From meat blends to flavorful sauces, learn the ins and outs of creating a delicious meatball.
We break down the individual parts to study the anatomy of a meatball—and how to make them better.
Much like pizza, meatballs can vary greatly from one restaurant to the next. While you may prefer to use veal, another chef swears by his all-beef meatballs, and still another will assert that a veal/pork combo is the best.
Great meatball recipes are often passed down through the generations, with only small tweaks made for personal taste or preparation preferences. “I can still picture my mom rolling meatballs on a Sunday afternoon,” says David DiGregorio, partner and executive chef of Pizzeria Via Stato and Osteria Via Stato (osteriaviastato.com) in Chicago. “She was always concerned about the texture, always asking everyone, ‘How are the meatballs?’”
Andrew Bellucci, who helped to reopen Lombardi’s Pizza (firstpizza.com) in 1994 and is now the group executive chef for Mikey’s Original New York Pizza in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, says he has incorporated his family’s meatball recipe into menus for the past 25 years. “It was my recipe for meatballs that we used at Lombardi’s in 1994,” Bellucci says. “This recipe was essentially the same one that my father used almost every Sunday for the afternoon/evening meals, always served with macaroni—usually rigatoni or fusilli. This same recipe was used by my grandfather when my father was growing up in Jersey City in the ’40s and ’50s.”
As you can see, meatballs are much more than a ball of meat. Alongside a good dose of family history and happy memories, flavors that worked 50 years ago are still exciting customers today. Break down the individual parts, starting with the meaty, tender, sometimes-herbaceous interior, and working outward toward the textural exterior and savory sauces, and you begin to see that there’s an entire meatball anatomy to consider.
Inside the Meatball
First things first: Your meatballs have to start with a good base, or there’s essentially no meatball. Recipes vary widely here, allowing for any type of meat as well as vegetable substitutes—such as eggplant—if you’re trying to appeal to vegetarians. For example, the Meatball Shop (themeatballshop.com), with six locations in New York, has made meatballs its specialty, offering customers a choice between beef, pork, chicken or veggie meatballs.
“You want the interior texture to be really tender,” DiGregorio says. “The ingredients you use make a big difference. I soak breadcrumbs in milk and add eggs, garlic, Grana Padano, a little butter and chopped herbs, and then I hand-mix a combination of veal and pork in with all of the wet ingredients to thoroughly incorporate everything.”
Bellucci, meanwhile, says he prefers to use nothing but beef, “probably because that’s what my father and his family always used. I’ve tested different mixtures using beef, veal and pork, but I always come back to pure beef. The main difference between my father’s recipe and mine is that he used ground chuck, about 80/20, and I use a mix of ribeye, short rib and brisket and go for about 75% lean. Hamburgers should just be meat, but meatballs need additional ingredients to separate them from being hamburger. In fact, I use the same blend of beef for my burgers, minus everything else.” (See Bellucci’s recipe in the sidebar.)
Philip Martinelli, owner of Vesuvio’s Pizza (vesuviospizzanj.com) in West Milford, New Jersey, says that Vesuvio’s has been serving the same 80/20 ground chuck blend since the pizzeria began 40 years ago. “Here in New Jersey, ground chuck is more traditional, leaner than pork, and many of our customers won’t order a meatball if we tell them it has veal in it,” Martinelli notes. “We buy our blend from a local butcher and incorporate homemade breadcrumbs, which we soak in water or milk, along with fresh parsley and basil from our on-site garden.”
Andrew Bellucci has incorporated his family’s famous meatball recipe into menus at Lombardi’s Pizza and, more recently, at Mikey’s Original New York Pizza in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
The Ideal Exterior
The exterior of a meatball will depend on how you cook it—baked, fried, sautéed, etc. “I like to get some color on a meatball, so I put them on a single layer on a sheet tray in the oven,” says DiGregorio. “I then use a dense tomato sauce to reheat them so they don’t lose their flavor.”
Bellucci has a different approach. “I fry the meatballs to form a slight crust before braising them, and I think beef holds up better than a blend,” he says. “The beef flavor still comes through even with all of the herbs, spices, cheese and breadcrumbs.”
In an effort to keep Vesuvio’s meatballs as lean as possible, Martinelli prefers the baking method. “Baking meatballs in the oven is how it’s always been done in my family,” he says. “When they need warming, I heat them up in marinara, allowing the meatballs to absorb the sauce.”
