Not Your Grandmother's Meatball

The hearty Olive Garden staple is a far cry from the dish that Italian immigrants first brought to the United States: An Object Lesson.

Richard Drew / AP

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.

Polpettes trace their Italian heritage back to the ancient Roman empire. Apicius, a collection of recipes thought to have been compiled in the 4th or 5th century, includes several varieties of meatballs made of everything from cuttlefish to chicken. As with many ancient texts, scholars have been unable to definitively identify its origins or author; many believe the cookbook to have been written by different authors over several decades. In his 1936 English translation, Joseph Dommers Vehling writes that many of the recipes were likely adapted by the Romans from the Greeks.

In fact, the true origin of the meatball remains unknown. The most likely candidate for the original meatball seems to be kofta, a dish of minced or ground beef, chicken, pork, or lamb, mixed with rice, bulgur, or mashed lentils. Now typically fashioned into cigar-sized cylinders, kofta seems to have originated with the Persians, who passed it to the Arabs. According to The Oxford Companion to Food, kofta appears in some of the earliest Arabic cookbooks, where it consisted of ground lamb rolled into orange-sized balls and glazed with egg yolk and saffron. They likely traveled from the Arab world along trade routes to Greece, North Africa, and Spain.

Perhaps pinpointing the exact origin of the meatball is less significant than acknowledging its global popularity. Nearly every major culture has its own version of the meatball: Spanish albondigas, Dutch bitterballen, Chinese lion’s heads, South African skilpedjies. Kofte, too, is cooked everywhere from India to Morocco.

One possible reason for the meatball’s ubiquity: It’s an exceptionally accessible dish, simple and affordable. Meatballs can be made with nearly any kind of meat, and since that meat is ground and mixed with herbs and other flavors, cheap cuts of meat can be transformed into something delicious. Meatball recipes are also perfect for the frugal chef, stretching a relatively small amount of meat into a substantial meal by mixing it with bread, egg, or mashed vegetables.

It was exactly this flexibility and affordability that made the meatball so appealing to Italian-American immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Most of the Italian immigrants who landed in the northeast United States at this time came from the impoverished southern regions of their home country (Sicily, Calabria, Campania, Abruzzi, Molise). With very little money, it’s only natural that they turned to their most affordable recipes, so the southern Italian polpette became a staple.

Since meatballs were usually made with the cheapest cuts of meat available, Italian immigrants tried creative new ways to make the meatball appealing. Canned tomatoes were cheap and widely available, so Italians leaned heavily on the marinara sauce that had come to the United States from Naples. And in order to make their meals more substantial, cooks began pairing the meatball with spaghetti, the cheapest noodle around.

Gradually, Italian immigrants’ incomes rose, and meat became a more affordable indulgence. The meatball grew along with the average family paycheck, becoming larger and denser, as home cooks used more meat and relied less on stale bread soaked in milk to round out the portion.

Just like the meatball itself is an amalgam of meat and spice and binder, the American meatball—that big ball dropped in pasta and covered with sauce—is a uniquely American food, fashioned from an amalgam of convenience, cost, and immigrant culture. It’s also a food that fits in nicely with the modern American lifestyle, with its emphasis on speed and convenience: Meatballs can be cooked and preserved in various ways, eaten on the go or at room temperature; drenched in sauce or cheese, or eaten plain. Wherever they began, the meatball you are served at any Italian restaurant stateside is an immigrant’s creation, like much of American cuisine—a blend of something old and new.

I felt surprised and a little betrayed when I first discovered meatballs were likely not Italian in origin. So many of my childhood memories involved meatballs: learning to roll them fast between my palms alongside the matriarchs of my family; scooping three or four at a time from a large platter drowning in red sauce onto a plate of homemade spaghetti; sinking my teeth into the soft meat, sweet and spicy with garlic. The scent of a pot of homemade sauce and meatballs simmering on the stove comforts me, warms me deep down on a rainy Sunday afternoon. Meatballs were so much a part of my Italian family, I thought, that they had to belong to us.

Now I see meatballs differently, and more broadly. Meatballs represent home and hearth and family generally speaking, and across cultures. I can imagine Vietnamese children savoring the indulgence of bó viên in a warm bowl of pho, and Swedes (or IKEA customers) finding respite from winter’s cold with hearty köttbullar in a thick, brown gravy. Even so, I still take comfort and pride in the knowledge that the meatball I know and love is a uniquely Italian-American blend, just like my family, and just like me.

This article appears courtesy of Object Lessons.