Are Meatballs Really Italian?
We Americans love our meatballs but are they authentic Italian cuisine?
I grew up in an Italian household where Sunday dinners were reserved for family time with some macaroni, meatballs and gravy (Italian American for Tomato Sauce). That’s pretty typical for an Italian American family, and really, many other families as evidenced by all the variations we found on classic Italian-style meatballs.
Heck, my great grandfather used to get mad on Thanksgiving if there wasn’t a bowl of meatballs served BEFORE the turkey with appetizers. Meatballs are more than just a simple food to Italian American families, it’s a staple of our cuisine. But, are meatballs actually Italian?
It broke my heart to discover that no, they’re not. If you’re in Italy and you manage to find a plate of spaghetti and meatballs, it is likely only there to cater to American tourists. The traditional spaghetti and meatballs dinner is a creation of the American household and has no actual roots in Italian culture.
Italy does have their own version of meatballs, but they’re very different from what we know here. Known as polpettes, they’re very rarely eaten alongside pasta. These golf ball sized bites are also not necessarily made from ground beef, as American meatballs are. Instead, they could come from any meat source, even fish.
The American origins of meatballs come as a result of circumstance more than anything else. In the late 1800s and early 1900s Americans were eating a lot of red meat and meatballs were an affordable and easy recipe to throw together. They were typically made from the cheapest cuts of meat, so Italian immigrants needed something to improve the taste and make them more appealing.
At the time, “sailor sauce” was very popular in the United States, but you might know it by its more common name, marinara. This sauce, originally created in Naples, Italy, owed its popularity to availability. Canned tomatoes, the main ingredient of marinara sauce, were among one of the only readily available and affordable items in local grocery stores. Meatballs were mixed with marinara and it was a match made in heaven.
But where does the meatball come from? That’s a question that doesn’t really have an answer. It’s a food that transcends cultures. Most populated regions in the world have some form of meatball in their culinary life. It’s theorized that meatballs might have originated from a Persian dish known as kofta. It combines minced ground meat with rice, bulgur or mashed lentils that are rolled into cylinders.
The Persians passed kofta on to the Arab world, where the recipe was altered and rolled into orange-sized balls. From there, some believe it was passed along trade routes to Greece, Spain and North Africa. So, while some consider their plate of spaghetti and meatballs to be “fine Italian dining”, it would be more accurate to call this staple of Sunday dinner tables an original American dish.