meatballs in tomato sauce

Italian Meatballs

Research Issue

What do Italians know about meatballs, that I don’t?

Italian can be passionate about meatballs. They do not contain exotic ingredients, it seems they are easy to make, but then there is passion about what is the right way. It seemed a little rigor was needed here. Specifically, how would recipes written in the native Italian vary from those written in English. Here is my most important findings:

Reviewing recipes written in English and recipes in Italian, what can be learned about differences in ingredients and techniques that can be used to make the best meatballs for different needs?

Recommended Recipes

If you are in hurry, here are the recommendations based on what was learned from this research of Italian meatballs incorporating the most significant findings.

Meatballs in Tomato sauce — a tasty main course recipe that will make you think twice about addling pasta.
Meatballs in White wine — forgoing the tomatoes gives a completely different take on the dish
Venice Bacari Meatballs — A perfect bar food or appetizer for al fresco dining.

The Research


In his foundation book, Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well (La scienza in cucina e l’arts di mangiar bene), Italian Pellegrino Artusi has this to say about making meatballs — polpettes in Italian.

“Do not think for a moment that I would be so pretentious as to tell you how to make meatballs.”

English Translation, The Lorenzo Da Ponte Italian Library, University of Toronto Press, 2003

He continues with a scatological quip and indeed does not tell us how to make meatballs. Instead he offers a series of suggestions on making meatballs. Since Artusi is consider the inventor of Italian cuisine, who am I do otherwise. I will however, tell you how meatballs are made both in the Anglo world (North America, UK, and Australia) and how the are recommended to be made in Italy. Based on this I will offer some a number of recommended recipes.

Using cooked meat to make meatballs may seem unusual to the Anglo world, but Artusi considers it a given that cooked meat is being used. This points to what may be considered the origin of Italian meatballs — Sunday leftovers. The drier cooked meat must be given some moisture and that leads the common dish Polpette al Sugo (Meatballs with sauce). Commonly a tomato sauce.

The Approach

A total of 74 Italian meatball recipes were analyzed, 37 in English and 37 in Italian. English recipes are a combination of well known English adaptions published by authors such as Mazen Hazan, Jamie Oliver, the English translation of the Silver Spoon Cookbook. These were supplemented by internet searches using multiple search words. The Italian search was internet only. This was accomplished through setting search engine settings to search in Italian and in Italy.

Although clearly not a random sample effort was taken through the use of different search engines, keywords and in drilling-down through links to find a broad representative sample.


The findings are listed below starting with the most significant.

Finding — Common Key Ingredients

Across all recipes there was little divergence from the five primary components of the meatballs.

  • Meats
  • Eggs
  • Stale bread soaked in milk
  • Cheese
  • Seasonings

Details are discussed below.

Finding — Pretty much any meat works

Although beef was the most common meat (harking back to the original use of leftover Sunday roast), almost any meat is used. A beef/pork combination is also frequent. Veal and fish, especially tuna, are used.

Sausage is more frequently listed in the Italian recipes, but not common. Mortadella is listed in many of the Italian recipes. References to the sensual texture may sound enticing, but the high fat content of mortadella should help with drier (read previously cooked) meats.

Finding — Leave out the Garlic

A repeated theme from traditional Italian cooks is the overuse of garlic. This was unquestionably seen out in this research. Where 62% of the English recipes used garlic, only 22% of the Italian recipes used garlic.

Finding — Cheeses Used

A wide variety of cheeses were used in the recipes. A greater variety was found in the Italian recipes representing regional dishes. Parmesan and Pecorino were the most common, sometimes in combination. Parmesan was used in the majority of recipes: found in 54% of the English recipes, and 60% of the Italian.

Finding — Coating the Meatballs improves texture and flavor

Another distinct difference in the Italian recipes was the technique of coating the meatballs either by rolling in flour or in some cases breadcrumbs. The flour coatings add texture and thickness to the sauce. This technique is used in the recommended Meatballs in Tomato Sauce recipe and the Meatballs in White Wine recipes. The bread crumb approach is frequently used when the meatballs are to be fried as in the Meatballs ala Venitian.

60% of the Italian recipes used a coating, where only 13% of the English meatballs where coated.

Finding — Parsley is the most common herb

Across the English and Italian recipes parsley was the most common herb used. Oregano, rosemary, thyme and basil were also frequently used. Often depending on the meat or the sauce to be prepared. Regardless, the clear indication was to use whatever fresh herb you had over a prescribed herb if only dried was available.


View posts by jz
Analytics professional for 30+ years and avid cook. Passionate about bringing the two interest together.

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