Dinner dish: The Italian cooking tradition of meatballs
Italians are big on pasta and meatballs, but don't go looking for them in a single dish while you're visiting Italy. After all, in the boot-shaped country, pasta is a primi dish, while travelers will often find meatballs as part of the secondo menu, whether they're in 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 still have an important place in the hearts of all Italians.
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.
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 Leccese 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 in Italy for a cooking vacation.
But meat isn't a required ingredient for Italian "meatballs." Vegetarians can join in the fun too with other traditional "ball" recipes, such as "Mediterranean Cooking Experience" Chef Carmen's eggplant balls. Also known as the poor man's caviar dish, this recipe is wonderful as either a primi or a secondo dish.
Discover more meatball traditions by partaking in a number of one-day cooking classes or vacations.
"Dinner dish" is a new blog series, in which we discuss recipes and the history of particular regional foods. Have a food you want to learn more about? Contact us today.