of course you can

This article was originally written for Guardian Cook and published on Friday 31st October 2014.


It wasn’t exactly a tut, more a click of the tongue. I heard it after I asked my Roman butcher if he would put a sausage through the mincer with the beef as I was making meatballs. I know the sound well. It means no. My Sicilian partner Vincenzo makes it so often it has been demoted from irritating to ordinary. As the mincer growled like a dog with indigestion, I turned to see where the tut had come from, and found a signora in her late sixties wearing a purple cardigan, now looking at me shaking her head. ‘Non si mette la salsiccia nelle polpette cara’ ‘You don’t put sausage in meatballs, dear.’

A few years earlier this would have made me upset, or cross and then frustrated as I searched for the words in Italian to defend myself and my sausage. These days I am used to impertinent opinions about food, I even like them, and was just about to voice my own opinion when another, much older woman, did it for me. ‘Certo, puoi mettere le salsicce nelle polpette cara’.’ ‘Of course you can put sausage in meatballs, dear’ She said this turning to the butcher who was wrapping the meat in red and white paper, and then to the couple behind her, herding people into the discussion at just after nine on a Tuesday morning in front of a butcher’s stall on Testaccio market.


When you ask an Italian about meatballs, or they are simply offering you an opinion, one thing is (almost always) certain; that their mother, their grandmother, their aunt or their great aunt made the best polpette. Beyond that, there will be some idiosyncratic opinion as to how exactly they should be made, or cooked, or eaten. In Vincenzo’s family it was Nonna Sara who made the best polpette in tomato sauce in the village, a fact no doubt helped by the fact she was the wife of a tomato farmer. The whole family knows the recipe well; ground beef, bread soaked in milk, grated pecorino, chopped parsley and an egg, moulded, rested, fried and then poached in lots of tomato sauce,

Nobody though, even uncle Liborio who is a chef, is able to make them like taste quite like the polpette Sara made when they were growing up. Which makes sense! Can we ever truly replicate the tastes of our childhood? Making Nonna’s meatballs is just like me trying to re-create my grandma’s Lancashire tattie hash. I come extremely close, but can never truly recreate it, because I can never re-create the comforting, steamy atmosphere of my grandparents living room on a Tuesday night eating tea while watching Johns Craven’s news round.


Back to the meatballs. Having settled upon your ingredients, which in my case are ground beef, the controversial sausage or ground pork, bread soaked in milk (essential addition I think, a giving a nice bready plumpness) parsley, mint (if I have it), a flick of nutmeg, parmesan or pecorino, salt (steady if you have added a seasoned sausage), pepper and a whole egg. Resting the just moulded meatballs is advisable, because, as my friend Carla puts it, it lets the flavours settle down and balls firm up.

Now, how to cook. Traditionally meatballs are fried before uniting them with the sauce. This creates rich, slightly caramelised juices. However some of the best, most tender meatballs I have eaten have been poached directly in the sauce. After taking and trying out plenty of advice, I now generally bake my meatballs briefly in the oven, which I find a comfortable halfway house between frying and poaching. I am sure the signora in the purple cardigan would have something to say about this. Once baked, I tip them and any juices collected at the bottom of the tin, into a generous quantity of tomato sauce. Once in the sauce, I poach the meatballs for 20 minutes or so.

Finally, how to serve them? The answer is, however you want. I’ve adopted the Roman habit of serving the sauce with pasta, and then meatballs separately as a second course or, in keeping with my cook once eat twice philosophy, a separate meal. In Rome you will notice that many braised meat dishes; ox tail stew, beef rolls, pork ribs and meatballs are all served this way. So on first day we eat some of the plentiful sauce, by now deep rusty red and richly flavored, with spaghetti or penne pasta. I sometimes find – as do several Italians I know – that a single meatball finds its way onto my plate waiting to be mashed into the pasta and sauce. The next day I serve the meatballs themselves – even tastier having had a good nights rest in the remaining sauce – just so, or with bread, rice, cous cous or best of all, buttery mashed potato.


Week 2 – meatballs in tomato sauce to serve two ways

These really are guidelines as how to make, cook and eat meatballs. Feel free to adapt, experiment and take liberties, after all this is your supper.

