Generally considered an Italian classic (in parts of the world other than Italy), spaghetti and meatballs is rooted in Italian-American culture. With a more plentiful meat supply than Italy, the dish was invented by Italian immigrants having moved to New York during the late 1800s.
In the book ‘Delizia!: The Epic History of the Italians and Their Food’, author John Dickies describes spaghetti and meatballs as “an edible celebration of life in America”. He goes on to state, “Spaghetti with meatballs carries no trace of any specific regional provenance; it is not Lombard, or Calabrian, but joyously, anonymously, uncomplicatedly Italian in a way that was only possible in the United States.”
The most similar Italian dish is ‘maccheroni alla chitarra con polpette’, typically made with minced veal and chicken, while the Italian-American spaghetti and meatballs is rarely found in Italy, other than in (often dreadful) tourist-orientated restaurants. Those tourist trap ‘Italian’ restaurants found all over the world are largely responsible for Italian-American cuisine’s generally unfavourable reputation amongst Italian writer and chefs, as well as international food lovers. Italians often mock spaghetti and meatballs in particular, as true Italian meatballs are smaller and only served with egg-based, baked pasta. Italian-American cuisine isn’t all bad, though. It’s not authentically Italian, but nor does it pretend to be.
As opposed to being exclusively made with beef, this meatballs recipe features a mixture of beef mince, pork mince, and veal mince. If you can’t find veal mince, or would rather avoid it altogether, a mixture of just beef and pork will produce fine meatballs, though I’d suggest using veal if possible, as it works particularly well with the other flavours. Generic ‘Italian seasoning’ can also be used in place of the herb mix, just switch the dried oregano, basil, marjoram, sage, thyme, and rosemary for two tablespoons of the seasoning, though the paprika and nutmeg are absolutely essential here. Ready-made pasta is also fine, but if you’re planning on making your own, this pasta dough recipe works well.
- 1 large onion finely chopped
- A pinch salt
- 1 tsp chilli flakes
- Small bunch basil stalks chopped, leaves ripped
- 4 cloves garlic finely sliced
- 150 ml red wine
- 3 x 400g tins peeled tomatoes
- 1 tsp dried oregano
- 2 tsp white sugar
- 500 g spaghetti or your pasta of choice
- 100 g butter
- 100 g parmesan
- Freshly ground black pepper
For the meatballs
- 200 g beef mince
- 200 g pork mince
- 100 g veal mince if you can’t find veal mince, an equal mixture of pork and beef will work fine – or just 500g of one meat
- 1 tsp dried basil
- 1 tsp dried oregano
- 1 tsp dried sage
- 1 tsp dried marjoram
- 1 tsp dried thyme
- 1 tsp dried rosemary
- ½ tsp sugar
- 1 tsp paprika
- 1 tsp grated nutmeg
- 2 tbsp grated parmesan
- 1 egg
- A pinch salt
- Cover the base of a large sauce pan with olive oil and heat for 30 seconds, until shimmering. Add the finely chopped onion to the pan and stir. Season with a pinch of salt, decrease the heat to low, cover the onions and cook for around 10 minutes, stirring often.
- Once the onions are soft and translucent, add the chilli flakes, basil stalks, and finely sliced garlic to the pan. Increase the heat and cook for one minute. Keep stirring to prevent the garlic from burning.
- Add the red wine to the pan and stir. Cook for another five minutes or so, until the wine has reduced by 2/3.
- Once the wine has reduced, add the tomatoes to the pan. Fill one of the empty tins with water and add that to the pan, too. Throw half the ripped basil leaves, oregano, and 2 teaspoons white sugar into the pan and slowly bring to the boil.
- When the sauce begins to boil, decrease the heat and cook slowly, stirring occasionally to prevent it from catching.
- While the sauce cooks, combine the meatball mixture in a mixing bowl and separate into approximately 25-30 meatballs, dependent on size preference.
- Heat a little oil in a frying pan and gently fry the meatballs until firm when pinched with cooking tongs. Cook the meatballs in batches if necessary, to avoid overcrowding the pan.
- Once fried, add the meatballs to the sauce and continue to cook over low heat for at least 10 minutes.
- After adding the meatballs to the sauce, cook the pasta according to packet instructions (or for 2-3 minutes if using fresh) until al dente. Reserve the cooking water.
- Once cooked al dente, transfer the pasta to the pan with the meatballs and sauce. Add a ladle or two of cooking water, the butter, most of the parmesan, and the remaining basil leaves. Stir to combine, continuing to cook over low heat. Once the butter and cheese have melted, transfer the spaghetti and meatballs to a bowl and finish with an additional sprinkle of parmesan, plus a crack of black pepper.