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For Better, More Italian Pasta With Meatballs, Make Tiny Meatballs

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I grew up in northern and central Italy, where we did not have "spaghetti and meatballs." It was an unknown dish and one which, if mentioned, elicited puzzled frowns from our Italian friends, followed by sad, sympathetic smiles. I moved to the US just on the cusp of a movement in which “real” Italian food was being embraced, explored, and celebrated, but the predominant Italian food most people knew was Italian-American food, a mishmash of bastardized recipes that, for me, was unrecognizable as Italian food.

Why Italians Puzzle Over Dishes Marked "à la Florentine"
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Why Italians Puzzle Over Dishes Marked "à la Florentine"

I swore up and down that pasta with meatballs did not exist anywhere in Italy, that it illustrated how poor Italian immigrants of yore were so dazzled by the wealth and abundance of American food, that they simply added meat to everything in one form or another. Then, I went to Puglia for the first time, a place known for serving orecchiette pasta with bitter greens. My first night in the gorgeous baroque city of Lecce, a group of us chefs stumbled into a tiny trattoria that looked to be serving authentic food. There, we were served a classic dish, orecchiette in tomato sauce with a few tiny but intensely delicious veal meatballs, which were mixed with garlic and the scrubby oregano that grows wild in the southern Mediterranean.

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While I find classic American spaghetti and meatballs an unwieldy and poorly balanced dish, the meatballs too big to tangle with the thin pasta, this dish made sense, with tiny meatballs nestling perfectly into the orecchiette. The key to meat in pasta is that the meat, be it guanciale or pancetta or sausage crumbles, needs to be in every bite, without demanding attention or overpowering the taste of the dish. I was delighted to add something so tasty to my repertoire, and excited to find an origin story (of sorts) for spaghetti and meatballs, that iconic dish of Italian-Americans.

A meatball for every orecchiette!
A meatball for every orecchiette! Photo by James Ransom

I like to make the dish with lamb meatballs because lamb is such an iconic meat in Italy, and one of my favorites for its pronounced, slightly gamey flavor. At my restaurant Porsena, we get merguez-y with it, adding some coriander and dried ginger to the mix. But no matter the meat, I always keep the size of the meatballs tiny, as it’s that balance between meat, pasta, and sauce I find irresistible about this dish.

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Orecchiette With Tiny Lamb Meatballs

71ac0add b9dd 45dd 87f6 3be6244a2f8b  unnamed Sara Jenkins
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Serves 4-6

For the Sauce and Pasta

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  • 1 medium-sized onion, minced
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 14 ounces can of San Marzano tomatoes, whole
  • pinch of salt
  • pinch of sugar
  • 1 pound Orecchiette Pasta (I recommend either Benedetto Cavalieri or Rustichella D’Abruzzo)
  • 1/2 cup aged Pecorino Toscano, grated
  • 1/4 cup parsley, minced
  • 1/4 cup toasted breadcrumbs

For the Lamb Meatballs

  • 1/2 pound ground lamb (medium to fine grind)
  • 1-2 ounces stale bread
  • 2-4 tablespoons milk
  • 1 egg
  • 1 clove of garlic, finely minced
  • 1/4 cup parsley, finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon harissa
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  • 1 cup extra virgin olive oil
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