At 6 years old, I had reason to believe my mother’s spaghetti and meatballs was the most marvelous culinary achievement ever created. Never mind that I had rarely strayed from her kitchen table.
It was all I knew, my favorite dish. I remember how the noodles glistened with the orange slickness of tomato and oil; the exotic thrill of garlic and oregano; the texture of the beefy meatballs, so tender and springy to the bite.
I felt so special when Mama made spaghetti and meatballs for my birthday.
Little did I know that kids all over America were eating virtually the same recipe, most likely found on the side of a Mueller’s spaghetti box.
This easy family supper required little more than browning balls of seasoned ground beef, then returning them to the skillet to finish simmering in red sauce while a pot of water puffed with the steam of boiling pasta.
Mama would drain the noodles, dump them into a big yellow Pyrex mixing bowl, and toss in the sauced meatballs. We’d eat it with salad and garlic bread, passing the green cardboard cylinder of Kraft grated Parmesan cheese. Fancy! This was the mid-’60s. I mean, everybody did this, right?
Not anymore, kiddo.
Today’s grown-up meatballs come in all flavors (pork, turkey, chicken, veal, lamb, duck, or a combination). They are tucked into sandwiches; spooned over polenta and pasta of all varieties; drizzled with marinara and eaten as a snack; or patted into jumbo orbs that resemble petite meatloaves.
While meatballs have gone gourmet, they’ve gotten a bit healthier, too, based on the recipes I gathered from some of the city’s best Italian chefs.
They are often baked — rather than fried like our mamas and grandmas did. They can be gluten-free — instead of binded with breadcrumbs. And they can be studded with veggies — along with the meat.
Linda Harrell, chef and partner at Cibo e Beve Italian Kitchen & Bar on Roswell Road, might well be the queen of the Atlanta meatball scene. In 2014, as part of Taste of Atlanta, Harrell hosted The Atlanta Meatball Festival, which included a “battle of the balls” competition. By the second year, more than 20 restaurants were involved.
Harrell’s customers are crazy about her classic pork, veal and beef meatballs, which she serves with marinara and a dollop of ricotta. But she also has diners with dietary restrictions, which led her to create a gluten-free chicken meatball. Instead of breadcrumbs, she uses instant mashed-potato flakes. To keep the balls from drying out in the oven, she pours a little liquid into the pan. Plump and juicy, the results are heavenly.
Inspired by a recent trip to Tuscany, Craig Richards, the executive chef at Buckhead’s tony St. Cecilia, sent me a recipe for a pork-and-beef meatball so unctuous and moist it hardly needs a sauce. What’s his secret?
While porcinis would be the authentic mushroom of choice, they can be expensive and hard to come by. “I would suggest finding the best fresh mushroom available and using them in this recipe,” Richards says. During my three test runs, I had great luck with various combinations of portobellos, oyster mushrooms, king trumpets, even common white buttons.
Richards grinds the mushrooms so that they have a crumbly texture akin to meat and mix well with the other ingredients. Baked at high temp, they caramelize and crisp up nicely, too.
Mike Perez, executive chef at Colletta in Alpharetta, has a show-stopper of a meatball. To the classic formula of meat, breadcrumb and egg, he adds a lavish scoop of ricotta and Parmigiano-Reggiano, plus a ton of fresh herbs.
His technique is different, too.
First he infuses milk and cream with the herbs and aromatics, then adds the cheese, egg and breadcrumbs to form a mush. (“We call this ‘the schtick,’ ” Perez told me. “Not sure why. That’s just what we started calling it and it stuck.”)
After letting the schtick sit a while so the flavors mingle, he works in pork and beef; pats out hefty, 3-ounce balls; and bakes them “low and slow” in a bath of pureed San Marzanos. The drippings ooze into the tomatoes to create a lovely sauce.
For his signature Colletta appetizer, Perez serves the meatballs over creamy polenta. The dazzlingly rich, wow-worthy dish is a long way from the meatballs of my youth. But the next time you have a meatball craving and an afternoon to spend on supper, give them a try.
Mama would be mighty impressed.
From some of Atlanta’s best Italian chefs, here are three recipes for baked meatballs, from gluten-free chicken to Tuscan-style with mushrooms. While Chef Mike Perez’s version includes a sauce, the other two pair wonderfully with Marcella Hazan’s classic Tomato Sauce with Garlic and Basil. If you can stop nibbling them plain, that is.
Craig Richards’ Tuscan-Inspired Mushroom Meatballs
Richards, the executive chef at St. Cecilia in Buckhead, gave us this recipe for meatballs made with ground pork, ground beef and mushrooms — porcinis if you can get them.
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 1/2 teaspoons garlic, minced
1/4 yellow onion (about 1/3 cup), diced fine
5 ounces of mushrooms (such as porcinis, portobellos, king trumpets, oyster mushrooms or white buttons), pulsed fine in a food processor
1 1/2 teaspoon fresh oregano, chopped fine
1 1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme, chopped fine
1 1/2 teaspoon fresh parsley, chopped fine
1/2 pound ground pork (may use low fat)
1/2 pound ground beef (may use chuck or sirloin)
1 1/2 teaspoons tomato paste
1 cup bread crumbs
1/2 teaspoon salt
freshly ground black pepper
Place canola oil in a medium saute pan or skillet over medium heat. Add garlic, onions and mushrooms, and saute until tender, about 5 minutes. Stir in oregano, thyme and parsley. Remove from heat, and allow to cool.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the cooled mushroom mixture, ground pork, ground beef, tomato paste, bread crumbs, eggs, salt and a generous sprinkling (about 1/2 teaspoon) of freshly ground pepper. Use your hands to mix it well.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Spray a large baking tray with cooking spray.
