Meatballs are the new cupcake. Restaurants devoted entirely to the sphere have sprouted in NYC and in every major city, and high-profile, upscale restaurants have put them on the menu. I can hear guys from Long Island to the Jersey shore saying “Fuggedaboutit! Friggin’ meatballs, I can get at every pizza joint in the tri-state area, so what’s the biggie?”
Ah…but there are meatballs—rubbery, dense, flavorless, smothered in industrial sauce, more breadcrumbs than meat, food service frozen, mystery meat containing, greasy and grisly—and then there are MEATBALLS (angel’s chorus!!) like this one.
I too, was skeptical when I spied this recipe in Mozza, a sometimes daunting cookbook by Nancy Silverton, Chef/Owner of the restaurant in Los Angeles that the book is named for. I say daunting because Silverton is a perfectionist and her recipes do not cut corners, or cut you slack when it comes to the quality of ingredients or techniques needed to achieve her delicious and authentic results. This recipe looked deceptively simple, but the resulting meatball is etherial. I’ll admit I cursed a few of the steps and made a mental note that dredging the meatballs in flour and pan browning them, before braising them in homemade (!) tomato sauce might be skippable. Why not just bake the darn balls on a sheet pan, all at once, and save the calories from flour and the fat from frying them? The answer assaults your senses when you taste one. BECAUSE THOSE DETAILS MAKE A DIFFERENCE! They were perfect.
I ate 5 of them just standing around taking pictures and I won’t say how many later when I served them to my husband and daughter for dinner that evening. Without pasta, by the way, or a big doughy roll wrapped around them either. These meatballs are no side dish. They beg to be the center of the meal. I served them with shaved Parmesan, a slice of buttered semolina toast (just like they do at Mozza) and a fantastic Caponata, also from Mozza, which you will have to wait until another time to hear about.
Warning: the recipe asks you to provide a quart of homemade Passata di Pomodoro, a basic tomato sauce that is a Silverton staple used throughout the book. Since I didn’t heed the advice I always give my students to read through entire recipes before you start to cook, I was surprised by this little detail when I got to it. When I scrambled to make the sauce, I was surprised again by how simple and delicious it turned out, in under 30 minutes, and worth the small delay. I recommend making an enormous batch of this sauce and freezing it in 1/2 quart containers so you’ll always have some on hand.
I often dream of opening a small restaurant with a menu of fresh, house made comfort foods, the kind of foods that everyone loves whether times are good, bad, happy or sad. Food that brings people together over common ground, (I mean who doesn’t like a meatball?) Good solid food without cutting any corners on quality and technique. I know I’d have a version of these meatballs on the menu. Put them on yours and enjoy!
My Oh My Meatballs
adapted from Mozza, by Nancy Silverton
- yield: 24 meatballs
3/4 cup diced day-old crustless bread (I used gluten-free, but use your choice here)
1/4 cup whole milk
1 1/2 cups grated parmesan (freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, preferred), about 6 oz. plus more for finishing
1 medium yellow onion, minced (about 1 cup)
2/3 cup fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped
2 extra-large eggs
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons groung red pepper flakes (plus more to taste)
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 pound ground pork
1 pound ground veal
6 1/2 ounces pancetta, finely minced (bacon can be substituted)
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more as needed
1 quart tomato sauce (See recipe for my version of Silverton’s quick and delicious sauce)
1 quart low-sodium or homemade chicken stock
3 dried bay leaves
3 dried arbol chiles
Buttered semolina bread toast (optional)
Timing alert: This recipe calls for a tomato sauce (homemade) that takes 45 minutes to prep and cook. Raw meatballs, once formed, are required to cool in the refrigerator for a minimum of one hour or as long as overnight (they can be made to that point a day ahead)
Put the bread in a small bowl, pour in the milk and toss the bread to coat. Set aside to soak for about 5 minutes.
Combine the 1 1/2 cups Parmigiano-Reggiano, onion, parsley, eggs, garlic, ground red pepper flakes, salt, and pepper in a large bowl and stir to thoroughly combine. Add the pork, veal and pancetta. Squeeze the bread in your fist to press out the milk, discarding the excess milk. Add the bread to the bowl with the other ingredients and use the tips of your fingers to gently combine the meat with the other ingredients, without overworking the mixture (in order to keep the meatballs light.) Divide the meat into 2 oz portions and roll each portion into a ball.
Pour the flour into a large bowl or other dish convenient for dredging. Dredge the meatballs in the flour, shake off any excess, and place them on a baking sheet. Cover the pan with plastic wrap and refrigerate the meatballs for at least an hour or overnight. (This allows the fat in the meat to solidify so the meatballs maintain their shape when cooked.)
Adjust the oven rack to the middle position and preheat the oven to 350° F. Pour the olive oil into a large dutch oven or ovenproof skillet and add more if needed to cover the bottom of the pan to 1/4 inch deep. Heat the oil over medium-high heat until it is shimmering, but not smoking, about 2 minutes. Working in batches, place the meatballs in a single layer in the pan and sear them until they are lightly browned all over, gently turning them with two forks, until they are lightly browned all over, about 6 minutes. Remove meatballs to a plate. Repeat process until all the meatballs are browned, adding more oil to the pan as needed. When finished, discard any remaining oil, and wipe out any browned bits from the pan. Gently return the meatballs to the pan. There will be more than one layer.
Combine the tomato sauce and chicken stock and pour this mixture over the meatballs. The amount of sauce you will need will depend on the size of the pot you are using. You want the meatballs to be submerged in liquid but not swimming around. Add bay leaves and chiles and place the meatballs in the oven to braise (covered) for 1 hour. Remove the meatballs from the oven and allow them to rest in the sauce for at least 10 minutes. (The meatballs can be prepare to this point up to two days in advance.) Set them aside to cool to room temperature, then transfer the meatballs and sauce to an airtight container, or several containers, and refrigerate until you’re ready to serve them. Before serving, warm the sauce and meatballs over medium heat before proceeding.
To serve, remove the meatballs to a plate and skim or use paper towels to absorb any fat floating on the sauce. Spoon a thin layer of sauce on a serving platter or individual plates, lay the meatballs on top of the sauce. Use a microplane or other fine grater to grate a thin dusting of Parmigiano-Reggiano over the meatballs Serve with the semolina toast on the side, if desired.