I’ve read enough food writing to know that way up North, Italian transplants and their offspring love a good Sunday sauce. The stories are often the same, a nostalgic reflection of nonna cooking up her famous meatballs and lasagna for the entire family gathered around the table. I must admit, the prose is often sweet enough to make this Southern girl want to move to Jersey. Well, almost…
Instead, I’ll just have to make myself some meatballs. Considering I didn’t grow up with a secret family recipe, it’s taken me quite some time to find one I deemed worthy of all the sentimental hype. But then I tried these. And these just might give Italian grandmothers everywhere a run for their olive oil.
Leave it to The Mozza Cookbook, of Nancy Silverton fame, to be the keeper of the ultimate meatball recipe. When I lived in Los Angeles, Mozza was just two blocks from my Melrose apartment. You couldn’t get a dinner reservation to save your life, but if you got there early enough at lunchtime you could experience the wonder that is their burrata caprese or prosciutto di parma pizza. It seems everything Nancy touches turns to culinary gold.
So yes, the Mozza meatballs were quite divine: I served them with spaghetti and a lightly dressed arugula salad. It was pure dinner-time bliss. Were they a good idea to make on a Wednesday? Probably not. Turns out there’s good reason to make them on a weekend. (It’s called time.) But tomorrow’s meatball subs might make me forget that tiny little detail. And the meatball margherita pizza come Friday? All is forgiven. Heck, maybe I’ll even make them again on Sunday, to share with those I love.
MOZZA’S MEATBALLS AL FORNO
These meatballs are as promised—light, tender, and packed with flavor. Definitely the best I’ve ever made! To handle the large yield when frying them, I used my trusty industrial-sized saute pan purchased from a restaurant supply store. It was $30 very well spent. The passata recipe makes a delicious all-purpose tomato sauce. I’m certain, In fact, that it is going to be my go-to recipe from here on out. There’s no hidden “chef” ingredients lurking; just be sure to use the best quality canned tomatoes you can find and your favorite extra virgin olive oil.
For the passata di pomodoro
2 (28-ounce) cans whole peeled tomatoes, preferably San Marzano
1/4 cup good-quality extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon sugar, plus more to taste
1 scant tablespoon kosher salt
1 heaping teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
For the meatballs
1 pound ground pork (preferably pork butt)
1 pound ground veal
6 1/2 ounces pancetta
3/4 cup diced day-old, crustless bread
1/4 cup whole milk
1 1/2 cups freshly grated Parmesan (about 6 ounces), plus more for grating
1/2 large onion, minced (about 1 cup)
2/3 cup finely chopped Italian parsley
4 large garlic cloves, minced
2 extra large eggs, lightly beaten (or 2 1/2 large eggs)
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes, or more to taste
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 cup all-purpose flour, for dredging
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, plus more as needed
1 quart Passata de Pomodoro (recipe above) or tomato sauce
1 quart (32 ounces) chicken stock
3 dried bay leaves
3 dried arbol chiles, optional
For the passata di pomodoro: Set a food mill fitted with the coarse disc over a large bowl. Pass the tomatoes with their juices through the mill and set aside. In a large saute pan, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat until very hot but not smoking. Slowly add the pureed tomato into the pan, using caution to prevent splattering. Stir in the sugar, salt, and pepper. Continue to cook at medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes, until the sauce becomes thickened.
For the meatballs: Remove the pork, veal, and pancetta from the refrigerator and let come to room temperature, about 30 minutes. Finely chop or mince the pancetta in a miniature food processor.
Soak the diced bread cubes in milk for 5 minutes. Meanwhile, combine the Parmesan, onion, parsley, garlic, eggs, red pepper, salt, and pepper in a large bowl and mix thoroughly. Add the pork, veal, and pancetta to the Parmesan mixture and gently combine with your fingertips until just mixed. (Over-mixing or squeezing the meat will create tough meatballs.)
Place flour in a shallow bowl. Use a spring-form ice cream scoop to measure out your desired size meatballs (I like very large meatballs; the recipe suggests 2 ounces), and gently form a ball using the palms of your hand. Sprinkle a little flour on all sides of the meatball to form a light coating, shaking excess flour back into the bowl. Set the meatball on a sheet pan and repeat with remaining meat. Cover the pan with plastic wrap and refrigerate for a minimum of one hour, which is necessary for the meatballs to retain their shape while cooking.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large oven-proof saute pan, heat olive oil over medium-high heat until very hot but not smoking. (There should be about 1/4″ of oil in the pan, so add more if necessary.) Working in 2 – 3 batches, add half the meatballs—making sure not to crowd the pan—to the hot oil and sear, flipping once, until they are golden brown, approximately 6 minutes. Return the seared meatballs to the sheet pan. Allow the oil to reheat, adding more if necessary. Repeat with remaining meatballs.
Discard the oil and wipe out the saute pan. Nestle the meatballs back in the pan. Stir together the passata and chicken stock in a pitcher or large bowl. Pour enough of the liquid to cover the meatballs and fill the bottom of the pan, but do not drown them (I used just a little over half and reserved the rest for reheating the meatballs later.) Braise the meatballs in the oven, uncovered, for one hour, until they are golden brown. Serve by themselves, or with spaghetti and garlic bread. Garnish with freshly grated Parmesan.
To reheat leftover meatballs, bring meatballs and reserved sauce to a gentle boil in a saute pan. Reduce heat to low and simmer until the meatballs are warmed through.