In some of my earliest memories, I’m peering out from beneath the small, round, oak table in my Nona’s kitchen in Dedham, Massachusetts, the same town where my great-great-grandparents settled after immigrating from Italy. My Nona’s kitchen was tiny, always packed full of family, friends, and neighbors, all of them women. The kitchen steamed with the humid scents of boiling water and aging cheese, the stinging pinch of garlic and tomatoes clinging to their tousled hair. Thick hands dug deep into bowls of ground beef. In my memory, these women are always making meatballs.
The meatball, as most Americans encounter it, is a dense, round composition of ground meats. It works best when made from a combination of lean ground beef and fattier ground pork or veal, along with moist breadcrumbs, herbs, cheese, and a little bit of egg to bind the concoction together. Doused in marinara sauce and served with a giant bowl of spaghetti, the meatball is a staple of Italian restaurants across America, from the lowly Olive Garden to the white tablecloths of upscale Manhattan eateries.
But the meatballs you’ll get at Olive Garden are nothing like those found in Italy. Writing in Smithsonian, Shaylyn Esposito explains that Italian meatballs, known as polpettes, are considerably smaller than their American brethren—especially in the Abruzzo region, where polpettines are as small as marbles. Polpettes are usually eaten as the main course of a meal, served not with pasta or a tomato sauce, but plain, or in a light soup broth. Depending on the regional offerings, the meat used to create the polpette varies widely, from turkey to fish. And though meatballs are a staple of Italian restaurants in America, you’ll almost never find them on restaurant menus in Italy, where polpettes are considered a simple peasant food: a dish made and served almost exclusively in the home.