Unless you grew up rolling meatballs in your nonna’s kitchen, forget everything you think you know about making this classic Italian staple. The recipe looks simple, but a lot more goes into creating a meatball worthy of a spot atop a saucey mound of spaghetti.
Celebrity chef Donatella Arpaia, a regular judge on Food Network’s Iron Chef America, knows a thing or two about rolling the perfect, classic Italian meatball. Not only is her recipe based off what her mother and grandmother used (you can’t get more authentic than that!), her balls are award-winning and a favorite dish at her restaurant, Prova Pizzabar in New York City.
It’s all about the ingredients
If you’ve ever wondered why your meatballs don’t stack up to the ones at your favorite red sauce joint, check and see if you’re using all fresh ingredients. “First and foremost, use the freshest, quality ingredients,” says Arpaia. That means fresh whole garlic cloves instead of powdered or jarred, fresh flat leaf parsley instead of dried, real Parmigiano Reggiano cheese (not the pre-grated tubs that taste like cardboard), and day-old bread instead of prepackaged bread crumbs (“Bread versus bread crumbs makes a huge difference in the lightness and fluffiness of a meatball!”) And don’t overdo the flavors. “People put too many things [like onions or other vegetables] in their meatball. It’s not meatloaf, it’s a meatball,” she says.
Be picky about your meat
Meatballs aren’t the time to cash in on your supermarket’s discount meat. While many recipes call for a mix of beef, pork, and veal, the quality of the meat is what matters most and Arpaia actually uses only veal. “There’s a difference between good and bad quality meat. Go to the butcher and get fresh ground meat that’s hormone-free,” she says. (Get to the truth behind the studies that label red meat as bad for you.)
Mix them with love
“Mine never used to come out as good as my mother’s and I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong,” says Arpaia. “Turns out, I wasn’t mixing long enough.” Once you have your ground meat (two pounds), garlic (five cloves), chopped parsley (1/2 cup), cheese (1 ½ cups), one to two eggs, a small loaf of day-old Italian bread (soaked in water or milk to soften it up), and salt and cracked black pepper, it’s time to get dirty. Use your hands to mix everything together for three to five minutes. “It’s a long time but it helps everything be totally integrated together,” she says.
Gently roll and fry, don’t bake
“Frying gives you that beautiful golden brown crust that seals in the juiciness of the meat,” says Arpaia. It’s important to roll each meatball the same size for even cooking. Arpaia’s pro tip is to dab a little olive oil on the palms of your hands so the meat doesn’t stick, then gently form the balls, being careful not to overwork the meat mixture. Pour a couple inches of oil into a pan and turn the burner on medium-to-high heat (the ball should sizzle when you drop it in), then fry for three to four minutes on each side until golden brown. Flip once and place on a sheet pan. “Don’t overcrowd the pan and don’t use paper towels to soak up the oil. I think the extra oil is good for the sauce,” she says.
Don’t skimp on the sauce
If you’ve gone through all the effort of crafting an authentic meatball, don’t ruin it with a subpar sauce. “Make a really great ragu to go along with it,” says Arpaia. “I make a meat ragu with a base of tomato, celery, onion, then add sausage and pork ribs. That really flavors the sauce and enhances the taste of the meatball.”