Orecchiette With Tiny Lamb Meatballs

June 28, 2017
4.6 Stars
Photo by James Ransom
Author Notes

The tiny meatballs need to nestle perfectly into the orecchiette in this dish. 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 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. We get merguez-y with it here, adding some coriander and dried ginger to the mix. But no matter the meat, I always keep the size of the meatballs tiny—1/4-inch pieces is ideal, but if you find that too small, don't exceed more than 1/2-inch. —Sara Jenkins

  • Serves 4-6
  • For the Sauce and Pasta
  • 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
In This Recipe
  1. First make the sauce. Sauté the onions with a pinch of salt in the olive oil (3 tablespoons) over low heat until translucent.
  2. Add the canned tomatoes and add a pinch of sugar to balance the acidity. Allow to simmer gently for about 20 mins until completely amalgamated. As that happens, prepare the meatballs.
  3. Soak the stale bread in the milk just to soften it. Squeeze the bread dry of excessive moisture, break apart, and add to the ground lamb with the egg, the chopped garlic, parsley and spices. Knead gently to amalgamate everything. Form the balls into tiny meatballs no more than 1/2-inch in size (1/4-inch is ideal).
  4. Heat the extra virgin olive oil (1 cup) over medium heat; if you have a thermometer, it should be 300° F. Drop the meatballs in the oil and fry until golden brown and crisp. Drain of excess oil.
  5. When the sauce has finished cooking, buzz it all in a food processor or blender. (You can omit this step, but you’ll have a slightly chunkier sauce.) Return the sauce to the pan and add the fried and drained meatballs.
  6. Bring a large pot of water to a boil, salt abundantly, and to cook the pasta according to the manufacturer's instructions. Drain the pasta and add it to the sauce, garnishing the dish with cheese, parsley and bread crumbs. Serve and eat immediately.

See what other Food52ers are saying.

  • panania
  • Michelle
  • fearlessem
  • paseo

5 Reviews

panania October 17, 2021
I think as long as you spice the meat first and then crumble it everything will be fine. I tried to get my meatballs as small as possible, but probably managed mostly 1/2 inch meatballs despite my best efforts. That said, I did have meat in nearly every bite and I was very happy for it. Thank you, great recipe!
Michelle November 19, 2017
I've already made this twice in 2 weeks! I added kale for some extra greenery and I think it goes great with the dish. I also tried just frying the meat without forming it into meatballs and I thought it was almost just as good. Tiny meatballs are fun but a bit laborious and time-consuming. Definitely going to be a frequent feature at my table.
fearlessem June 30, 2017
If the meatballs need to be so small that they fit in the orecchietti, I'm wondering what the difference is between making teensy tiny meatballs and just crumbling the meat, which seems like it would serve the same goal?
paseo July 1, 2017
The first paragraph of the author's note explains. I made this tonight and used crumbled merguez from a local butcher. Any good Italian would work as well.

Another good one from Sara

A terrific dish.
JohnSkye July 2, 2017
does sound good and i'll try it, 'cause i like Orecchiette ... but the first paragraph of the author's notes doesn't explain why crumbled meat wouldn't work, and i'm not sure how one makes 1/4 inch meatballs ... but i'll get them as small as i can!