Meatballs are the little black dresses of the culinary world.
You can dress them up for dinner with a velvet robe of sour cream and wild mushroom gravy. They can be daytime simple with a jacket of roasted tomato marinara, trimmed with fresh asiago cheese, and tucked into a crusty roll. Or they can be cocktail party sweet-and-spicy, glistening with a glaze of pineapple juice, sriracha sauce and sugar.
They also are comparatively inexpensive; can be made ahead then sauced later; require little attention once prepared; often can be retrofitted on Day Two for a second go-round; and perform as well at a family dinner, a Sunday tailgate with friends, or a flavors-of-the-world themed get-together. For all this and perhaps more, the ubiquitous meatball is, well, ubiquitous.
And they’re trendy, too.
One of the nation’s leading food research and consulting firms, Chicago-based Technomic, describes meatballs as a 2016 food trend that’s part of a national movement involving the “elevation of peasant fare” to new heights. “Meatballs … are proliferating — traditional, ethnic or nouveau.” Technomic opines.
That’s no surprise to Brian Borres, general manager of Emporio: A Meatball Joint. Emporio is part of the Sienna Restaurant Group and it has two locations (although that’s about to change). One anchors a three-level enterprise in a first-floor location in Pittsburgh’s Cultural District. It opened in 2014. The second location is at the Village at Pine in the North Hills. It will mark its one-year anniversary in November.
He said the restaurant’s recipe for success features heavy portions of creativity, comfort and cost-consciousness.
“Meatballs are a comfort food. They make you think of Grandma’s house,” he said. At the same time, Borres postulated that executive chef and managing partner Matt Porco adds his “distinct and different” brand of creativity to produce meatball bowls such as a “tater tot” poutine topped with mushroom gravy, a fried egg, bacon and pork meatball. It’s Borres’ favorite dish, he confessed, referring to it as “the breakfast bowl.” And it costs about $11. “Over a pound of food that is absolutely to die for. That’s a great value,” he said.
The affordability of meatballs makes them the perfect vehicle to introduce family and friends to a new ethnic flavor profile.
Whether fashioned of pork, beef, chicken or no meat at all (as in mushrooms/lentils/cheese), the essential meatball ingredients are comparatively inexpensive. That allows for the spending of a little more dough on some of the spices that are needed to round out a recipe for the likes of Albondigas En Salsa De Limon. Translated, it’s meatballs in lemon sauce. The sauce requires a pinch of pricey saffron threads.
It’s hard to think of meatballs without thinking of tomato sauce. A 2015 publication by the editors of Saveur, entitled “Saveur Italian Comfort Food,” offers a spin on the pairing that calls for a very spicy meatball cooked in an unusually simple and spice-free red sauce. Called “Classic Meatballs,” they feature ricotta, pork fat and prosciutto with a half-dozen spices, all adding up to a dish that need not sit atop pasta to stand as an entree.
These meatballs are more involved than the meatballs I make to serve with my spaghetti. And a couple of ingredients required special effort (my butcher had to trim a slab of pork fat for me), but they are worth the extra effort if you want to dial up Italian Night a notch.
I used veal in this recipe with ground pork and pork fat instead of unsmoked bacon. I also bumped up the heat with a few extra chili flakes. I like my tomato sauce a bit more flavored: I added a teaspoon of sugar and a teaspoon of salt.
10 ounces ground veal
10 ounces ground pork shoulder
2 ounces finely chopped pork fat or unsmoked bacon
2 ounces prosciutto, finely chopped
1 1/4 cups loosely packed fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves, finely chopped, plus more to garnish
2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 1/2 teaspoons fennel seeds
1 teaspoon chili flakes
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
7 slices white bread, finely ground in a food processor
Kosher salt (divided) and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2/3 cup ricotta, drained in a sieve for two hours
2 tablespoons milk
3 eggs, lightly beaten
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for greasing
1/4 cup red wine
4 cups canned tomato puree
1 cup beef or veal stock
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano to garnish
Combine all meats, herbs, spices, breadcrumbs, salt and pepper in a large bowl and set aside. In another bowl, whisk together ricotta, milk and eggs then add to meat mixture, gently. Chill for an hour.
Heat oven to 300 degrees. Grease two rimmed baking sheets with oil and set aside. Using a 2-ounce ice cream scoop (I just used my hands), portion mixture and roll into balls. Transfer to baking sheets.
Heat 3 tablespoons oil in high-sided, 3-quart (ovenproof) skillet over medium-high heat. Add half the meatballs; cook, turning occasionally, until browned, about 10 minutes.
Transfer meatballs to a plate and wipe out skillet. Repeat with remaining oil and meatballs.
Return reserved meatballs to skillet along with any juices from the plate. Add wine, increase heat to high, and cook for two minutes.
Stir in tomato puree, stock, sugar and salt, bring to a boil and tightly cover skillet.
Transfer to oven and bake until meatballs are tender and have absorbed some sauce, about 1 1/2 hours.
To serve, transfer meatballs to a platter and spoon sauce over. Sprinkle with Parmigiano and parsley.