Dinner Dish: The Italian Cooking Tradition of Meatballs

December 16, 2020  |  By Liz SanFilippo Hall
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Italians are big on pasta and meatballs, but don’t go looking for them in a single dish while you’re visiting Italy on our Italy cooking vacations. After all, in the boot-shaped country, pasta is a primo (first course), while travelers will often find meatballs as part of the secondo (second course) menu, whether during a cooking class or dining out at a local restaurant. While it’s an American misconception that spaghetti and meatballs are an Italian thing, meatballs do still have an important place in the hearts of all Italians.

Meatballs enjoyed on a cooking vacation in Italy.Every region has their own way of making meatballs, from Sicily’s recipes that often include ingredients like pine nuts, to Rome’s recipes that often feature prosciutto and sometimes even chicken. That said, meatballs and pasta do occasionally have a place together in a cooking class or Italian meal on our Italy cooking vacations.

Pasta and Meatballs?

For one, if you head to Puglia, lasagna often includes meatballs inside the dish, rather than as a topping. As you’ll notice in this pasta al forno alla leccese (pasta baked in the oven Lecce-style) recipe, the meatballs should only be the size of hazelnuts. That’s not only because the meatballs are just one layer in the dish; it’s also due to the history of the delicious meatball. Meat used to be quite costly, especially during the two World Wars. As such, when it came time for cooking, often only small meatballs could be afforded and made. Nowadays, it’s easy to find meatballs in all sizes, no matter where you travel on our Italy cooking vacations.

Eggplant balls made during cooking classes on an Italy food tour.But meat isn’t even a required ingredient for Italian “meatballs.” Vegetarians can join in the fun too with other traditional “ball” recipes, such as the eggplant balls you make during our Mediterranean Cooking Experience. Also known as the poor man’s caviar dish, this recipe is wonderful as either a primo or a secondo dish.

Discover more meatball traditions by partaking in a number of one-day cooking classes or Italy cooking vacations.

“Dinner dish” is a new blog series, in which The International Kitchen discusses recipes and the history of particular regional foods. Have a food you want to learn more about? Contact us today.

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