice, many years ago. The small intimate restaurant in the midst of Harlem on the river. It had a 2-3 month reservation wait list. I now own the cook book. 5 STARS......your mouth will explode with an orgasm of flavor.

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4 months ago Teresa

I have owned this cookbook for many years; one of my favorites!! These meatballs are soooo delicious!! If you haven't, try making the lasagna. Use ground Bison meat in place of the ground beef in the marinara sauce....you won't be disappointed

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10 months ago Dave Schw

Ever since I was a kid my mom has always made her meatballs with crushed Ritz crackers (instead of bread crumbs), plenty of water, and some instant mashed potato flakes. Her meatballs are also incredibly light, tasty and tender!

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10 months ago jgjensen

You're sooooooo right. I make a vegetarian version, eggs, cheddar, chopped walnuts, minced onion and bread crumbs and bake about 20 min. Tonight I added about 1/2 cup water--so much better. Added to pasta sauce with linguini--fab!

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10 months ago Auntie M & M

When I saw Genius meatball recipe, I knew it was Rao's! I gave the cookbook to my husband many years ago, and he has been making the meatballs and lemon chicken religiously. Both recipes are genius! Feel honored that Food52 agrees with us.

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10 months ago Amanda S

We usually don't use any breadcrumbs in our meatballs, but I have been craving meatballs and these popped up on my newsfeed so I made them tonight. My only problem is that they have totally broken apart since moving from the frying pan to the sauce! It's turning into a meat sauce... Perhaps they weren't done enough inside before I moved them to the sauce?

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10 months ago Amanda S

Oh I should mention that I did not use any pork, only beef and veal...

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10 months ago frog

That is the problem.

Miglore

10 months ago Kristen Miglore

Kristen is the Senior Editor of Food52

Amanda S, I'm sorry to hear that. The meatballs don't need to be completely cooked before going into the sauce, but they should be nicely browned on the outsides. Did you increase the amounts of the other meats to make up for the pork? Hope it still tasted good!

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10 months ago wendy wilke

your recipe is nothing new. the secret was always to soak the bread in water or milk. however, it is nice to see someone making a rather authentic meatball.

Me

10 months ago Kenzi Wilbur

Kenzi is the Associate Editor of Food52.

New recipes aren't so much the point of this column. Kristen uncovers a lot of old gems, too -- and these meatballs are a great example of that!

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10 months ago wendy wilke

i would not have known that. it is the first time i read it. thank you. i will keep it in mind.

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10 months ago wendy wilke

and i didn't see it was rao's recipe. sorry.

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10 months ago jslade

This is the first recipe for meatballs that I have read that is exactly the way my mother used to make. Wow! Thanks!

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10 months ago ShannonJ

I make them the way my grandmother (who made THE BEST meatballs in the world) did, by cooking them right in the sauce. Always soft and perfectly round. Always delicious. I also think cooking the meat in the sauce gives the sauce a richer flavor. Yum.

Stringio

10 months ago ChrisVeros

I am also a proponent of 100% braising the balls. The frying is messy, oily, and it gives them flat sides. I have never found them wanting for a fried coating after cooking them in the sauce.

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10 months ago Karen Albright Lin

I knew about this trick because my Taiwanese hubby's family has always used water in their dumpling meet. Works!

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10 months ago celine

do we think there is magic to the water, or would any liquid do? milk, like MeatballsandMilkshakes suggested, or other? I know, I know, we're supposed to get over the weirdness of adding water to meatballs and just try it, but I am scared!

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10 months ago nutcakes

Nothing to be scared about, this is a tried and true method from a well known restaurant and cookbook, and others use this method too. Rocco di Spirito used to have Rocco's Mama's meatballs on his website and his mother uses chicken stock which is also genius and I've made those many times. You can google to find that recipe reprinted on the food.com site.

Stringio

10 months ago ChrisVeros

Milk works. In my recipe I use actual staled Italian bread and soak it in milk.

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10 months ago Henry Lee

Any suggestion for a substitution for the pork? Can't have any in our house... Thanks.

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10 months ago Amanda S

We just used all beef and veal, I also don't eat pork.

Zester_003

10 months ago pierino

pierino is a trusted source on General Cooking and Tough Love.

