A lesson on Italian meatballs

Italian cuisine is all about tradition. In Italy, it’s not hard to find restaurants preparing the same recipe for 100 or 200 years. It’s something that brings them pride and local businesses fight for the honor to be the best in town to prepare their specialty, generation after generation.

Their meatballs or polpette are not an exception. They are traditionally prepared with breadcrumbs, egg, and meat, as well as a number of regional spices. Unlike their American counterpart, these are often served on their own with a salad, a side of pasta or bread.

Yet, younger chefs are taking the initiative to stir up the tradition, trying unconventional ingredients and daring to be a bit more imaginative. That was the case at BIS Take Away Italiano, a cozy little meatball shop right in the heart of Rome on la Vía Giovanni Vitelleschi.

It was a tiny, hole-in-the-wall place with a handful of menu items, but it was still one of the most memorable dining experiences of our trip to Italy. We found it by chance after a visit to St. Peter’s Basilica. The aroma was so enticing we had to stop — whatever these people were serving, we wanted it! 

The meatballs of the day were prepared with melanzane (eggplant), but they also had amazing grass-fed meatballs, a veggie option inspired by falafel and a chicken option. Everything was prepared to order with fresh, local, seasonal ingredients.

Our order came out quick and the meatballs were juicy and incredibly full of flavor. They were everything!

The owners explained that the trick is to find quality binding ingredients like bread, cheese, and egg to keep the meatballs firm, yet light. And then, you can incorporate any other ingredients you like, from vegetables and grains to all kinds of meats and spices. They also liked to add unexpected ingredients like dry fruits or pine nuts. 

In terms of the sauce, the chef used traditional Italian ingredients prepared in a more unexpected way. They had a leek and garlic sauce, for example. And for their chicken meatballs, they gave the sauce a more Asian flavor, which was a brilliant marriage.

All meatballs were served with a variety of “primi” or first pasta dish, sauté veggies or a simple salad. Needless to say, we still dream about this place and we did our best to replicate a couple of their recipes at home. Here are a couple of versions!

Kale and grass-fed beef meatballs with leek sauce

Meatball Ingredients-
  • 1 Lb grass fed beef
  • 8-9 Kale leaves, finely chopped, no stem
  • 2 Cups of breadcrumbs
  • 3 Garlic cloves
  • ¼ Cup of raisins 
  • Salt to taste
  • ¼ Cup of parsley, finely chopped
  • 2 Eggs
  • Olive oil

Sauce Ingredients-
  • 2 Leeks, white part only, chopped and rinsed
  • 4-5 Garlic cloves, minced
  • Sal and pepper to taste
  • 2 Tablespoons of lemon juice
  • ½ Cup of white wine
  • ¼ Cup of parsley, finely chopped
  • Olive oil

1. Mix all the meatball ingredients. Make bite-size meatballs.

2. Preheat oven at 350 degrees. Sauté meatballs with a drizzle of olive oil until lightly golden. Let them rest.

3. Meanwhile, make the sauce. Sauté the leeks and garlic with a drizzle of olive oil. Once the leeks soften, add the rest of the ingredients and cook for about 8 minutes. Season to taste.

4. Once it cools, pure the sauce and pour in a baking casserole. Add the meatballs and mix well. Bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes. Serve with bread, a salad or a side of pasta. 

Eggplant Meatballs
  • 1 Large eggplant (about 4 cups)
  • 2 beaten eggs
  • 4 Cups of breadcrumbs
  • 1 Teaspoon of dried basil
  • Salt to taste
  • ¼ Cup of parsley, finely chopped
  • Your favorite marinara sauce
1. Cut the eggplant into small cubes. Sauté with a drizzle of olive oil and a season with salt. Mash them with a fork and let them cool down.

2. Mix the eggplant mash with the rest of the ingredients. Make bite-size meatballs and sauté with a drizzle of olive oil until lightly golden.

3. Place the meatballs in a casserole and add a few spoons of marinara sauce. Mix well. Bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes. Serve with bread, a salad or a side of pasta.

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