Delicious meatballs may sell themselves, but a little marketing savvy can help you sell more of them. Here are three quick tips for marketing meatballs to kids and grownups alike, plus a list of key vendors who offer top-shelf pre-cooked meatballs and other pizza toppings:
1. Highlight meatballs on your menu. If you’ve got a great meatball recipe, make a big deal out of it. Give it a homey name, like “Mama Leone’s Italian Meatballs,” and include a mouthwatering photo to pique guests’ interest.
2. Encourage suggestive selling. For a family with kids, waitstaff should remind the young ones that you offer spaghetti and meatballs. That could lead to an add-on sale in addition to the pizza the rest of the family orders.
3. Spice up your flavors. Spicy varieties are all the rage in upscale restaurants around the country. Think BBQ, gyro, vindaloo and Thai flavors, for starters.
Sauces That Sizzle
Since the meats contained within the meatball are customizable, the sauces that meatballs are bathed in can also vary wildly depending on the chef’s creativity—think pork meatballs with barbecue sauce; chicken meatballs with soy sauce; or beef meatballs with cheese sauce. Several home cooks have even popularized grape jelly and chili sauce meatballs.
While the choices are innumerable, most chefs still come back to a tomato-based sauce to showcase their meatballs. Marinara is traditional and the most widely accepted by the most people. If it ain’t broke, right?
A Variety of Applications
The trend over the past few years has been to serve one to three meatballs as a small plate or entrée (depending on the size). But you’ll find that meatballs are extremely versatile. You can serve them as a sandwich or a slider; top pizzas with them; fill calzones; showcase them on pasta dishes or toss sauce-free meatballs with greens to create a signature salad. The list of possibilities goes on and on.
In Bellucci’s opinion, there’s no better comfort food than pasta and meatballs. “If I was going to the electric chair and had to request a last meal, it would be macaroni and meatballs,” he says. “What food marries better on a fork than a nice piece of meatball together with some al dente rigatoni coated with a thick marinara? It’s great right out of the frying pan while the meatball is still dripping with olive oil. Scooping one out of the pot after braising in marinara for two hours is pretty awesome too. [Meatballs] on a pizza with roasted peppers and sautéed onions makes me salivate just thinking about it. And, of course, my second favorite is Parmigiana-style on a fresh hero, covered with melted mozzarella and marinara.”
But Bellucci draws the line at tofu. “I remember once, in the summer of 1988, my mother tried passing off tofu meatballs instead of the real deal at Sunday dinner,” he says. “I didn’t speak to her again until Thanksgiving.”
Well, you can’t fault Grandma for trying something new. Versatility, after all, is what makes the meatball such a classic. Whether you choose to have your meatballs shine independently or team them up with other menu favorites, consider every part of the meatball with each application. Then, feel free to experiment until you’ve hit upon a recipe that consistently leaves your customers craving more.
Uncle Pat’s Bellucci Meatballs
Recipe and photo courtesy of Mikey’s Original New York Pizza
330g fresh beef brisket
Grind together the brisket, ribeye, short ribs, parsley and oregano. Heat up a sauté pan with extra-virgin olive oil. When the oil is hot and beginning to smoke, add onions, garlic, salt and pepper. Cook over medium flame for about 5 minutes or until the mixture is translucent. Remove from the pan and pour over the meat mixture in a large mixing bowl. Add the Pecorino Romano cheese and breadcrumbs. Add the well-beaten eggs over the mixture and get ready to blend together.
Get a stockpot with marinara sauce ready. For 30 meatballs, fill a four-quart stockpot halfway with marinara or your favorite tomato-based sauce. Place the pot over a low-medium flame and proceed with mixing the meatballs. The mixing method is very important. Form four-fingered "hooks" with your two hands and blend all the ingredients together as lightly as possible, keeping the meat mixture light and airy and not "packing" the meatball densely.
Using the mixture, form 30 meatballs, each weighing 50g. Heat up a sauté pan and coat the bottom of the pan generously with extra-virgin olive oil. Once the oil is hot, add the meatballs in as many batches as it takes, depending on the size of your pan. This step requires constant attention. You'll need to cook each meatball as if it has four sides, approximately 90 seconds per side or until a light-medium brown crust is formed.
As each meatball's crust is formed, transfer the meatball into the marinara-filled stockpot, which should be bubbling by now. After all of the meatballs are in the pot, watch as the pot comes to a simmer/boil and turn down the flame so that the sauce emits a bubble every couple of seconds. The meatballs will be ready to serve and fully cooked after about one hour of braising, but you may want to cook them for two hours so that they almost fall apart under any type of pressure. Serve right away or transfer to a plastic container; let the meatballs cool to room temperature, cover and store in the refrigerator for up to one week.