Tuesday, September 3, 2013


Ever since I moved to the United States, I am regularly confronted with the strangest assumptions about my Italian lifestyle. Everything from my male friends wearing wife-beaters and pinching women's butts on public transportation, to my mother being a widow in a black shawl (my parents are divorced and alive, thank you very much), to the omnipresence of tomatoes in my diet, to the impossibly dramatic discussions I have with my fellow citizens on a daily basis. These stereotypes might be somewhat offensive, and they seem to describe a twisted vision of 1940s Italy spiced with a pinch of operetta, but I have to admit they do contain some truth. I think the American equivalent would be the ranch-owning Texas cowboy doling out dollar bills left and right. There must be someone like that in the state of Texas, but it hardly describes Americans in general. 

Well, this week I made Spaghetti & Meatballs. "Of corse you did!," some of you might say, "That's what Italians eat, right?" Actually, no. Spaghetti & Meatballs is an Italian-American classic mostly unknown to Italians. In fact, I belong to the minuscule minority of Italians who actually ate this pasta in their youth, thanks to my Sicilian grandmother who made it for me ONCE. I think I remember my grandmother telling me that pasta with meatballs originated in Sicily, but I'm not sure. Most websites I checked believe the recipe is completely Italian-American.

Spaghetti with meatballs, bucatini with meatballs
Trust me: This pasta should never be photographed in sepia tone.

Did I like it? Yes, of course. I love pasta al ragù as much as any other Italian, so Spaghetti & Meatballs represents a perfectly acceptable combination to me. Still, as I was cooking, I could not help but wonder whether I was committing a form of self-stereotyping. I've seen Italians play up their accent and dramatize their gestures to be accepted or, more cynically, to sell Italian goods. I have also been guilty of the occasional act of self-stereotyping, and just last week I got a chuckle out of some American moms when I told them I don't jog because I'm Italian and I like to take things leisurely. It was a cheap laugh, and I still feel horrible about it.

In the end, I'm not sure what this Spaghetti & Meatballs stirred in my Italian conscience. Maybe I was self-stereotyping in the give-them-what-they-want spirit. Or maybe I was just recognizing something strangely familiar in this rich, tomatoey triumph. After all, this pasta and I are both Italian, separated by an ocean and possibly a couple of centuries. And, like long lost relatives, we may not have much to say to each other, but we will always share a table, and be pretty content about it. That's the way we've both been raised, you know?

Dead Chef's Bucatini & Meatballs

So here is my recipe. It's a hack of the Italian-American classic that brings together my favorite pasta format—the lovely, thick bucatini—and my family's very Southern meatballs, usually served on their own as a second course. I kept the recipe simple, but you can definitely work on a more complex tomato sauce with a soffritto and a splash of white wine, especially if you are not using San Marzano tomatoes. 

1 lb ground beef, or a mix of ground beef, veal, and pork 
4–5 slices of fresh mortadella, tore by hand into small bits* (optional)
1/4 cup chopped black cured olives (or Sicilian olives, if you can find them)
A few sprigs of chives, chopped
1/3 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano
1 whole egg
dry breadcrumbs (unflavored)
3 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 can of San Marzano tomatoes, chopped in the food processor
1 lb bucatini

  • Mix the first 6 ingredients in a big bowl and shape into small meatballs. My grandmother's would be about 1'' in diameter, but do what you prefer. Roll the meatballs in the breadcrumbs.
  • Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan and add the meatballs. Cook them on all sides until brown, then add the tomatoes. Gently simmer, uncovered, for 30-45 minutes, or until the meatballs are cooked through.
  • While the meatballs are cooking, cook the bucatini in a large pot (see Dead Chef's technique here.) 
  • When the bucatini are ready, remove the meatballs from the sauce and place them in a large dish. Sauté the bucatini in the tomato sauce and the necessary pasta water. When the pasta is perfectly al dente and infused with tomato sauce, top with the meatballs, a little bit of olive oil and grated parmesan, and serve.

*Do not ever replace with Bologna. Not only Mortadella and Bologna are not the same thing, but Bologna is not even food.


  1. Good job, Giuli, perfectly true ! but the entire world believes in this food because of Spaghetti & Meatballs universally shared by Walt Disney....