One of my fondest childhood memories is how my Neapolitan aunt Carlotta used to sneak me a meatball before I went to Sunday mass. She would start her sauce early in the day and the aroma would always wake me up—always earlier than I wanted. I would go downstairs to the kitchen, where she would be enjoying her morning espresso while her sauce simmered away. While I had breakfast, she’d let me taste the sauce on a crust of Italian bread and I would start longing for our Sunday afternoon dinner, which wouldn’t be served for at least another 7 hours.

After breakfast, I’d watch some television or read the Sunday comics and then return upstairs to get dressed for church. During this time, my aunt would still be in the kitchen cooking, often joined by mother, and they would work on the dinner until they would leave for a later mass than mine. Children’s mass was always at 9.

When I got back downstairs with only minutes to spare before I had to go—no run—to church, my aunt would whisper: “Roland, have a meatball.”

“But I can’t, I’m taking communion this morning.” (Church law had us fasting for at least an hour before the sacrament.)

“Nonsense,” she would say. “How could God mind just a taste? It’s our secret.”

And so I tasted and enjoyed. (Eve’s apple couldn’t have been more tempting.) And with my aunt’s wink of absolution, I’d run off to mass.

It was this remembrance that inspired me to make my aunt’s meatballs for supper yesterday. As she never used or wrote a recipe for them, I have to rely on my memory of watching her make them. There were just a few ingredients, but they were always so flavorful and so unlike those “spicy meatballs” made famous by the Alka-Seltzer commercial.

Zia Carlotta’s Meatballs
2 slices high-quality white bread, crusts removed
1/2 cup milk
1 pound ground chuck beef (20% fat)
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1/2 cup Pecorino Romano cheese
1/4 cup raisins
1/2 clove garlic, minced fine
1/4 cup Italian parsley, chopped fine
1/4 tsp fresh ground nutmeg
Salt and ground black pepper to taste
Olive oil for frying
Homemade tomato sauce (I use Marcella Hazan’s Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter)

Soak the bread in milk for 10 to 15 minutes.

Using you hands, thoroughly squeeze the milk out of the bread. Discard the milk and reserve the bread.

In a large bowl, gently combine the beef, egg, cheese, raisins, garlic, parsley, nutmeg, salt and pepper. Add the bread and, using your hands, combine with the other ingredients until evenly distributed. Be gentle and do not overwork the mixture. Overworking the mixture will make your meatballs heavy.

Using wet hands, shape the mixture using your palms to create balls that are approximately 1.5 inches in size. You should have about 12 meatballs from this recipe.

In a skillet large enough to accommodate all of the meatballs in a single layer, add olive oil to approximately a 1/4 inch depth. Heat over medium heat. Carefully add the meatballs and fry turning occasionally until browned all over. About 10 to 15 minutes.

Using a slotted spoon, transfer the meatballs to a platter layered with paper towels to drain excess fat.

In a pot large enough to accommodate the meatballs, bring your sauce to a gentle simmer. Transfer the drained meatballs to the sauce and cook over low heat for another 10 minutes or so until cooked through.

Serve with spaghetti tossed with the sauce from the meatballs and sprinkled with grated Romano.

Wine Pairing: Chianti Classico

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