Consider the meatball. It’s ubiquitous in Italian family-style food and popular in cultures around the world. You can find them in cans of Chef Boyardee, or on Mario Batali’s exclusive menus. Large or small, fried or baked, made with almost any meat (and sometimes with none) it turns out there is a lot more to meatballs than you might think.
Meatballs are found in the earliest known recipes from both China and the Middle East. Every European cuisine (famously Sweden) has its own version based on local ingredients. In fact, there are very few places where you can’t find a meatball.
To dig deeper into the magic of meatballs, we signed up for a class at Bar Sugo on Wall Street in Norwalk to learn from a master. Chef Pat Siciliano, it turns out, is a specialist – passionate about the topic, and expert in the all-important art of blending the flavors that make memorable meatballs.
The restaurant’s motto is, “Simple Italian Food.” But, as you may suspect, simple means made with top-notch ingredients, lots of experience, old-world family recipes, a dash of innovation, and great care. Simple, not easy.
The menu offers six different meatballs: Mommy’s – beef, tomato, and grana padano cheese; Pork – red wine, tomato sauce and silky whipped ricotta; Nonna’s – beef, sausage and sweet-tart currant mostarda; Ox Hollow Farm Beef – local, all natural meat (rib and brisket blend) with melted gouda, tangy red onion jam, and truffle oil; Crispy Veal & Ricotta – deep fried and served with calabrian chili aioli; and Sugo’s – beef, veal and pork with sage. Not surprisingly, there’s a meatball tasting on the menu.
In the class we made Mommy’s, which is based on a recipe from (you guessed it) Chef Pat’s mom. He demonstrated how to make the meat mixture as we twelve students gathered around a sunny table at the front of the restaurant. Couples and friends, millennials to retirees, we all shared an interest in good food and hoped to learn a few chef’s secrets.
In his preamble, Pat emphasized that moisture is the key to a good meatball. If the mix is not moist enough, “it’s just a well done hamburger;” and we all know what that’s like. He suggested cooking a sample to check the seasoning and consistency before rolling out all the meatballs. He, of course, can tell by look and feel, based on his years of professional cooking.
Mommy’s meatball is made with ground beef – any type is fine. Crumble it by hand in a mixing bowl to eliminate any clumps. Add fresh basil, grated Parmesan cheese (not too sharp), and eggs. Then add dry bread crumbs and fresh ricotta cheese, the crucial ingredients that determine moisture. The ratio of crumbs to Ricotta depends on the meat, temperature, weather, dryness of the crumbs, and a few other variables gleaned from years of experience. Finally add some tomato sauce (room temperature, not hot), season with salt, and mix, but don’t over mix. Nothing to it!
We students were taught to roll the meat mixture into balls. Done by weight in the Sugo kitchen, we worked by eye, hoping for a consistent size. Roll them between the palms of your hands until smooth, with no seams showing; “they’ll break at the seams while cooking,” the chef told us.
When asked about freezing meatballs at home, Pat was dead set against it: absolutely not before cooking; hopefully not after cooking, either; never at the restaurant. He’s right about freezing the uncooked mix, but I’d be willing to compromise on freezing after cooking. Make sure they’re tightly wrapped in a single layer. There may be some loss of quality, but they’ll still be really good homemade meatballs.
With all five pounds of meat shaped into balls, we adjourned to a high-top table to do some tasting. We students chatted about food experiences and the magic of adding ricotta to the meatballs. Just when the time seemed to be dragging, steaming bowls of meatballs in tomato sauce emerged from the kitchen. These were the ones we had just made – now proudly passed around family style to universal acclaim.
We then tucked into the complete meatball tasting – each one with a unique texture, distinctive flavor, and individually garnished. There was no consensus on a favorite. The crispy veal was praised by all. I liked the Ox Hollow Farm with its dab of tangy red onion jam. The pork had a dollop of whipped ricotta on top. Mommy’s was covered with shavings of grana padano. Nonna’s stood out for the sausage spices. Sugo’s was well-flavored with sage and had a fried sage leaf on top. I think it was the first time I’d had meatballs without spaghetti. They did just fine on their own.
Bar Sugo has more upcoming classes covering sections on their menu: pizza on May 13; a pasta making coming soon; and I’m sure they’ll repeat the meatball making, too. Sign up for a fun insider experience and have a ball!