The quickest way to lure an Italian into an argument is to weave the subject of meatballs into a conversation. There are, to be sure, at least 300,000 other ways to lure an Italian into an argument, but meatballs is easily the quickest.
I grew up in a Cuban household, being nurtured by a mother who wasn’t content to feed us until any and all protein was cooked so thoroughly that it was guaranteed not to give us botulism, salmonella, mad cow, or e-coli…which at that point was also guaranteed to be dry as a rehab counselor. So my formative years weren’t afforded the luxury of a well-crafted meatball, which is, I assure you, a morsel of art. Marrying into an Italian family was, in many ways a cultural awakening (a euphemism for shell shock) but discovering the art of the meatball trumped it all. I mean, sure, Cubans made meatballs too, but they pretty much got drowned in a sauce laced with cumin and served on a bed of rice, like every other protein we ate. Eating meatballs at the Pizzuto house was akin to having that first orgasm when, as a woman, you finally understand what everyone else was raving about. Thank you sir, may I have another?
With that discovery, though, came extreme caution. As any meatball-recipe-bragging Italian will tell you, ordering meatballs anywhere is pointless. We’re not talking Swedish Meatballs, Moroccan Meatballs or any other spherical servings of ground meat, mind you. Just the Italian ones that so easily go from moist, tender, flavor-packed yumballs to dense, dry, bland yuckballs. That happens…umm…everywhere. Everywhere, that is, except at home. And not just anyone’s home, either. Give an Italian grandmother the soapbox for even five minutes and she’ll be happy to diss Aunt Mary’s meatballs, Cousin Carmella’s gravy and probably even her own sister’s bolognese. In fact, she’ll probably lean in as she’s putting Aunt Mary down, cross herself and then whisper, “She uses ground sirloin” as if it’s a sacrilege (which it is).
The perfect meatball is a marriage of fatty ground beef, bread, cheese, eggs and seasonings. Problem is, asking 100 different well-fed Italians for the perfect recipe will no doubt give you 100 ever-so-slightly different variations. Perfection is, of course, rather subjective, though every last one of those 100 Italians will adamantly insist that their perfect meatball is no matter of opinion…it is a matter of fact. My mother-in-law was fortunate enough to secure that perfect recipe from her mother-in-law, and I was, I guess, just fortunate enough to marry one of her offspring (the sexiest one if you ask him). At no point does it involve any store-bought breadcrumbs, ground sirloin or any other meat for that matter, other than beef. If you are dieting and don’t want to buy chuck, go eat a chicken breast and forget the meatballs. And for the love of all that is holy, do not put them in a pot of sauce raw. Yes, they will cook, and yes, they will be very tender. But in no way, shape or form will they ever taste like meatballs that have been fried first, not only to create a contrast in texture, but also to add deeper flavor to the sauce they then bathe in.
Grandma Pizzuto’s meatball recipe lacks measurements for some of the ingredients, so do yourself a favor and taste the mixture before you cook them. That’s right, don’t be a chickenshit and just taste a little. It’s the only way you’ll know if you need more of something. When you make the meatballs, two hands are all you need. There are no cookie batter scoopers in an Italian grandmother’s kitchen…her greatest tools are her hands. Lastly, do yourself another favor and eat one, fresh out of the pan, before you put the rest in sauce (being cautious to look for Italian men over your shoulder who enjoy taking a meatball or four while you are distracted), for there are few greater pleasures than the taste of a freshly fried, absolutely perfect meatball.