Who Says There's No Such Thing as Spaghetti and Meatballs in Italy? - Discover Pallottine from Abruzzo
In the province of Teramo, in Abruzzo there is a recipe that rivals the Sugo of the Neapolitan tradition: Chitarra con Pallottini. If there is any ancestor of Italian-American style "spaghetti & meatballs" (a dish that doesn't exist in Italy), then this is it...
Let me explain the name first. Chitarra means guitar in Italian, but in this case it refers to the pasta making tool called a chitarra because it's wire strings resemble a guitar (OK, perhaps it looks more like a zither or auto-harp, but let's not quibble.) The chitarra is used to make a type of spaghetti with a square edged profile, called Pasta alla Chitarra. A thin sheet of fresh pasta is laid on top of the chitarra and a small matterello pin is rolled over the pasta to squeeze it down and through the wires, creating the square sides. The pasta falls below, picked up and dried or cooked fresh. Kids would love to help make this pasta. The name of this type of pasta has taken on the name chitarra.
As for the Pallottini... palla means ball, the "-ini" ending means they are small. Small isn't the word. These Abruzzo meatballs are absolutely tiny. When I made this recipe, it took me well over an hour to make 268 tiny pallottine from about 3 pounds of minced, lean chuck. (Yes, I counted them). I should have waited until my son, Lucas came home from school to help me! While making them, I discovered that it was difficult to make the pallotine as small as the ones I found in authentic Abruzzese recipes. Mine came out around 3/4 inch in diameter... instead of the 1/2" or smaller seen in Abruzzo. The problem was trying to pinch a small enough bit of meat in between the tips of my fingers. Perhaps using a 1/4 teaspoon measure would have worked better. Tiny fingers and hands of young children would be perfect for the task, but knowing how tedious this task is, more than likely it would be considered as child labor.
On Sundays, when Neapolitan nonnas and mamas are making their Sugo, the kitchens in Abruzzo are filled with similar scents of Nonnas making their Sugo, pasta alla chitarra and pallottine. Traditionally, the dish is accompanied by a rich meat and tomato based Sugo rather than a simple marinara sauce. The sugo is slow-cooked all day with lamb, beef, and pork added to a large pot of crushed tomatoes. The sauce isn't finished until the meat easily falls or shreds apart and can be mixed into the sugo. In my recipe, I slow cooked the pallottine with crushed tomatoes and spices, leaving out the other meats. My thinking was that 3 pounds of tiny meatballs will still add loads of meaty flavor to the resulting sugo.
Some claim that Chitarra con Pallottini is a dish from the Piedmont region in the north from the early 20th century. In Abruzzo people have been making and eating pallottini since the early 1800s, a full 100 years earlier. To add to the confusion, a recent report by an Italian expert in archeological gastronomy discovered a Piedmont recipe in a monk's cookbook dated 1344 that described tiny meatballs used in a rice and pork blood dish. Wherever it stemmed from, this dish is unique and well worth making...
Since I didn't have a Chitarra when I made this recipe, I used some 3/4 inch wide tagliatelle for my dish. I also changed up the recipe a bit from the originals I found. They tend to use nothing but ground beef, one egg and a sprinkle of nutmeg to make the pallottini. I wanted to add a bit more flavor, so I added a very small minced of garlic (in a jar, imported from Italy) and since these meatballs were SO tiny, I couldn't use fresh diced onions as I do in normal sized polpette. Instead, I used dried onion flakes, knowing they would re-hydrate when added to the meat mixture.
I won't get into the recipe for the traditional Sugo here, but if you like, you can make my recipe HERE. Otherwise, for a fresher sauce, make a quick marinara with crushed tomatoes, a bit of sugar, and a decent amount of dried basil.
3 pounds of lean, chopped (minced) chuck/beef
2 tablespoons dried onion flakes
2 teaspoon minced garlic (in jar)
2 tablespoons fine sea salt
40 cracks fresh black pepper
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 beaten egg
In a large mixing bowl, mix the minced chuck with the beaten egg, the minced garlic and all the other dry spices. Get in there with your hands and mix really well, until you are certain that each and every tiny meatball will get an assortment of garlic, onion flakes and other spices.
Lay out several sheets of wax paper on your work counter and start making the pallotine. If using your bare hands, barely pinch a little bit of meat mixture in between the tips of your thumb and two forefingers. Roll the meat into a ball shape between your palms. As I mentioned, the pallottine should be less than 3/4 inch around. If you want to try a 1/4 teaspoon measure, this might help to measure out a smaller amount.
Once you finished making all of the pallottine, heat a large saute pan with light olive oil filled to a depth of 3/4 inch deep. If you would like to brown the pallottine a bit more, you can use half the amount of oil, but you will have to pay much more attention to turning them as they brown. These tiny balls cook quickly!
Cook them in batches and remove with a slotted spoon, then place on a large baking tray covered with several layers of paper towels to drain.
When completed, you can place them in your marinara or Sugo and slowly simmer for about 1-1/2 hours or longer if you are adding them to a Sugo with several other meats.
So, the next time someone claims there is no such thing as Spaghetti and Meatballs in Italy, try winning a bar bet with your knowledge of Pallottine!
P.S. When I get my Chitarra tool, I'll update this article with photos of the Pallottine on top of fresh made Pasta alla Chitarra.