  • 60 g decent bread without crusts, ideally a day old, better still, two
  • 60 ml whole milk
  • 400 g minced beef
  • 200 g minced pork or a fat sausage
  • 1 egg
  • 30 g grated Parmesan
  • a grating of nutmeg
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley and (optional) mint
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 small onion
  • 1 garlic clove
  • a pinch of dried chilli
  • 6 tablespoons olive oil
  • 750 g fresh tomatoes
  • 3 x 400-g tins plum tomatoes, chopped
  • salt and pepper

Put the bread in a small bowl with the milk and leave it for 10 minutes, or until the bread absorbs the milk and break easily into plump crumbs. Mix together all the ingredients for the meatballs and season with salt and pepper. Using your hands, mould them into roughly 35-g balls. Put the balls on a baking tray and let them rest while you make the sauce.

Peel and finely chop the onion and garlic and roughly chop the fresh tomatoes, Warm the olive oil a large deep frying pan and then gently cook the onion, garlic and chilli for about 15 minutes or until they soft and fragrant, but not coloured. Add the fresh tomatoes and cook for a further 10 minutes. Add the chopped tinned tomatoes, bring to a lively simmer and then reduce to a gentle one for about 45 minutes. Stir occasionally and press the tomatoes with the back of a wooden spoon to break them up.

Meanwhile preheat the oven to 220°C/200°C fan/gas mark 8 and once hot bake the meatballs for 15 minutes, turning them once, until they are just starting to brown.

After 45 minutes, by which point the sauce should be thickish and rich. You can at this point pass the sauce through a food mill or blast it with an immersion blender for a smoother consistency. Or you can simply add the meatballs and poach them in the sauce for a further 15 minutes. Allow the meatballs and sauce to sit for at least 30 minutes before serving.

First meal

Cook 400 g of pasta in plenty of well-salted fast boiling water. Put a little of the sauce in the bottom of a warm serving bowl, add the drained pasta, some more sauce and stir. Divide between four bowls and top with a single meatball (if you wish) and pass a bowl of grated parmesan around.


Second meal

Boil and mash a kilo of potatoes with plenty of butter and a little warm milk, season well with salt and plenty of black pepper. Gently re-heat the meatballs in their remaining sauce and serve with a good dollop of mash. Rice and cous cous also work well.


Link to the Guardian article


Filed under beef, food, parmesan cheese, pasta and rice, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes, Roman food, supper dishes

31 responses to “of course you can

  1. Your description of your parents’ living room caused me to think about the kitchen table at our house growing up, the long bench against the wall, the table where there would always be something warm waiting when I got home from school. By the way, I want to try this method of serving the sauce one day, the meatballs the next. Not sure my boyfriend would go for it, even though is maternal side is from Liguria.

    • rachel

      …maybe you could convince him to manage with just two meatballs the first day and then the rest, with double mash, the next. Now you have made me think back to our kitchen again, the bench and the burgundy plastic table cloth…..

  2. christin

    i tried the other day to reconstruct* an italian sausage- but without the skin-i minced up choritso -o k not italian and minced up some pork- mixed together with fenal seeds- actualy very good- but i guess could have been meatballs! C- i try.!!!!

    • rachel

      it sounds excellent and a sort of sausage/meatball fusion…..And you have made me think of fennel seeds a tiny pinch of which work brilliantly here too – R

  3. Maria

    Grandma’s way is always best! And you are right, we can never *quite* recreate the flavours, but we can come close.
    I only started cooking after I left home, and I made a point of asking my grandmother for her recipes whenever I was back home, and writing them down. I am glad that I did, and that I got as many as I could before she passed away.
    (for the record, my Catalan-Spanish grandma’s meatballs include: minced beef and pork (50/50), bread soaked in milk, egg, parley and garlic. And I love them).

    • rachel

      It was the same for me and I too have a book of recipes from both my grandma’s – they are real treasures for me. I am so happy about our meatballs unity xx

  4. Eha

    This is more than interesting as I had never separated meat [in this case meatballs] and sauce into separate meals 🙂 ! And if someone had suggested that I would have had the meatballs on the first day and kept the sauce to go with the pasta for the next!! Have learned something. That there are as many recipes for any classic Italian dish as there are cooks I had already learned 🙂 ! Originally coming from Northern Europe any meatball/patty recipe called for minced veal as well as beef and pork, bread soaked in milk, egg, finely chopped onion fried/caramelized and then added and dill or parsley. These days many add grated beetroot as well saying this makes them juicier . . . yours look moreish!!

    • rachel

      ohhhhh, I love the sound of your Northern European ones (I am a big fan of dill). I am curious too about the addition of grated beetroot. hope you are well? xx

  5. Amy

    Haha, I just spent a good hour this weekend glazing through that series you wrote for the Guardian. They were really great reads. You do such a nice job of conveying Roman food in a way that is both unpretentious and genuine, I always feel inspired after leaving your blog (although, ironically you convey it all so well that I feel as though sometimes why should I bother at all because there’s no way my meatballs will taste as yours will because why would they when I’m making them from non-italian ingredients and eating them with a grey, rainy Seattle backdrop?)

