Friday, January 21, 2011

Mamma Mia! Alberta Knows Her Italian Meatballs

My walking buddy, is first generation Canadian. (Her parents immigrated from Italy in the 1950's.) Like many first generation Canadians, she has held firm to the culinary traditions that her mother brought with her from the Marche region of Italy. Cuccurano di Fano, Pesaro to be exact. Although that move was 54 years ago, the one dish that is still made the same way by mother and daughter is their Italian meatballs and sauce.

I had the privilege to sample this great snack dish one Saturday back in September. From the moment that these much talked about meatballs touched my lips I knew I had to learn to make them. One of the benefits of first generation Canadians from different cultures fraternizing, is that we don't think twice about adopting ourselves into other ethnic families. We so appreciate all the good foods that have come from our respective homelands and we know it is our responsibility to ensure that they transfer down through the bloodline. And so we try to support each other in these traditions. When it comes to food, she is my Sinful Sister ('SS').

I was delighted when 'SS' extended the invitation have a private tutoring in her home so I too could learn the tricks of the trade. This past Sunday was the said day. As it turns out, her very Italian mother popped in to visit on a spur of the moment whim. A treat for all of us since she actually lives 5 hours away! How perfect to have a full fledged Italian Meatball Master in our midst. And to my benefit, she didn't hold back.

She praised us on our pre-game prep: hair up, no long sleeves, apron, clean hands and clean fingernails. Something she doesn't always see she says on those fancy TV shows on the Food Network! She named names but I will leave that to your judgment, next time you watch!

We started with the sauce so it could have a chance to simmer away and pull all the flavours together while we worked on the meatballs. 'SS' was quick to point out that canned tomatoes were fine as long as they came from Italy. The longer growing season means all that extra sun makes for a richer taste. Mamma Alberta told me that she likes to include lard with her olive oil when sautéing the onions. She says it helps to thicken the sauce. Although we didn't have lard on hand that day, I was going to heed her tip. The sauce had a combination of ground beef and pork in it. Both 'experts' say they like to use ground veal to make up part of the beef portion when they can get it.

In addition to the bread crumbs, sometimes the Meatball Master will soak a slice or two of dry bread in milk and crumble it into the mixture.

Parsley is a signature ingredient in Italian meatballs. As is lots of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and bread crumbs. Nutmeg is the secret spice. Again, the meats are a combination of ground beef and pork. Or veal, beef and pork if you have it.

The shaping of the meatballs were Meatball Master 'tested' to make sure they were moist enough. We were being evaluated on the amount of grated cheese as well as the proportion of egg to quantity of meat. Although we just used one egg and two egg whites in this batch, I chose to use two in mine and maybe could have used one more as my quantity of meat seemed to be about 30% more. In this batch we made 22 meatballs. In mine, I managed 28.

Once the sauce had simmered for a good hour and a half we could add the meatballs. Our Meatball Master checked to see that all meatballs were resting happily in the simmering sauce for the hour it would take to cook through and build the flavours. She says sometimes she cooks the meatballs in boiling water for two or three minutes before adding them to the sauce because then the "scum" comes off the meat. Who knew! But not something she does all the time.

Making meatballs is serious business! Barley, the meatball guard dog, patiently did his shift watching the pot while we took our wee breaks at the kitchen table.

And good breaks they were. Nothing like authentic Crostoli! Essentially deep fried sweet pasta ribbons.

We also enjoyed Crescia. A cheese bread full of Parmesan that is shaped similar to a panettone. Crescia is an Easter and Christmas treat from the Marche region of Italy. Alberta says that there are those who bake it including Romano cheese but she prefers to use only Parmesan.

And finally the end product. 'SS' serves it with a fresh loaf of Italian bread. It helps to soak up the leftover sauce!

As expected, the afternoon was pure delight. So delicious. So satisfying. I couldn't wait to fly solo and try it out for myself.

Being house bound today, I took the opportunity to satisfy my craving since I had all the ingredients on hand.

I decided to source my ground veal and pork at Brian's Butchery & Deli on Cobden Road just off of Iris Street. Here I also picked up Beking eggs. My bread crumbs came from Lavergne Western Beef Inc. My cans of Italian plum tomatoes came from Produce Depot. As did my garlic, onions, lemon and Italian parsley. My stick of Italian bread was made at Compiano Bakery on Preston and I picked it up at Misto Fine Food Emporium in the Hampton Park Plaza. In my second batch, I treated myself and used authentic San Marzano tomatoes! Expensive, but I just had to try. Of course, I loved them. I found these tomatoes at Il Negozio Nicastro.

