There are lots of food holidays, but none we love as much as National Meatball Day (March 9). Meatballs are the quintessential Italian comfort food. They are rich, hearty, flavorful and full of love. "There is a reason meatballs are made on a Sunday," says celebrity chef Donatella Arpaia.
See, she knows a thing or two about them. Known far and wide, Donatella's authentic Italian meatballs have won many awards for being the best. She has completed against some pretty big-name Italian chefs and come out on top every time. "The meatballs I won with twice were all veal, but I grew up eating all-beef meatballs."
Her recipe, a family one handed down from her mother and grandmother before that, is an important one to her. "I grew up in the restaurant business and my father worked every day but Sunday. I grew up to the ragu simmering and my mother making meatballs."
While her version of her family recipe is slightly altered from the original, the foundation of it is the same. "The premise is based on that recipe. The tips and techniques to make a great meatball are all there."
So, how does she build the perfect meat ball?
Step One: The Meat
"It starts with the meat," Donatella says. Anyone who has read a meatball recipe knows there is a lot of debate on whether you do three types of meat (veal, beef, pork), or stick to a simpler blend.
Whatever you choose, the key is quality. "Ground meat is not all the same. Try to get the best possible hormone free ground meat," she says. "Don't get discount supermarket stuff. Go to the butcher and get good meat."
If you do like an all-beef ball, then make sure it is 80 percent lean. A little bit of fat adds flavor.
Step Two: Mix
Mix in your seasoning ingredients, and they must be fresh. "When I say garlic, I don't meat pre-minced garlic. Real garlic that is freshly cut is important."
Similarly, use fresh herbs like parsley, not the dried stuff.
Step Three: Bread
Add your bread. Not breadcrumbs. Bread. "We don't use crumbs in our meatball, we use stale Italian bread. Crumbs will make them heavy. I like the local Italian bread from the supermarket in the white paper bag. It has a thin crust that works well."
Donatella recommends soaking your stale bread in either warm water or milk. Either will work, just know your proportions. "We are not making a meatloaf we are making a meatball. You want enough moisture and enough bread to make it light and fluffy."
Step Four: Mix
"Italian mothers are famous for giving notoriously bad recipes. They are missing 10 steps, an ingredient, important information." When Donatella's mom's recipe wasn't working for her, she took matters in to her own hands, literally. "I went to her house and filmed her making the meatballs and realized what I was missing was the mixing."
She says you have to mix the meatball mixture with your hands, not a machine for a good 3-4 minutes. After you've thoroughly mixed, wash your hands, rub them with a little olive oil and form your balls.
"You've got to have a light touch when rolling meatballs. Roll them then leave them alone to sit. Make them all the same size for even cooking. A 2-ounce meatball is a good size."
Step Five: Fry
"Let's get this straight," she says," Italians fry their meatballs, we don't' bake them. "You need that golden crust. I like to fry in a light canola or olive oil."
Heat a 10-inch skillet filled halfway with you oil. "Make it hot, but not so hot that the outside of the meatballs burn and inside stays raw" Donatella explains. Gently add your meatballs to the pan.
Be sure not to crowd the pan, just four at a time will work. Fry for 4 minutes on one side, then gently flip them over. Fly another 4 minutes and remove to drain on a paper towel.
Step Six: Ragu
Meatballs should be added to the ragu the last 30 minutes of cooking. "Any more than 30 minutes in the ragu and they will fall apart."
"A good meatball is hard to come by," says Donatella. Not anymore. Thanks, chef.
In honor of this delicious food holiday Donatella's Prova Pizzabar, located in the iconic Grand Central Station Lower Level Dining Concourse, is now offering these award-winning Meatballs To-Go!
Guests can purchase a small container for $12 or a large container for $18 in both regular or spicy varieties. Or make your own with her recipe and building secrets.
- ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
- 2 celery stalks with leaves, chopped
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- Kosher salt & freshly ground pepper
- 1 ½ lbs (6-8) meaty, bone-in-pork spareribs, rinsed
- 1 ½ lbs (6-8) sweet Italian sausage with fennel seeds, pierced all over with a fork
- 1 garlic clove, chopped
- 1 cup red wine
- 3 (35 oz.) cans tomato puree
- 1 handful fresh basil leaves
- Warm olive oil in a large, heavy-bottom pan over medium heat.
- Add celery and onion, season with salt and pepper, and sauté, partially covered about 5 minutes until golden and soft.
- Add meats and raise the heat to medium-high. Sauté, turning occasionally until browned all over.
- Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the wine and cook until it evaporates, 5 minutes.
- Add tomato puree, basil, salt and pepper. Partially cover, bring to a boil, and reduce heat. Let it simmer 1 ½-2 hours.
- 1 small loaf stale Italian bread (about 8 thick slices) torn into 2 1/2" chunks
- 2 lbs. 80% lean ground beef chuck, broken up
- 5 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
- ½ cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
- 1 large egg, lightly beaten
- 1 ½ cups grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Grana Padano
- kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- canola oil for frying
- Put bread in a bowl and add enough warm water to cover. Let stand for 5 minutes, turning to moisten evenly. Gently squeeze out excess water.
- Add beef, garlic, parsley, egg and ¾ cup of Parmigiano to the bread and combine. Season with Salt and pepper. Knead the mixture for at least 5 minutes with your hands, until uniformly combined and smooth.
- Pinch a tablespoon of meat into your palms and shape into a ball. Place on a baking sheet and continue with the rest of the mixture.
- Fill a 10" skillet halfway with canola oil and heat over high heat. When strands form along the bottom, lower 8-10 meatballs at a time into the oil. Do not overcrowd. They should be ¾ submerged in oil. Reduce the heat to medium and fry for 6-7 minutes each side, turning only once.
- Remove the meatballs from the oil and turn the heat back up to high before starting the second batch.
- 20 minutes before serving, add the meatballs to the simmering ragu.
Show us your photos on Instagram using the hashtag, #wideopeneats, and your photos could be featured on our Insta-feed! Major thanks to Donatella Arpaia for sharing her secrets with us!