    Also I bought a romanesco cauliflower last week, ate it “two ways” as you have on here — first with pasta and parmesan and garlic, and secondly by itself with a nice oil dressing. Very very good

    • victoria2nyc

      Amy, I followed this recipe to the letter, and the meatballs were wonderful. You definitely should “bother” to make them. I used Pepperidge Farm White Sandwich bread for the bread part. Good luck and good eating. Victoria

    • rachel

      It make me happy (very) that you enjoyed reading, thank you A…also yes, you should try the recipe, it travels well and is just as nice with all tinned toms……xx

  6. victoria2nyc

    I absolutely LOVE meatballs and have three recipes I make all the time – Luisa’s meatballs, which poach in tomato sauce without first cooking, Jody William’s “Sicilian” meatballs with raisins and pine nuts, and – not Italian – Delia Smith’s meatball goulash, which sounds terrible, but is truly wonderful and my favorite company dinner served with green beans, spaetzle, and cucumber/sour cream salad. (Walter, whose mother was from Budapest and a fantastic cook, says I am not allowed to call it meatball goulash but must call it meatball paprikash. People almost faint from the deliciousness of it.)

    My grandmother was one of eight children, and the first in her family to be born in America. I am probably the only person alive who did not love my grandmother’s meatballs and, therefore, spend my entire adult life trying to recreate them. She used three eggs to a pound of beef, so they were like lead, and she added (in my opinion) too much Parmesan cheese.


    I made yours , and they are scrumptious. Light, light, light, light – absolutely perfect. So now Rach’s meatballs is my go-to recipe.

    • Christine

      Well…now I’m off to google “Delia Smith’s meatball goulash” because wow does that ever sound delicious.

      Rachel, as always your blog is beautiful. Thank you for a lovely polpette recipe!

    • rachel

      As luca reaches the grand old age of three, I can’t imagine what it would be like to have 2 our 3, never mind 8 kids, which would mean triple portions of meatballs. I love that you made these, and better still liked them. hope you are well ? xx ps – I too want that delia recipe

  7. bea

    As every respectable (ha!) Italian mother, I have my own meatball recipe…. but I am so curious about yours because you give exact proportions. I never know how much bread to how much meat one *should* use (I just go “a occhio”), so I always end up with different consistency. Thank you!

  8. SarahC

    I do think it’s funny that so many people – and Italians are particularly prone to this – express their views on recipes as “my mother’s/grandmother’s/aunt’s etc. were ‘the best'”. Surely the reality is “those I liked the best”? That said, thanks for a lovely recipe and particularly the baking in the oven idea – I don’t really like pre-frying, but I do like a bit of browning, which you don’t always get with the poaching method. Wish we could easily get good Italian sausage in UK.

    • rachel

      Those I like best – I agree. that said, I quite like the almost comical opinions of Italians….. We have similar feelings about browning so it sounds like you will like the baking – I hope you try. I recently made these in the Uk with Tamworth pork sausages and they were just ace x

  9. Ah, Rachel, I wish I had a seat at your table. When I was growing up we always ate the meatballs and sausage after the macaroni, and the salad after the meal. These became habits I still hold. x

  10. Rachel, now i am dreaming of my grandmas and moms meatballs and regret never tasting such wonderful delights again. But i will try your recipe and i might create my own little heaven. Thanks for sharing!!! Al

  11. sarah

    I’ve just come away reading your post in the guardian. Although this was for boiled beef. I love your writing and cooking style. I’ll be following your blog to recreate the same flavours, and hope to inspire me to make some of my own.

  12. Rachel, I will have to try your version. Hubby’s family is Sicilian and I have always heard the cousins in his family gush about their grandmother’s Sunday Sauce. Yours sounds infinitely easier.

  13. Deborah

    I can easily imagine the market scene you described having gone through a similar one in Venice at the Rialto! Nice recipe, good and simple, and I never make meatballs w/out sausage.
    Now, the REAL reason I’m writing–3rd picture down–the pictures on your kitchen wall—gotta know what that woman is doing flat on her back! 🙂 Just being nosey, but…..

  14. such an engaging piece for The Guardian, Rach. I too prefer adding sausage–tuts or not–and like you, bake the meatballs before plunging them into the sauce. simply delicious.

  15. Pingback: progress and polpette | rachel eats

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