Chianti makes for a neighbourly companion to meatballs and sauce, since you are asking.

Below is the recipe as I made it today. And here are my changes from the original.

Although I have been very exact in documenting my adapted recipe and changes, 'SS' was clear that there is not a lot of measuring going on when making meatballs and sauce. It is a combination of look, feel and quantities of what you might have on hand. Being loose when you make it is a good thing.

* My changes in the sauce: I used less meat. 3/4 pound in total versus 1 1/3 pounds. I used veal instead of beef. I also doubled the onion. I used 2 tablespoons of oil, instead of 4. I added lard. I used 6 cloves instead of 8.

* My changes in the meatballs: I used veal instead of beef. I used 1 1/2 pounds of meat in total instead of just a little over 1 pound. I used 3 cloves of garlic instead of 2. I minced my garlic instead of chopping finely. I used 2 eggs vs. 1 egg and two egg whites. (Move along egg whites if you have them.) I added 1/3 cup of homogenized milk. 1 added 3 tablespoons ricotta cheese. I used 1/2 cup of bread crumbs instead of 3/4 cup. I used Italian parsley instead of curly. I used more cheese.

Mama Alberta and Daughter's Authentic Italian Meatballs and Sauce

2 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoon lard
2 onions, diced
1/2 pound ground veal
1/4 pound ground pork
2 28-ounce cans of whole Italian plum tomatoes
6 whole cloves
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon pepper

Heat lard and olive oil together over medium heat. Add diced onions and sauté until soft. Add veal and pork. Brown the meat. Add canned tomatoes. Loosely cut the whole tomatoes into pieces. Add whole cloves, salt and pepper. Simmer for 1 1/2 hours.

1 pound ground veal
1/2 pound ground pork
3 minced garlic cloves
1/2 cup bread crumbs
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/3 cup milk
3 tablespoons ricotta cheese
zest from one lemon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
2 tablespoon finely chopped fresh Italian parsley
3" x 3" cube Parmigiano-Reggiano finely grated

Put all the ingredients together and mix thoroughly. Form into 1 1/2" balls. I was able to make 28 balls with this quantity. Drop into the sauce that has been simmering for 1 1/2 hours. Continue to simmer for another hour until the meatballs are cooked through.

Serve a bowl of meatballs and sauce with a few slices of Italian bread that can be used for soaking up the excess sauce!

Brian's Butchery & Deli
1117 Cobden Road (at Iris)
Ottawa, Ontario

Produce Depot

1855 Carling Avenue (at Maitland)
Ottawa, Ontario

Misto Fine Food Emporium

1387 Carling Avenue (at Kirkwood)
Hampton Park Plaza
Ottawa, Ontario

Compiano Bakery
306 Preston Street
Ottawa, Ontario

Lavergne Western Beef Inc.
3971 Navan Road
Navan, Ontario

Il Negozio Nicastro
1355 Wellington Street West
Ottawa, Ontario


  1. Meatballs and sauce are my favourite treat when visiting my parents house. Nothing warms a house like the smell of freshly made pasta sauce.

  2. Thanks for coming by Campinggirl! It was a great day yesterday mucking with the meatballs. And yes, the smells do permeate. Easy to get 'customers' coming to the table for dinner. The teenager decided on pasta with the sauce and meatballs. (Lots of Parma!) Hubby and I went for a bowl of goodness and then the great bread to soak it all up. Containers now tucked in the freezer in single portion sizes for a quick rescue when times get busy. I am making this AGAIN!

  3. Deborah - Green Light Distict Design, OttawaJanuary 22, 2011 at 2:47 PM

    What a fun post! Perfect comfort food for this time of year. Everyone should have at least one recipe like this in their repertoire. I make mine with 100% ground chicken (last time we ate red meat was 18+ years ago). Ground corn flakes are a great substitute for breadcrumbs for that gluten free person in my life. Hey, Italian Mastro plum tomatoes are my favourite too!

  4. Deborah: Thanks for coming by to visit the blog! I love your health sensitive adjustments! Thanks for sharing.

  5. These meatballs are amazing. I will definitely be making them again. Thanks for sharing your experience. Yum.

    1. You remind me that I need to make these again. It is one of my favourite rescue meals from the freezer. Thanks for the ringing endorsement! I will let Alberta know. She's loving all the fanfare.


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