Italian Meatballs

Celebrity Chefs, Dinner, Heroes, Recipes
on September 1, 2008

One’s a city boy from Queens; the other a native of Tuscany. One likes his meatballs immersed in a bold red sauce on top of spaghetti; the other prefers veal meatballs alongside spaghetti in a delicate vegetable butter sauce. One upholds his Italian-American upbringing; the other, classic Italian techniques. Together, Pino Luongo and Mark Strausman, co-owners of Coco Pazzo in New York City, face off in their book Two Meatballs in the Italian Kitchen (Artisan, 2007). Filled with Tuscan classics, such as Tuscan Pot Roast and Mushroom Risotto, and Italian-American hybrids, such as Veal Parmigiana and Spaghetti with Meatballs, the book explores the differences in Italian food and Italian-American food. But first and foremost, it celebrates the breadth and love of Italian cooking in America.

Recipes adapted with permission from Two Meatballs in the Italian Kitchen (© Pino Luongo and Mark Strausman, Artisan Books, 2007)

The Great Meatball Debate

Mark—I like the sense of abundance you get with a big, juicy meatball.

Pino—That’s my problem with it­­—the proportions are all off. Italians like their food to make sense aesthetically, for the sauce to fit with the pasta. And there’s nothing more incongruous than a big meatball with a skinny strand of spaghetti. I say serve the spaghetti as a first course and save the meatballs for a second.

Mark—For my customers, there’s nothing more beautiful than a pile of spaghetti topped with a couple of meatballs.

Pino—In Italy meatballs have always been very much an improvised dish. The frugal housewife would buy the butcher’s leftovers, which she’d chop up and mix with some stale bread to bind everything together. It was a testament to the cook’s talent that she could make something so good out of scraps of meat. The most important ingredient wasn’t the meat. It was the stale bread—the way it absorbed the flavors of the meat and in turn gave the meatballs a tender texture.

Mark—Meatballs are all about the meat. As soon as Italian-Americans could afford to buy meat, they created big, juicy meatballs. I think their happiness and generosity and love of life are symbolized by this dish.

Pino—Well, I think that the Italian culture of parsimony has produced a better dish than Italian-American prosperity. Instead of making big round meatballs the size of golf balls, I make grape-sized balls and flatten them a little. This way when you pan-fry them, they cook all the way through and get a perfectly crunchy crust.

Mark—But I don’t pan-fry my meatballs. I simmer them in the tomato sauce until they’re cooked through.