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Rao's Meatballs

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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).


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. 


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.


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: Meatball, Pasta, Long Reads, Editors' Picks, Genius Recipes, Genius