Sometimes a recipe is enough to make me purchase a cookbook. So when I saw a recipe for polpettine di pecorino, pecorino meatballs, in Bastianich’s Lidia Cooks from the Heart of Italy, I had to have this book.

I’m not sure why I was so intrigued by this dish. On one hand, I was skeptical that cheese, bread crumbs, eggs, garlic, and basil would come together and then be fried to make a satisfying alternative to the classic meatball. But on the other hand, I have a weakness for pecorino; having a Neapolitan heritage, I was brought up on it. It was the cheese of choice for sprinkling on pasta, flavoring stuffings, adding to a frittata, or topping carne pizzaiola.

A few nights ago, I tried the recipe for the first time and we thoroughly enjoyed a most satisfying meatless dish. Richly flavored, they had a pleasant saltiness and meaty texture. A simple marinara provided the perfect complement to their savoriness.

My aforementioned skepticism is to blame for not having photos of preparing this dish. But I think the two I’ve provided of the finished meatballs should entice you to make them. I’ll try to add more photos the next time I make these.

As we were only two at the table, I halved the original recipe, which makes 60 small meatballs.

Meatless Pecorino Meatballs Adapted from Lidia Cooks from the Heart of Italy
8 large eggs
3 cups fine dry bread crumbs
3 cups freshly grated pecorino
2 teaspoons kosher salt
4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh basil
2 plump garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
1 cup vegetable oil, or more as needed (I used extra virgin olive oil.)
6 to 7 cups tomato sauce (I used Marcella Hazan’s classic tomato, onion, and butter sauce.)

Beat the eggs well in a large mixing bowl. Heap the bread crumbs, cheese, salt, basil, and garlic on top of the eggs and mix everything together well, first with a big spoon or spatula and then with your hands. (Be careful not to overwork the mixture.) The “dough” should come together in a soft mass, leaving the sides of bowl. If it is very sticky, work in more bread crumbs a bit at a time.

Break off tablespoonful pieces of dough, and one by one roll them in your palms into smooth balls. Place them on a board or tray covered with wax paper or parchment–you should get about 60 balls total.

Pour 1/8 inch oil into the skillet, and set over medium flame. When the oil is hot enough that a test ball starts sizzling on contact, lay in as many balls as will fit into the pan without crowding–about 20 or 30. Adjust the heat as you fry so the heat stays hot and the balls are sizzling and browning nicely, but not burning. Turn them frequently, so they fry on all sides.

When the balls are evenly browned and crispy, lift them from the pan with a slotted spoon or spider, letting excess oil drip back into the pan for a moment, and then lay them on paper towels to drain

Fry the balls in batches this way, adding more oil if needed. You can serve these as is as an hors d’oeuvre while hot and crispy.

To serve with sauce, heat the sauce to a simmer in a large saucepan. Drop in all the balls and return the sauce to a simmer, gently turning the balls so all are submerged and coated. Cook for about 5 minutes, or just until the balls are heated all the way through.

Finished meatballs in the sauce
Finished meatballs in the sauce

Serve with sauce on the top, sprinkled with grated cheese, and garnished with basil.

Wine Pairing: Montepulciano d’Abruzzo



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