Meatballs are a beautiful thing. Even when they’re not that great, I still enjoy them. (What can I say, good sauce and pasta can go a long way.) The first time I had truly ethereal meatballs, though—grazie to chef Rocco DiSpirito’s late mother, Nicolina—it upended everything I knew about meatballs. They should be tender! Light! Juicy! Life’s too short to endure dense, overly breadcrumbed efforts, and I’ve been amassing tips to making the best meatballs since.
No one understands this better than Anna Francese Gass, the author of “Heirloom Kitchen,” a cookbook celebrating the contributions of 40 immigrant women across nearly as many countries. The compilation book was born out of a smaller, personal project Anna had initiated to track down her own Calabrian mother Gina’s Italian recipes.
Heirloom Kitchen: Heritage Recipes and Family Stories from the Tables of Immigrant Women, $22.03 on Amazon
“I just kind of had an idea: I have all these friends who are first-generation [Americans]. I could provide a service,” she tells me during a recent Table Talk interview (watch it in full below). “I could cook with their moms, and it’s mutually beneficial because I’m getting to learn all of these amazing recipes and develop them, and the family will walk away with a published recipe.”
What inevitably emerged was not just a trove of carefully preserved recipes, but a collection of stories that surrounded each woman’s individual immigration journeys. From Nelly’s “Church Festival” Spanakopita to Magda’s Pork Adobo and Sheila’s Panamanian Arroz con Pollo, the treasures within the book’s covers represent home cooking at its best.
As for the secrets to Gina’s juicy, never-dry meatballs? They all lie in a three-pronged technique:
- Add a little sauce: It might be unorthodox, but a little bit of sauce enhances both the meat mix’s flavor and texture.
- Don’t pack too tightly: Have a light hand when you hand-roll the balls. If it looks wet and on the verge of falling apart, you’re doing it right.
- Poach, don’t fry: Anna, her mom, and her grandmother all gently poach the meatballs in the sauce itself (no frying necessary!). This results in perfectly cooked meat and of course, more flavorful sauce.
Try her recipe out for yourself below, and be sure to watch our Table Talk interview with Anna below (and read her informative Table Talk Q&A) to learn more about her inspirational cookbook.
Gina’s Brodo di Mamma e Polpette (Meatballs with Tomato Sauce)
Serves 6 to 8
“Italian grandmothers are judged on the deliciousness of their meatballs and sauce, and every Italian insists his or her mother makes the ultimate meatball. Living in New York City for a good portion of my adult life, I have tried many meatballs. However, although many have tried to prove me wrong, I can safely say mamma Gina’s are simply the best.”
“You must make the sauce for the meatballs first, because unlike some nonnas, my mother never fries or bakes her meatballs. Instead, they are cooked to perfection by simply poaching them in the sauce. Another secret? She uses her delicious sauce as an ingredient for the meatballs for juicy and delicious results Every. Single. Time!”
Prep Time: 45 minutes
Total Time: 2 hours and 25 minutes
For the sauce (Brodo di Mamma)
10 fresh basil leaves
½ cup (120 ml) extra-virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, peeled and lightly smashed
2 teaspoons crushed red pepper (optional)
8 cups (2 L/two 32-ounce cans) crushed tomatoes
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 tablespoon coarse salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
For the meatballs (Polpette)
½ pound (227 g) ground pork
½ pound (227 g) ground veal
½ pound (227 g) ground chuck beef (85 percent lean)
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1 tablespoon coarse salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 large eggs, beaten
1 cup (100 g) freshly grated pecorino Romano cheese
1 cup (100 g) bread crumbs, preferably seasoned Italian (Gina uses Progresso)
½ cup (120 ml) whole milk
½ cup (120 ml) Brodo di Mamma, cooled
Make the sauce. Tear 5 of the basil leaves in half; reserve the rest. Combine the torn basil, olive oil, garlic, and crushed red pepper, if using, in a small pan and heat over very low heat, allowing the basil and garlic to “steep” in the olive oil for 10 to 15 minutes. The oil will become fragrant and rich with flavor—be careful to not let the garlic to burn or go beyond a medium-brown color. Remove from the heat, strain the aromatics, and set the oil aside.
Combine the crushed tomatoes and 2 cups (480 ml) of water in a large pot. Add the tomato paste, salt, and pepper. Pour in the infused oil and stir to combine. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then immediately reduce to a simmer. Remove ½ cup (120 ml) of the brodo for the meatballs, setting aside to cool.
Partially cover the pot and simmer for 1 hour.
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Make the meatballs. In a large bowl, hand-mix all the meatball ingredients. (This prevents overmixing.) The mixture will be very soft, but resist the urge to add more bread crumbs; you’re making tender, melt-in-your-mouth meatballs. Once all of the ingredients are combined, wet your hands and pinch off a golf-ball sized piece of the mixture (about ¼ cup) and roll it into a ball. Place each meatball on a baking sheet and repeat with the remaining mixture, making approximately 16 to 18 meatballs.
Carefully drop the meatballs into the sauce. If the pot seems too full, shimmy the pot back and forth to make more room. (Do not stir with a spoon—you will break the meatballs!)
Simmer the meatballs in the sauce for 45 minutes or up to 2 hours. The longer it cooks, the better it tastes. Carefully remove the meatballs to a plate. Chop the remaining basil and sprinkle on top of the sauce. Serve with the pasta of your choice.
Note: Mamma Gina’s meatballs freeze exceptionally well. After step 4, freeze directly on the baking sheet, then transfer to freezer bags once fully frozen. They will keep up to a month. When ready to cook, make Mamma’s brodo and drop the frozen meatballs right into the sauce. Cook for 1 to 2 hours.
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Images courtesy of Andrew Scrivani.