I’m super psyched to be demo-ing meatballs this Sunday, September 18th at The Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival in at Brooklyn’s Bell House! The recipe was supposed to be featured in Saveur Magazine a few years back and was cut for space (the story, however, about the family it came from, as well as several of their recipes like Sunday gravy, cauliflower fritters, and “gavadill“, still ran). Funny because it’s probably the dish that dictated the course of my life. So, you know, meatballs are kind of a big deal to me.
My mom never made a meatball in her life (though she was pretty good at ordering them from the local take-out joint). And I don’t have an Italian grandmother either. But I do have a very best friend at whose house I spent perhaps more teenage hours at than at my own. Her parents are Italian, and I was their stray adopted kid that they invited to the table several times a week to break bread. On lucky Sundays, we’d be eating rigatoni with gravy, meatballs and sausages on the side. Total manna.
The meatballs come to me from Chicago’s Little Italy (Taylor Street to be exact). They originated in Calabria where my girlfriend’s dad’s family, the Campos, grew up. Mr. Campo, a hair stylist-turned-pastor, learned to make them by watching his mom make her meatballs and gravy. To this day he is convinced that while his back was turned, mama Minnie threw in a little something in the mix that she never disclosed. And I’m sure there’s a secret ingredient the Campos chose not to divulge during our meatball session too. Nonetheless, these meatballs are the ones I grew up with and are thus my gold standard ball: super country-style, crispy-fried around the edges, tender within, punctuated with loads of Pecorino cheese and parsley, and with a strong notch of garlic for good measure. And all beef—no pork (save it for the sausages and gravy). I’ve made a few changes here and there–panko breadcrumbs instead of unseasoned cubes, fresh basil in addition to parsley, and fresh garlic in lieu of granulated. Aside from those small tweaks, the meatballs are unchanged.
I’ve had meatballs all over New York City, and most restaurant-style meatballs are too fancy for my taste. Too fluffy, too smooshy on the inside, too porky, too fatty, too much. I like humble meatballs. Irregular and misshapen. The kind that look like they actually came from human hands, not from an ice cream scoop dipped into giant tub of meatball mix.
My favorite way to eat the Campos’ meatballs was straight from the skillet while still sizzling—I’d eat them fast so they didn’t burn my fingers; I’d inhale air between bites so they didn’t burn my mouth. Mrs. Campo (who inherited meatball making detail—Mr. Campo still governs over most batches of gravy) piled the crusty orbs pyramid style on a platter and then inundated them with aggressive handfuls of Pecorino cheese. Eventually they’d be added to a giant pot of Sunday gravy (made with lamb ribs, pork ribs, and San Marzano tomatoes). But everyone in the house knew that the best time to snatch one (or two or eight) was now.
Superbly crusty and browned, the Pecorino fused on to the surface, semi-melting yet still pleasantly dusty-salty on top. Upon realizing her stack was dwindling faster than she could pull the fried balls from the skillet, Mrs. Campo would move the platter. She didn’t hide them or even really confiscate them. She just made getting to them impossible without being subjected to her “really? You’re really going to try to steal another meatball?” glare. The meatballs have since become a standard at my kitchen table. And the glare, well, it’s in my back pocket for a rainy day.
Fantastically and Imperfectly Perfect Meatballs
Makes about 2 dozen golf ball-sized meatballs
Mrs. Campo uses unseasoned bread cube stuffing for her meatballs. I like panko. I also like to add fresh garlic and cut in some basil to the parsley (to keep it Taylor Street authentic, use 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder and all parsley, no basil). For the best gravy on Earth, click here. I like to grind my own meat. Chuck roast steaks are great because the fat and sinew have been mostly removed. I also like to add in some skirt steak or hanger steak for its robust and intensely beefy vibe. If grinding your own meat remember to keep the machine elements and the meat chilled until you’re ready to grind.
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup panko breadcrumbs
1 cup whole milk
2 large eggs
3/4 cup finely grated Pecorino cheese plus 3/4 cup for sprinkling
2 garlic cloves, finely minced or pressed through a garlic press
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh basil
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper
2 pounds 80- to 85% lean ground beef
3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/4 cups neutral oil (I like grapeseed)
Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the panko, a good pinch of salt, and cook, stirring often, until the breadcrumbs are golden brown, about 3 minutes. Transfer the breadcrumbs to a large bowl and add the milk stirring until it is absorbed. Whisk in the eggs and then and the Pecorino, garlic, parsley, basil, salt, and pepper. Stir to combine.
Add the ground beef and gently toss with your hands until combined. Be careful not to knead or overmix. If you warm up the fat in the ground beef too much, your meatballs will be tough and stressed.
Heat the olive oil and neutral oil in a large, deep skillet (I like busting out the cast iron for this) over medium heat. Once the oil is fragrant gently press together a golf ball-sized meatball. Use cupped hands to compress it rather than roll it. Add the meatball to the oil and fry it on all sides. Taste it for seasoning and adjust the salt or pepper if needed.
Shape the remaining meat mixture into balls flattening them slightly (this allows you to easily brown them on all sides). Add 8 to 10 to the pan taking care to leave about 1-inch between meatballs (the frying meatballs should sound like a even-keeled applause, not angry white noise—adjust the heat if necessary). Cook the meatballs until both sides deeply browned, about 10 minutes total. Rest the meatballs on their sides around the pan’s perimeter to brown the edges, turning them as necessary. Add more raw meatballs to the center of the pan. Continue to cook the meatballs, turning them as needed, until browned on all sides. As they are done, use tongs to transfer them to a plate and sprinkle with lots of Pecorino, piling the meatballs on top of one another as you go, and always sprinkle Pecorino on top of the sizzling hot balls. Serve as is or with your favorite Sunday sauce.