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The Four Types of Polpette, Italy’s Waste-Saving Meatballs

“Every Italian household has its own recipe and version of polpette, a testament to how widespread the concept of zero food waste is in the country’s culture.”

For as long as I can remember, my nonno made polpette. Whenever we went over to my grandparents’ house for dinner (an occurrence which took place at least every week), my sister and I would beg him and my nonna to make us le polpette e le patate al forno. He’d prepare the polpette from scratch every time, rigorously following the method he’d always adopted without a written recipe or ingredient list. He would bake the polpette before we arrived, welcoming us with the most exquisite perfume, and keep them warm in the oven until dinner time. Nonno Tino’s polpette were a take on Milan’s mondeghili, made with roast meat, potatoes, herbs and Parmigiano—vital in adding an extra kick of flavor–and eating them gave me pure joy: each bite was both crispy and soft, brimming with flavor.  

Italy–and by extension the whole of the Mediterranean–historically has a deep connection and respect for food, and Italians are loath to waste any. Most of the traditional dishes that have survived and remain popular to this day are either recipes that make use of all parts of an ingredient or preparations that aim to repurpose leftovers. One of the best (and most delicious) examples of a recipe created to finish leftovers are polpette, what most of the English speaking world knows as “meatballs”. Unlike many of the other words in different languages to describe a polpetta, which all have the word “meat” within them, the Italian word originates from the diminutive of “pulp”–a non-meat-related blank slate.

As such, polpette can be meat-based, fish-based or vegetarian. Every Italian household has its own recipe and version of polpette, a testament to how widespread the concept of zero food waste is in the country’s culture. Stale bread? Throw it in. Overripe vegetables? Mince them and throw them in. Leftover roast meat? Throw it in. Already-boiled potatoes? Peel them and throw them in for extra texture. 

Polpette didn’t originate in Italy, however: it was a cooking method that citizens learned throughout the Arab rule of the 10th century. The Middle East had a tradition of polpette known as albondigas, primarily meat-based and deep fried. (Spain, also under Arab dominion at that time, still uses the word albondigas for their tapas dish of meatballs. With the evolution of language, however, depending on where you are in the Middle East today, there are many names for meatballs, just one of which is kofta.) 

Beyond their shape (always more or less balls), the incredibly versatile polpetta cannot be universally defined: different variations exist all over Italy. So I drew a map of the country and began to collect dozens of polpette variations and family recipes, stories and anecdotes, from across the peninsula.

Italy is rich with biodiversity: from the landscape, flora and fauna down to the unique deep-rooted customs and practices of each region (and sub-region). If Italian cuisine is celebrated and enjoyed around the world for being so rich and diverse, it is entirely thanks to the different, local products which are available in every region. Polpette are a great example of this regional diversity, especially given that they are predominantly cooked at home, a place where people tend to work with and eat local food—particularly before the rise of large supermarket chains.

Not only are there thousands of ingredient variations for polpette, but there are multiple cooking methods, some widespread throughout the country and others tied to a specific geographic location and its historic customs. Polpette can be fritte (deep fried), saltate (sautéed), cotte in umido (stewed), con il sugo (drowned in a rich tomato sauce), in brodo (in broth), al forno (cooked in the oven) or cooked in butter, olive oil or strutto (lard). Each cooking method works best for a specific type of polpetta… but of course they all taste good deep fried. 

Through my peer-based research, I uncovered 89 unique polpette recipes and preparations from all corners of Italy and found that the balls can fit into four main categories: meat-based polpette, such as mondeghili from Milan or ramerino in culo from Chianti; bread-based polpette, such as Matera’s polpette di pane or pallotte cace e ova from Abruzzo; vegetable-based polpette, like Imperia’s polpette di piselli or Calabria’s vrasciole di melanzane; and finally, fish-based polpette, from tuna to swordfish to the Sicilian polpette di sarde

Our generation needs to keep these recipes, traditions and practices alive in order to pass on a vital part of our collective gastronomic heritage to future generations. So, next time you have some leftovers, don’t waste them: dig into the Italian legacy of polpette and make some for yourself, your friends and your family (there’s always enough to go around!).

Nonitta’s Mondeghili (Meat-Based)

 

  • Boiled veal (or any leftover, pre-cooked meat or roast)
  • prosciutto cotto (to taste) 
  • mortadella (to taste)
  • grated Parmigiano (to taste)
  • 2 eggs 
  • 2 boiled potatoes 
  • fresh parsley, minced (to taste)
  • breadcrumbs (to taste) 
  • butter 
  • nutmeg
  • salt and pepper 

 

  1. Roughly chop up the leftover meat with a few slices of mortadella and prosciutto cotto and place them all in a bowl. Add a few handfuls of grated parmigiano, a sprinkle of nutmeg to taste, and salt and pepper. Then drop in the eggs and mix until combined. Mash potatoes into the bowl and add a handful of parsley. Mix everything with a fork until you achieve a soft, homogeneous mix. 
  2. Cover a plate with breadcrumbs. Take a handful of the meat mixture and roll it lightly between your hands, then press tightly until the meatball is very compact. Roll in the breadcrumbs until completely coated and place to one side. Repeat with the rest of the mixture. 
  3. Melt a stick of butter on high heat and place the mondeghili inside the pan to fit snugly, but without touching. Fry for 4 minutes on each side or until golden and crispy. Once the mondeghili are ready, remove them with a slotted spoon and place them on a plate lined with kitchen paper to drain the excess butter. Serve hot or cooled down! 

