I’m slowly but surely working my way through the recipes in my newest Giada De Laurentiis cookbook, and a recipe for spaghetti and meatballs—with a bit of a twist—was up for dinner on Wednesday night. It seems like every family has their own version of this classic dish—some people use spaghetti, others use a different type of pasta; some use marinara while others make a meat sauce; and everyone has their own opinion on what makes the best meatball (Fresh or dry breadcrumbs? Use a mix of meat or stick to one kind?). My grandmother’s recipe included spaghetti with a marinara sauce and these small, tender meatballs that my cousin, Katie, and I have always wanted the recipe for but still haven’t gotten. My dad’s father’s family was Italian and used to make up huge bowls of bucatini (a spaghetti-like pasta with a hole through the middle) with tender meatballs made with a mix of veal, pork, and beef. My mom makes her dish with a tomato sauce with meat, all-beef meatballs, and angel hair pasta. The recipe here, altered slightly, includes a simple tomato sauce with pancetta and a little dried red pepper flakes for a kick, and meatballs made with both veal and beef, stuffed with a tiny cube of mozzarella—it’s absolutely delicious. The meatballs are incredibly tender and flavorful, and I absolutely loved cutting into them and seeing the warm, creamy mozzarella ooze out onto my fork. The sauce is simple and it’s a nice change from a typical marinara or meat sauce. A sprinkle of Parmesan or Pecorino Romano brings the whole dish together, and it’s wonderful paired with a dry red wine.
Prep. time: 15-20 minutes
Cooking time: 20 minutes
- 8-16 oz. angel hair, spaghetti, or other long pasta
For the sauce:
- 2 tbsp. olive oil
- 6 oz. pancetta, diced (prosciutto can work in a pinch, but pancetta really should be used)
- 1 small onion, finely chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1, 14 oz. can crushed tomatoes
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- Crushed red pepper flakes, to taste
For the meatballs:
- 1 small onion, grated (I used a cheese grater, and it worked quite well)
- 1/2 cup chopped fresh Italian flat-leaf parsley
- 2/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese (I used shredded and simply cut it up finer with a knife)
- 1/3 cup Italian-style seasoned dry breadcrumbs
- 1 large egg
- 2 tbsp. ketchup
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 1/4 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
- About 1 tsp. each salt and pepper
- 8 oz. ground beef
- 8 oz. ground veal
- 2 oz. mozzarella cheese, cut into 1/2 inch cubes (if you can find smoked mozzarella, use that instead)
Preheat the oven to 400*F and place one of the oven racks in the lower third of the oven. In a large bowl, combine all of the ingredients for the meatballs except the meat, then lightly mix. Add the beef and veal and, using your hands, gently “knead” and mix the ingredients together until well-blended. Shape the meat into 1&1/2 inch round balls and place on a baking sheet covered with a piece of parchment paper (or, if you don’t have parchment paper, spray the cooking sheet with cooking spray)—you should be able to make at least 16 meatballs (I ended up with 21). Make a small depression in each meatball and place a cube of mozzarella inside, then re-roll the meatball so that the mozzarella is completely encased inside. Bake the meatballs for about 15 minutes (put them on that lower oven rack), until cooked through and fork-tender (meaning they can be cut easily with a fork). Meanwhile, in a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the pancetta and cook until slightly golden brown (about 5-7 minutes), then, using a slotted spoon, remove the pancetta from the pan and set aside. Add the onion to the skillet and cook for about 5 minutes, then add the garlic and red pepper flakes and cook for another 30 seconds or so. Add the tomatoes, salt and pepper, and pancetta and simmer over medium-low heat, uncovered, for about 15 minutes. While the sauce is cooking, bring a medium-to-large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook according to package instructions (about 4-5 minutes). Drain the pasta, return to the pot, and toss with a little olive oil to keep the strands from sticking together.
Serve the pasta with a spoonful or more of sauce on top (or mix the sauce in with all of the pasta in the pot and serve), and place a few meatballs on top. Garnish with Italian cheese, like Parmesan or Pecorino-Romano, if desired.
This is a great version of “spaghetti-and-meatballs” that’s well-worth trying. It’s incredibly easy to make, packed with flavor, and, like any good pasta dish, both the sauce and meatballs can be frozen and thawed out later for an easy weeknight meal. I know many people take issue with eating veal, and though it is the major reason these meatballs are so tender, if you’re totally against using it in the meatballs, try using a mix of beef and pork. Using more than one meat in the meatball adds flavor and enhances the texture of the meatballs.