Over the years of writing this column, I have delved into my obsessive quest to produce the perfect Italian-style meatball. I have pursued this quest throughout my career in kitchens across the United States. I have even traveled to Italy where I had the honor of working side by side for a few days with Giovanni Luca Di Pirro, Michelin award-winning executive chef at COMO Castello Del Nero in the heart of the Chianti region of Tuscany.
Through my 50-plus years of experience working in professional kitchens I have not yet reached the lofty heights of laying claim to the perfect meatball. But I can tell you that mine are pretty darn good.
I make my meatballs in ﬁve-pound batches. I buy my meat from Lapp’s Dutch Market, a small family-owned butcher shop in my area. He grinds equal parts of ground beef chuck, pork and veal.
I never use seasoned breadcrumbs. They are loaded with salt and I prefer to use my own seasoning. I generally use bread that I cut into small cubes and mix with just enough whole milk to form a thick paste. Once I add the milk to the bread and mix it well to incorporate, I let it rest and soak for at least 15 minutes to form the paste. My go-to ratio of bread to meat is a half-cup of bread per pound of meat. But because I use Parmigiano Reggiano that I grate from the wedge, I reduce the bread to just a touch over one-third cup per pound of meat. To balance the bread ratio, I need one-sixth cup of the cheese per pound of meat. Eggs are next. I use two large eggs per pound of meat if making meatballs in small batches. In this size batch, I use eight whole large eggs plus one egg yolk. I don’t add any milk to the eggs as I used milk to form the bread paste. At this point, we start to build our ﬂavors. You may think this is strange, but I use two large, sweet, or Spanish onions ﬁ nely chopped for my ﬁ ve pounds of meat. I sauté the onions in one-quarter cup of good olive oil over medium high heat stirring often as the onions cook until they become clear and tender. Just before the onions are ready to be taken off the burner, I add 3 teaspoons of freshly minced garlic (about 3 cloves) per pound of meat. Cooking the onions and garlic this way allows the sugars to be released and the ﬂavors and aromatics to activated with no chance of bitterness sneaking in. Set the cooked mixture aside to cool.
The measurement for the herbs is designed to get the ﬂavor proﬁle of the meatballs to be balanced with wonderful aromatics. Two tablespoons of freshly chopped parsley per pound of meat marries well with about one level teaspoon of oregano per pound of meat. Finally, fresh basil brings the joy in terms of ﬂavor and aroma. Depending on the size of the leaves, I use two to three basil leaves cut chiffonade per pound of meat. Use two teaspoons of salt and one-half teaspoon of black pepper per pound of meat.
In a large mixing bowl, I combine all the ingredients starting with the meat, then the bread paste, followed by the cheese, then the eggs, next the herbs, and ﬁnally the salt and pepper. Notice that I have not mixed anything or moved the meat around at all to this point. Once everything is in the bowl, I use only my gloved hands to mix my meatball mixture. I must feel the texture as I fold the mixture to best judge the texture. The ingredients must be fully incorporated evenly until the mixture feels soft. I then refrigerate the entire mixture covered with plastic wrap for one hour before forming the balls.
The almost perfect meatball should be no larger than an egg (only round in shape). I scoop the meatballs from the bowl using the ﬁrst and second ﬁnger of my gloved hand keeping my hands moist to make the mix easier to roll out. I line several baking sheets with parchment paper. I am as gentle as possible not to roll the balls too tightly, which causes them to be tough and chewy. I place each rolled meatball onto the baking sheet. This batch yields around 96 meatballs. I can opt to roast them in a 400-degree oven for 18 to 20 minutes (the easy way out), or I can fry them in a hot cast-iron pan using a blend of half olive oil and half vegetable oil. Using this blended oil raises the smoke point of the oil while still providing the desired ﬂavor. If I’m frying (my preferred method), I fry the meatballs until brown on all sides forming a slightly crunchy outer shell. This requires that I turn the meatballs at least once while frying. To ﬁnish these meatballs, I drain off as much rendered fat as possible and then cook the meatballs in my red sauce/gravy.