What do the following movies have in common? The Marx Brothers’ “Night At The Opera”, “Goodfellas” and Walt Disney’s “Lady And The Tramp”?

Give up? Meatballs. Yes, meatballs.

When we think Italian food, spaghetti and meatballs are one of the staples that immediately comes to mind. The go-to comfort food for so many. A steaming plate of fresh pasta noodles, drenched in marinara, topped with scrumptious meatballs. Even in the movies, Italian food is associated with meatballs.

The definitive dish is often considered a family staple when it comes to dinner, unless you are Italian.

When you travel to Italy, you won’t find a dish called spaghetti and meatballs on the menu, unless it’s one of those touristy menus in a location where all the tour buses pull up. My personal recommendation, keep walking. Mass-produced spaghetti and meatballs is what you will discover.

Spaghetti and meatballs didn’t originate in Italy.

Between 1880 and 1920, the U.S. received its largest influx of Italian immigrants — roughly 4 million. The majority of these immigrants were poverty-stricken. In Italy, they would spend up to 75 percent of their income on food, and meat was the most expensive ingredient one could acquire. Meat was something for a special occasion or at least used sparingly.

The new arrivals were overjoyed to discover that meat in the U.S., especially ground meats, were relatively inexpensive and now they were spending only 25 percent of their income on food staples. Meat quickly became a staple rather than a luxury.

The Italian-American meatball was created. Of course, a plate of meatballs, no matter how tasty, was simply not interesting. OK, put it with some pasta. Still not very interesting.

For cooks during this period, canned tomatoes were among the few items available at the local grocer. “Sailor Sauce” arrived on the scene to save the meatballs. Marinara sauce originated in Naples, near the sea, and comes from the word “marinaro,” which in Italian means “sailor.” A simple sauce made of garlic, olive oil and tomatoes. It is said this simple recipe allowed the wives to prepare a quick meal as soon as they saw their husbands’ fishing boats approaching the harbor.

It wasn’t long before this trio of foods began to be enjoyed together.

Italy does, however have its own version of meatballs. They are incredibly different than anything you may have had. These golf ball-sized versions are called “polpettes” and are typically eaten without pasta. They can be made from any freshly ground meat, fowl or seafood. Often they are found in hearty soups.

In the region of Abruzzo, these balls are the size of marbles and known as “polpettines.”

Polpettes are usually found in the family home, and not in a restaurant. Every family has their own version.

So how did these dainty spheres evolve into what we enjoy today? As is the case with every ethnic cuisine of that time, immigrants had to make do with the ingredients they could find and afford. The ever-changing relationship with food in the U.S. had the role of women in the kitchen go from scrimping and saving to put food on the table to endeavoring to be the best cook on the block. Every Nonna wanted this title.

Over time, the meatball changed from golf ball-sized to baseball-sized. No matter the size, there were common ingredients: bread crumbs or stale bread soaked in milk (waste not want not), onion, egg and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. As income for the immigrants increased, so did the amount of meat used. Less bread filler and more meat. Bigger meatballs.

The goal, meatballs that are not only flavorful, but tender and juicy and not hard balls of meat. Some of us fondly refer to them as “mushy” meatballs. In the case of meatballs, mushy is a good thing.

In the 1950s, a Sicilian restaurateur, Nicolle de Quattrociocchi, stated in his memoirs that he had come to the U.S. and dined in an Italian restaurant and “was introduced to a very fine, traditional American specialty called spaghetti with meatballs,” which he believed were “just for fun called Italian.”

He further shared that “as a matter of fact, I found them both extremely satisfying and I think someone in Italy should invent them for Italians over there.”

By now, you should be craving meatballs, so I am happy to share our family recipe with you.

Multiple sauce recipes can be found on my recipe blog http://letsgocookitalian.blogspot.com/search/label/SALSA

Mangia Bene

De Filipi Family Meatballs

Serves 8

1 1/2 lbs. ground beef

1 1/2 lbs. ground pork

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2 slices day-old white bread (fresh bread can make your meatballs gooey)

1/4 cup whole milk

1 large egg

1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

3 or 4 cloves garlic, minced

1 tsp. dried parsley

1 tsp. dried oregano

1 tsp. dried basil

1/2 tsp. salt

1/4 tsp. pepper

Extra virgin olive oil

Soak bread in milk for 10 minutes. Add all other ingredients to wet bread and milk. Mix well with your hands. Roll mixture into golf-ball sized meatballs.

Saute meatballs evenly in olive oil until browned. Add to marinara sauce for at least 30 minutes before serving.

Note: If using fresh herbs, adjust amounts accordingly. Rule of thumb is three times the fresh herbs for substitution.

Diane De Filipi lives in the Napa Valley and leads cooking tours to Italy and Burgundy, France. Visit www.letsgocookitalian.com or ila-chateau.com/cook-italian for more information.

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