Pallotte Cace e Ova (Bread-Based)

 

  • 300g stale bread (crustless)
  • 3 eggs
  • 150g grated pecorino
  • 150g grated Parmigiano
  • ½ cup tomato passata 
  • 4 garlic cloves
  • 1 bunch of fresh parsley (minced) 
  • whole milk (to taste)
  • breadcrumbs (to taste)
  • sunflower seed oil (for frying)
  • olive oil 
  • salt and pepper

 

  1. Slice the bread into chunks, place into a bowl and pour enough milk to cover the bread. Let it rest and soften to one side as you prepare the pallotte’s sauce. 
  2. Crush two of the garlic cloves with a knife and place them in a non-stick pan with two tablespoons of olive oil. Turn the flame onto medium and allow the garlic to turn golden. Pour in the passata, mix and cover. Let it simmer over a low flame for roughly 20 minutes, adding some water if it dries out too much. 
  3. Whisk the eggs in a large bowl, add a generous grind of black pepper and add the two grated cheeses. Squeeze the bread thoroughly, removing all the excess milk, and add it to the cheese and egg bowl. Add the minced remaining garlic cloves and the diced parsley. 
  4. Begin combining all the ingredients with your hands, adding breadcrumbs if the batter is too liquid. The end result should be well combined, wet but not sticky, and not too solid (just enough to roll a small ball). Once you’ve achieved this texture, taste and adjust with salt and pepper accordingly. 
  5. With slightly damp hands, divide the batter into equal-sized balls. 
  6. Heat two fingers of sunflower seed oil in a frying pan and heat over high flame. Once the oil is hot enough (you can find this out by inserting a tiny bit of batter and seeing if it bubbles immediately), begin frying the pallotte. Don’t overcrowd the pan, but rather cook them in batches. 
  7. As each pallotta turns golden, remove it with a slotted spoon and remove any excess oil by placing them on a few sheets of kitchen paper. 
  8. Once all the pallotte have been fried, drop them into the pan with the tomato sauce, combine well, and let simmer for 15 to 20 minutes.

Polpette di Pesce Bianco (Fish-Based)

 

  • Fresh cod, sea bream, hake, sea bass, snapper, sole or grouper (or any other white fish you might find at the market). Depending on how many poplette you want to make, adjust the quantity of fish.
  • Grated pecorino or caciocavallo (to taste)  
  • Eggs 
  • Capers, minced (to taste)
  • Sun dried tomatoes, minced (to taste) 
  • Fresh parsley, minced (to taste) 
  • Breadcrumbs (to taste) 
  • Sunflower seed oil (for frying) 
  • Salt and pepper 

 

  1. Clean the fish to separate the two filets (or ask your fishmonger to do so), then rinse them thoroughly under a tap of running water to remove any scales or bones. Dice up the fish finely using a sharp knife and place in a bowl. 
  2. Add the minced capers, sun dried tomatoes and parsley and mix together, adding one or two (or three) eggs to help it combine well. Add the grated cheese to taste and then adjust with salt and pepper (or more of the ingredients you already added) to fit your desired flavor profile. Only taste if you know the fish is extra-fresh and can be eaten raw. If the mix is too liquid, add a few handfuls of breadcrumbs. 
  3. Once you’re happy with the flavor and consistency–which should be compact and sticky–begin rolling the mix into small balls, making sure they are all roughly of the same size. 
  4. Heat two fingers of sunflower seed oil in a frying pan and heat over high flame. Once the oil is hot enough (you can find this out by inserting a tiny bit of batter and seeing if it bubbles immediately), begin frying the polpette. Don’t overcrowd the pan, but rather cook them in batches. 
  5. As each polpetta turns golden, remove it with a slotted spoon and drain any excess oil by placing it on a few sheets of kitchen paper. 

Vrasciole di Melanzane (Vegetable-Based) 

 

  • 250g eggplants 
  • 100g stale bread (roughly) 
  • 1 egg
  • 1 handful of grated pecorino 
  • Parsley, minced (to taste)
  • Garlic, minced (to taste)
  • Sunflower seed oil (for frying) 
  • Salt and pepper

 

  1. Place the stale bread to soften in a bowl filled with water as you prepare the eggplants.
  2. Slice the eggplants in half lengthwise, remove the skin and cook them in lots of salted boiling water for 10 to 15 minutes or until tender. Alternatively, cook them in a pressure cooker, adjusting the cooking time accordingly. Then, remove them from the water and leave them to cool on one side. 
  3. Once cooled down, squeeze them thoroughly to remove all the excess water, otherwise you won’t achieve the proper end texture and taste. 
  4. Squeeze to remove water from the bread and crumble. Dice the cooked aubergines thoroughly and place them in a bowl with the bread, adding the grated pecorino, minced parsley, egg and as much minced garlic as you desire. Mix thoroughly and adjust to taste with salt. 
  5. If the mix is too wet, add a handful or two of breadcrumbs. Once the consistency is correct–when the mix holds together and is sticky but not liquid–begin shaping the polpette, which are slightly more oval and larger than the traditional balls. 
  6. Heat two fingers of sunflower seed oil in a frying pan and heat over high flame. Once the oil is hot enough (you can find this out by inserting a tiny bit of batter and seeing if it bubbles immediately), begin frying the polpette. Don’t overcrowd the pan, but rather cook them in batches. 
  7. As each polpetta turns golden, flip it over on the opposite side, then remove it with a slotted spoon and drain any excess oil by placing it on a few sheets of kitchen paper.