Italian polpette and polpettoni, meatballs and meatloaves, respectively, are in many ways peasant food, a holdover from an earlier time when refrigeration was not as dependable as it is today and trimmings and leftover meats had to be used up quickly, before they spoiled.
These odds and ends were chopped up into a fine mince, mixed with bread, seasonings, and bound with eggs, and either fried, baked, or cooked in a broth. Adding bread or bread crumbs not only helps them hold together but is also a frugal way to stretch the meat in order to feed as many mouths as possible with a limited amount.
Meatloaf and meatballs, in fact, have quite ancient roots in Italy and beyond; balls and loaves made of seasoned minced meat appeared in Apicius, a collection of Roman recipes from the 4th or 5th century A.D. And globally, some version of meatball and/or meatloaf appears in most cuisines around the world, from European to Asian (several different types appear in Chinese cuisine and in traditional Vietnamese pho noodle soups) to the Middle East (kofta, often made with ground lamb).
Meatballs, in particular, are true, humble home cooking of the sort you are unlikely to encounter in any but the most mom-and-pop type trattorie in Italy that cater to a local clientele. Nor are you likely to be served them if you are invited to someone's house unless you are considered family. This is surely surprising to many who consider "spaghetti and meatballs," a staple on Italian-American restaurant menus, one of the most quintessentially Italian dishes of all.
But what might surprise these folks even more is the fact that spaghetti and meatballs, in fact, is not even an Italian dish, but rather Italian-American. "Spaghetti and meatballs" does not really exist in Italy, at least not in the way that it does in the U.S. In Puglia, the heel of Italy's boot in the far southeast, very small meatballs (polpettine) about the size of grapes are sometimes served with pasta and tomato sauce. And Pino Correnti, the author of All Things Sicilian, does say that meatballs are an important part of a special-occasion ragù sauce made in Sicily, but the recipe is not a common one.
In general, throughout the rest of Italy, rather than being served on top of spaghetti, meatballs are generally served in broth or soup as a primo (first course) or as a secondo, or second course, with a salad or vegetable side dish (contorno); spinach and beet greens are especially popular in Tuscany.
Like meatballs, meatloaf is often strictly home fare of the humble sort that one wouldn't serve to guests. However, more elegant and refined versions do exist, and you will occasionally encounter it in an Italian restaurant, especially one that specializes in traditional dishes.
Both are usually made with a mixture of ground meats -- generally roughly 50% ground beef, then 25% each of ground pork and ground veal.
Also, Italians often use bread -- not bread crumbs -- as the binder/filler: Take day-old Italian bread, trim away the crust, soak the bread for several minutes in milk, and squeeze most of it out. You don't want it dripping wet, just well moistened. Mix the soaked bread into the ground meat. How much? I usually go by eye, but the amount of bread is probably 1 abundant cup of bread per 1 pound of ground beef. The bread should be day-old because the crumb is stiffer and doesn't simply dissolve into mush when moistened with milk.
Italian-style meatloaves are often stuffed with whole hard-boiled eggs, or wrapped in slices of ham or pancetta.
Italian Meatball and Meatloaf Recipes:
- Classic Italian Meatballs
A secret ingredient keeps these classic meatballs tender and juicy.
- Italian-Style Veal Meatballs (Crocchette di vitelle all'italiana)
A delightful and extremely adaptable recipe for using leftover roast veal, turkey, or even pork.
- Italian Wedding Soup with Meatballs (Minestra maritata con polpettine)
This popular soup (which has nothing to do with marriages, at least not those between people) is made with small meatballs and hearty leafy greens.
- Nonna Rina's Turkey Meatloaf (Polpettone di tacchino di Nonna Rina)
A Jewish-Italian recipe that makes a great centerpiece for Passover, with a particularly Italian twist of pistachios or pine nuts.
[Edited by Danette St. Onge]