Shape meat mixture into meatballs about the size of a golf ball (about 1 1/2 ounces each). Place on tray, and bake until the balls are done at the center and caramelized on the top, about 25 minutes, flipping them once half way through. (If you plan on serving the meatballs with a pasta sauce, you may pull them from the oven after about 15 minutes, then finish in the sauce, about 15-20 minutes.) Makes: about 16-18 meatballs.
Per meatball, based on 16: 130 calories (percent of calories from fat, 61), 7 grams protein, 6 grams carbohydrates, trace fiber, 9 grams fat (3 grams saturated), 47 milligrams cholesterol, 156 milligrams sodium.
Linda Harrell’s Gluten-Free Chicken Meatballs
Harrell, chef and partner at Cibo e Beve Italian Kitchen & Bar, has many meatball tricks up her sleeve. We like these morsels tossed with spaghetti (gluten free, if you’re avoiding wheat) and Marcella Hazan’s Tomato Sauce with Garlic and Basil (see accompanying recipe).
1 pound ground chicken
2 ounces (about 1/2 cup) grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1 1/2 teaspoons dry oregano
1/2 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon fresh garlic, finely minced
1/2 cup unseasoned instant mashed-potato flakes
3/4 teaspoon salt
freshly ground black pepper
3/4 cup chicken stock or water
1 tablespoon olive oil or coconut oil
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
In a large mixing bowl, place ground chicken, Parmigiano-Reggiano, oregano, onion powder, garlic, egg, instant mashed-potato flakes, salt and black pepper to taste. Mix well, using your hands.
Form into balls (about the size of a golf ball), and place on a large baking tray. Swirl the chicken stock and the oil, and pour in the pan. Bake until the meatballs are brown on top and cooked through, about 25 minutes. (I like to flip the meatballs half way through.) Serve with your favorite sauce or pasta. Makes: 15-18 meatballs.
Per meatball, based on 15: 105 calories (percent of calories from fat, 45), 12 grams protein, 2 grams carbohydrates, trace fiber, 5 grams fat (2 grams saturated), 46 milligrams cholesterol, 213 milligrams sodium.
Michael Perez’s Pudgy Meatballs with Herbs and Cheese
Perez, the executive chef at Colletta in Alpharetta, makes his fluffy 3-ounce meatballs with pork and beef, plus lots of cheese and herbs. (You may mix and match herbs to taste; for instance, if you don’t like rosemary, use parsley.) The chef perches the sauced balls over creamy polenta (which he cooks in milk and buttermilk and finishes with butter and Parm). If you don’t have polenta, use grits or pasta. Or omit the base altogether. The size of small hamburgers, these meatballs are plenty rich on their own. Leftovers make great sandwiches.
2 tablespoons fresh basil, finely chopped
2 tablespoons fresh oregano, finely chopped
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, finely chopped
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, finely minced
1/4 yellow onion, finely minced
1/4 cup cream
1/2 cup milk
1 heaping cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, plus more for garnishing
1/3 cup ricotta
1 cup bread crumbs
1/2 pound ground pork
1/2 pound ground chuck
1 1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground red pepper
2 cups peeled San Marzano tomatoes, pureed
6-8 cups quart cooked polenta (optional)
Place basil, oregano, rosemary, thyme, garlic, onion, cream and milk in a food processor or blender. Blend until the herbs are finely chopped and the mixture is soupy.
Pour into a large mixing bowl, and add the Parmigiano-Reggiano and ricotta cheeses, bread crumbs and egg. Allow to rest for about 30 minutes. Add the ground pork, the ground chuck, salt and red pepper. Mix well, using your hands.
Shape into 3-ounce balls and place in a large roasting pan. Pour the pureed tomatoes around the meatballs, and bake until the meatballs are just cooked through, about 50 minutes to 1 hour, flipping them half way through and spooning over with the tomato sauce. Serve with polenta (if using), and garnish the dish with Parmigiano-Reggiano. Makes: About 13 meatballs
Per meatball: 190 calories (percent of calories from fat, 58), 11 grams protein, 8 grams carbohydrates, trace fiber, 12 grams fat (6 grams saturated), 55 milligrams cholesterol, 481 milligrams sodium.
Marcella Hazan’s Tomato Sauce with Garlic and Basil
This classic sauce is delicious with meatballs and pasta. Slide either Linda Harrell’s Gluten-Free Chicken Meatballs or Craig Richards’ Tuscan-Inspired Mushroom Meatballs into the pan as the sauce finishes cooking, and toss with spaghetti or rigatoni. If you plan to skip the pasta and use this sauce with the meatballs only, you may want a smoother sauce. In that case, you may omit the basil altogether; chop it fine before adding to the sauce; or puree the finished sauce in a food processor or blender.
1 large bunch fresh basil
2 cups canned imported San Marzano tomatoes, juices included
5 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Pull all the basil leaves from the stalks. Rinse them briefly in cold water; shake off excess moisture, and wrap in a cloth towel or paper towels to dry. Tear all but the tiniest leaves by hand into small pieces.
Place the tomatoes in a large saucepan. If using canned tomatoes, mash them with a fork or your fingertips to break up slightly. Add garlic, olive oil, salt and a generous sprinkle or two of black pepper, to taste. Turn the heat to medium high. Cook for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the oil floats free from the tomatoes. Taste and correct for salt.
Off the heat, as soon as the sauce is done, mix in the torn-up basil, keeping a few pieces aside to use as garnish. — Adapted from “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking” by Marcella Hazan (Knopf, $35)
Per 1/4-cup serving: 83 calories (percent of calories from fat, 78), 1 gram protein, 4 grams carbohydrates, trace fiber, 7 grams fat (1 gram saturated), no cholesterol, 226 milligrams sodium.
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