I will second Amanda S on that. Just keep the meat ratio the same but increase the amounts of beef and veal. I would also use a "hamburger grind" of 80/20 which means 80% meat to 20% fat.

Pickling

10 months ago sabina

I used lamb in place of veal, and it was not missed.

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10 months ago DeniseP

Do any of you have a suggestion for something to use as a binder in lieu of egg? We have an egg allergy in the family. THANKS!

Zester_003

10 months ago pierino

pierino is a trusted source on General Cooking and Tough Love.

That's an interesting challenge. I would like to think about that further. My first thoughts/impulses would probably turn your meatballs into cement bombs. I still have some ideas...

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10 months ago AntoniaJames

AntoniaJames is a trusted source on Bread/Baking.

Here's an interesting Hotline thread on that topic . . .http://food52.com/hotline...

Also, vegans use ground flaxseed with water to replace eggs. The usual ratio is 3 tablespoons of water to 1 tablespoon of ground flaxseed = 1 egg. I might add a bit more water in this case. I'd probably try that first.

If you end up making these, please let us know how they turn out! ;o)

Pickling

10 months ago sabina

Whey is a great binder used in a lot of non-egg cooking. You could strain some plain whole milk yogurt and try that--perhaps along with a little flax meal.

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10 months ago nutcakes

My egg allergy friend uses a product called Ener-G egg re placer which comes out reasonably well for this task. I have heard of using flax but not tried it. Also Chia seed, also pureed tofu. And the strained yogurt sounds like a great idea for this use.

Pickling

10 months ago sabina

Beyond "gluten-free" we have to go grain-free in our house...any suggestions for a modification? perhaps 1/2 the h20 since there is nothing to rehydrate? I'll mess around and post my findings in case anyone else needs a lower-carb, gluten-free solution.

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10 months ago marcella from italy

try mashed potatoes and no liquid at all, except maybe for a little milk to further soften the mix, should you find it necessary (let your hands be the judge :)

Pickling

10 months ago sabina

great idea, but that won't reduce the Carbohydrate content at all!

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10 months ago marcella from italy

well, not really, as boiled potatoes contain around 17 g of carbs per 100 g against an average of 60 g from bread.

Pickling

10 months ago sabina

perhaps by normal standards, but not by our situation...i'm experimenting with using 1/2 cultured whey and 1/2 water along with the eggs...and we'll see what happens. but thank you marcella!

Miglore

10 months ago Kristen Miglore

Kristen is the Senior Editor of Food52

Sabina, let us know how it goes!

Pickling

10 months ago sabina

Well, the end product was a big hit! but I'm sure not as delectable as when you add crumbs. They were very light, and large, and I think the whey added to their buoyancy. I added 1 1/2 cups of whey as the liquid replacement for h2o. I would consider adding a teaspoon or tablespoon of coconut flour next time, and see if it needed all 2 cups. I used all pasture raised meats-beef, pork and lamb, and added extra garlic and basil because I could! Baked entirely in the oven as I had to run out and put them on a timer. They wept a little, but I just mixed the drippings back into the sauce-which is the last of last summer's dry farm tomato and red pepper sauce--over zucchini spaghetti. Not classic at all, but it made us happy. Thank you Kristen!

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10 months ago Joseph F. Santomauro

I have been making meatballs (Polpetta) this way since my mother taught me 35 years ago. it is by far the best flavor and texture. I am so happy to see the world exposed to this method

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10 months ago thomas falconer

I've been making meatballs for 20 years. I just this year purchased the Marc Vetri cookbook, Rustic Italian Food, within which is the single most amazing meatball recipe i have ever made. They are so delicious that i have had friends go speechless over them. I would highly recommend you try them.

thomas

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10 months ago CarlaK

I have been making these meatballs for years now since the recipe was on some TV station and they are fabulous! Yu can't believe they will actually hold together with all that water but they do and the result is unbelievably tender and delicious. And, yes, to SeasonallyRaw, I always bake them and they do great. I do let them sit in the sauce though before serving.

Karie_2

10 months ago Karie Engels

I saw these earlier this morning on Facebook and nearly licked the screen. Delicious!