Classic spaghetti and meatballs done right
When he was a kid growing up in Brescia, Italy, Fausto Bellicini knew he could expect a heaping plate of spaghetti and polpette (meatballs) when his Mamma was in a rush to get dinner on the table. “For Italian moms, it’s a last-minute dish. It’s for those days when everything is hectic. You just throw them [the meatballs] together, put them in the frying pan, and cook them up very, very fast,” he reminisces.
At the bar of Pacifico Pizzeria Ristorante (970 Smithe Street), where he is executive chef, Bellicini explains how he lovingly re-creates each element of his childhood favourite, starting with those all-important polpette. His version is made of half ground beef, half spicy Italian pork sausage. Bellicini explains that the coarsely ground pork, with its higher fat content, complements the finer and leaner ground beef.
Egg is added to the meat to bind the polpette together, along with homemade focaccia bread crumbs that absorb moisture and add a “spongy” texture to break up the density of the meat. Bellicini finishes the mixture off with freshly grated Parmesan cheese, fresh Italian parsley, and Asian garlic chili sauce.
Of course, there are as many different renditions of polpette as there are kitchens in Italy. While Bellicini’s friends from Calabria make meatballs that are the size of gnocchi, he prefers the three-bite-sized ones his mom used to serve: “When you make them this size, it allows for the meatballs to be nice and tender. When they’re so small, they can easily get overcooked and too crunchy.”
Francesco Alongi, owner of Don Francesco Ristorante (860 Burrard Street), was born and bred in Sicily and can still taste the richness of the all-pork meatballs his family made. In the elegant quarters of his downtown restaurant, he describes how grated lemon rind, pine nuts, and fennel seed were often mixed into the pork to give it a distinctive Sicilian flavour.
Here in Vancouver, Alongi makes ground turkey meatballs for himself (“I have a problem with cholesterol,” he sighs) and half ground veal, half lean ground beef meatballs for his customers. The veal makes for a more tender, delicate-tasting meatball, and it appeals to customers who don’t eat pork. Parmesan cheese, minced onion and garlic, dried basil, and fresh parsley ensure that the meatballs still pack a flavour punch.
Randell Hartley, co-owner/chef at Some Kinda Pasta (4409 West 10th Avenue), also omits pork from his meatballs, instead making them entirely of ground beef. His version is quite lean, and includes ingredients such as dried oregano, Cajun spice, and Dijon mustard. Once everything has been incorporated, Hartley forms balls that are also good for three chomps, brushes them with olive oil, and roasts them in the oven for 25 minutes at about 450? °?F. “We cook them pretty fast to seal in the juices,” he says by phone.
As for the red stuff, all three cooks make huge batches in advance. Hartley sautés garlic and onion, then adds canned whole Italian plum tomatoes before simmering the sauce for a couple of hours. Bellicini uses a bit of fresh chili to give the sauce some bite, while Alongi includes fresh parsley and basil—and at home, some glugs of red wine—to give the sauce a little more flavour depth.
The roasted polpette are then braised in this tomato sauce for 15 to 20 minutes to make them ultra-tender and impart flavour to the sauce. While Hartley and Bellicini stew theirs on the stove, Alongi puts the meatballs, with the sauce, back in the oven, making sure to cover the tray with foil to keep the moisture in. And don’t skip a step and put the raw meatballs directly into the sauce, unless you want an icky, oily sauce, Bellicini warns.
After the slow stewing of the meatballs in the sauce, it’s time for the spaghetti. While at Some Kinda Pasta and Pacifico Pizzeria Ristorante, diners can opt from a variety of pasta, virtually everyone chooses spaghetti (how else can you reenact the Lady and the Tramp scene?). Bellicini uses dried rather than fresh pasta to guarantee an al dente noodle. After all, there’s nothing worse than mushy spaghetti—unless you’re a fan of Chef Boyardee.
Just before serving, Bellicini tosses the cooked noodles with the meatballs and sauce until the sauce sticks to the pasta and the whole dish is piping hot. Alongi says to add a bit of olive oil after you drain the pasta so it doesn’t get too starchy and stick together.
The finished dish is a match made in heaven, to the point where talking about it is enough to get many people salivating. “I’m going to have to have some spaghetti and meatballs now. You’ve got me going here”¦” Hartley says before he hangs up the phone, presumably to whip up and devour a plate of this classic Italian comfort food.