As any stand-up comedian will tell you, certain foods are funny. Not apples, not lamb chops, not string beans. But comedians always get a laugh at the mere mention of bananas, chickens, hot dogs, beans, bagels, and, of course, meatballs. Just say, “And what’s with meatballs?” People start to giggle.
Meatballs, however well loved, have never had any real cachet. Once famously the most iconic of Italian-American cooking, they became an object of ridicule for the very same reason, with gourmets sniffing, “Well, they’re really not Italian, you know.”
Well, they’re wrong.
Not only that, meatballs have made a tremendous comeback, as a form of retro-chic. I’ve been seeing meatballs showing up on menus that once would have relegated them to the saucepan of history, along with chicken Tetrazzini, potato croquettes and biscuit Tortoni. The rationale for such gastronomic banishment was due largely to an ignorant prejudice that Italian-American food, represented in its most generous form, was a huge plate of overcooked spaghetti swimming in overcooked tomato sauce and lavished with meatballs the size of a Titleist No. 4.
Ironically, the sumptuous portion size of this iconic dish was due to a remarkable sea change in the way Italian immigrants prepared their food. Back in the immigrant period in the Old Country meat in any form was rarely part of an everyday meal, saved instead for Sunday or feast days, when available at all. The poor people, called contadini in the South, were spending up to 75 percent of their meager income on food.
In Campania and Calabria and Basilicata and Sicily, meatballs most certainly did exist, but they were small, about the size of a marble, and were called polpette, which literally means “little meats” and derives from the Latin word for “flesh.” (In Sardinia they’re called ombixeddas, “little bombs.”)
They were commonly served in between layers of many other ingredients in lavish pastas dishes like lasagne and timballos. They were never the size of golf balls, and the hero sandwich (an invention of the Italian-American grocery) crammed with big meatballs didn’t exist.
When, over the course of two decades, 1890-1910, four million southern Italians emigrated to the United States, they found that food was one of the things that cost far less than in the Old Country. Instead of spending 75 percent of their income, food costs dropped to 25 percent in America, which meant that, despite serious deprivations, no one was going to starve. Thus, meat, along with chicken, fish, and vegetables, was available in larger quantities at lower prices.
Both at home and in the new little trattorias opened by these immigrants, portions grew immense, and right along with them, the size of the beloved meatball. What was once poor people’s food had become fit for a king.
That such largess was later seen to be too much of a good thing and with the onset of the stereotype of the fat Italian, scarfing down macaroni, reeking of garlic, and swigging “dago red” wine, meatballs and spaghetti began to acquire a low-class and very unsophisticated connotation. After World War II, newer, so-called “northern Italian” restaurants in American cities kept meatballs off their menu in favor of lighter dishes like capellini pasta alla primavera with vegetables.
Alas, the meatball, once testament to Italian-American largess, was to become evidence of ethnic gluttony. One need only recall the hilarious Alka-Seltzer TV commercial years ago depicting an actor doing a dyspeptic number of takes of eating a big meatball and saying the line, “Mamma Mia, that’s a spicy a-meat-a-ball!”
Those huge meatballs are still around. National chains Olive Garden, Macaroni Grill, and Maggiano’s Little Italy still have them on their menus and you can find wonderful, old-fashioned examples at places like Patsy’s, in New York’s Theater District , which once took meatballs off the menu, then, on a whim put them back on and served more than 6,000 the first week.
These days, you’re seeing them on the menus of some of the hottest new restaurants around, Italian and otherwise, including steakhouses, often served separately from the pastas as an appetizer.
Italophile that I am, I must admit that meatballs are not unique to Italy. In fact, you find meatballs all over the world in one form or another, and they are truly revered, as they should be. As dumpling meatballs have a diverse place in German cooking, as with Berlin’s delightful klopse meatballs of beef, veal and pork with a sauce of sour cream and capers.
In Georgia, they make very spicy meatballs with cayenne pepper, coriander, fenugreek and sumac with a plum sauce called tkemali. And throughout the once-Ottoman Empire regions of the Middle East and India, hundreds of meatballs go under variants of the word kebab. In Lebanon there is a wide array of parsley-and-onion kefta meatballs, which may be broiled on skewers or baked and stuffed with pine nuts, along with kibbeh, which contains grains.
Kefta is also the name for meatballs in Morocco, where they’re part of a tagine. Turkish and Egyptian kebabs are another version of the same idea. The Greeks call them keftedakia,a form of finger food made of seasoned lamb, whereas koubepia is a dish of meatballs baked with prunes and walnuts. In India they are called kofta, which may be made with meat or vegetables, then simmered slowly in aromatic spices and yogurt until they assume every flavor in the pot.
The Chinese serve pork dumplings as part of dim sum, and in Malaysia there’s a highly seasoned stew called bergedel dalam with plenty of chile peppers, ginger, cumin, and garlic. Swedish meatballs—that staple of American 1950s chafing dish cookery with grape jelly and sour cream—might best be forgotten.
But then meatballs always have been hard to resist. Made with good ingredients, they are adaptable to myriad preparations, absorbing rich, creamy, spicy sauces, taking well to the grill or the casserole. They always come steaming to the table, crowning spaghetti or bubbling in a bowl, always brown, juicy, and easy to eat. The perfect morsel, a savory bonbon, and something the whole world has long loved. It’s good to see them back in the place of culinary honor they deserve.