If you’re trying to trace the branches in the family tree between polpette and kottbullar (aka Italian and Swedish meatballs), there’s no better place to start than with the meat of the matter: The blend. With both, the guidelines for the meat mixture are a little fuzzy and a lot personal. Like, my grandma’s recipe versus your grandma’s recipe, this has been in our family for generations and is the only true authentic (God that word makes me nervous) meatball, kind of personal. Ground beef, pork, and veal are the main players in both styles. Swedish blends are most commonly dominated by a 50-50-ish pork and beef combo (though veal and even venison are sometimes included), while Italian versions, especially those you find in the States, typically dance around with a proprietary ratio of the Big Three.
As in life, size matters when it comes to distinguishing Swedish and Italian meatballs. The former are generally shaped to be much smaller in size—think, golfball-sized, or like a hearty teaspoon. You want to be able to easily pick one up with with a toothpick and not have it feel like a deadlift exercise. Italian meatballs are generally larger in size (except, perhaps, if they’re being served as a component in a soup), and Italian-American meatballs, if you care to make the distinction, are even larger. I know, “color me surprised,” said no one. Apparently the stateside renditions originated by Italian immigrants in New York started off more modestly sized, as you’ll still find them in Italy, but since have ballooned up like Violet Beauregard in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Think somewhere in the range of a tennis ball or average-sized fist.
Seasoning is another good way to draw a line in the sand between these two iconic meatball styles. While both varieties mix in onions and a panade (milk-soaked bread), Swedish meatballs traditionally use spices like allspice, nutmeg, white pepper, and sometimes ground ginger as flavoring. Italian meatballs classically call for grated Parmesan or Pecorino, as well as garlic and and chopped parsley; sometimes fennel seed and dried oregano are also added to up the ante.
Of course, sauce is a big part of the flavoring component that sets the two a part. Italian meatballs are famously served in a bright, tangy, often chunky tomato sauce (marinara to the layman) whereas Swedish meatballs are cooked in a rich, roux-based gravy made with beef or bone broth and sour cream.
While different, both types of meatball are fairly versatile in terms of presentation and serving style. If you’re a fan of the 60s-era cocktail party, you’ll remember that Swedish meatballs make a great pass-around appetizer, served simply on a toothpick. Of course, as a main dish, they’re more typically served over German-style egg noodles or with potatoes and a side of lingonberry jam. Italian meatballs come in a wider variety of outfits, so to speak. Though in Italy they are often served simply, on their own and garnished with fresh grated cheese and sprinkled with herbs, in the U.S. you’ll find them in a nest of spaghetti—duh—but also baked into a pasta casserole, over creamy polenta, sliced on pizza, stuffed into sandwiches, and even swimming in soups.
Alright enough talk, let’s get the ball rolling on some recipes already!
Just as good as Nonna used to make ‘em, these fork-tender, herb-studded meatballs in tomato gravy are equally delicious on their own, over pasta (get our Spaghetti and Meatballs recipe), smothering creamy polenta, or stuffed into a sandwich. Get our Italian Meatballs recipe.
Meatball and Spinach Ravioli Bake
Spaghetti gets all the fame and glory when it comes to meatball-pasta combos. And I get it, I really do, but don’t you sometimes want a heartier, more substantial pasta partner? If you replied ‘yes’ then you need to check out this semi-homemade-style recipe that gives you something more creative to do with fresh ravioli than throw a sauce over it and call it a day. Homemade meatballs, marinara, and spinach ravioli, covered with cheese and baked in a skillet like a casserole. Genius. Get the recipe.
As much as I love spaghetti, there may be no vessel better suited to stand up to the formidable Italian meatball than an crusty, chewy hoagie roll. Like peas in a pod. (Er, well, I mean…you get the idea). Slices of fresh mozzarella are draped over the saucy sandwich before a quick spin under the broiler, creating a swoon-worthy bubbly, blistered top layer of cheese. Get our Meatball Sub recipe.
Cheesy Garlic Bread Meatball Sliders
Let’s not forget that meatballs make a mighty fine substitute for a hamburger patty too, as these sliders prove. Parmesan and herb-dusted garlic bread, a classic meatball-and-gravy accompaniment, is reimagined here as a sandwich bun. Get the recipe.
There seems to be no end to the myriad examples of what a happy marriage meatballs and carbs have. They’re just perfect together. Like with this pizza, where beefy little bite-sized meatballs take center stage on a star-studded surface of savory-sweet tomato sauce, mozzarella, pepperoni, and fresh basil. Definitely a fork-and-knife kind of pie. Get the recipe.
Italian Wedding Soup
Speaking of meatballs and happy marriage, we would be remiss not to give Italian Wedding soup its proper dues. The nuptials-inspired name comes from the Italian phrase, ‘minestra mariata,’ which apparently refers to the soup’s winning combination of broth and greens. But let’s be honest, this marriage would be nowhere near as happy without the inclusion of juicy meatballs. Get the recipe.
When your craving for meatballs leans more on the side of creamy white sauce than zesty tomato, give this recipe a try. The traditional, small beef and veal meatballs are served with a tangy sauce made from a combination of beef broth, a little flour, and sour cream. Enjoy them as a stand-alone dish (present on toothpicks and pass them around at your next cocktail party), or, even better, over a bed of egg noodles, or with a side of mashed potatoes and a dollop of the traditional lingonberry jam. Eat your heart out, Ikea. Get our Swedish Meatballs recipe.
Creamy Swedish Meatball Pasta Bake
Comfort food is this Swedish spin on baked ziti with meatballs: juicy little nutmeg and allspice-seasoned meatballs; rich, creamy gruyere cheese sauce; chewy rigatoni noodles that trap said sauce and whose little peeking-out edges crisp up in the oven. I mean, seriously, when’s dinner? Get the recipe.
Venison Swedish Meatballs
This gamier approach to Swedish meatballs suggests mixing your own blend of venison meat and pork fat instead of the more ubiquitous ground beef. Another interesting tweak? Adding the lingonberry jam into the sauce itself (yes please, sweet and savory) as opposed to just presenting on the side. Get the recipe.
Slow-Cooker Swedish Meatballs
If you’re more of a one-pot-wonder kind of cook (ok, this actually calls for two: a skillet and a crockpot) then this minimal mess recipe is for you—mix, shape, and sear meatballs; start sauce; combine and come back to a couple hours later. It kind of has that retro, throwback appeal that speaks to the dish’s 60s-era cocktail party heyday. Get the recipe.
Vegetarian Swedish Meatballs
It’s cheating a little, yes, but these Swedish-inspired meatless balls deserve props for using a smart combination of cooked lentils and mushrooms to give the dish a more savory flavor and heartier texture. Get the recipe.