While dining at one of my favorite restaurants here in Rome not so long, the head chef -- who knows that my sister and I are American, and thus pretty good at English -- approached our table, looking perplexed. Hands clasped, brow knit, he asked for our help translating something, and when we agreed, proceeded to lead us over to a table occupied by what appeared to be an American family. A map of Rome was spread out on the table, and they all wore flip flops, shorts, and slightly confused smiles. Our job, the chef explained, was to tell these diners that they could order first the spaghetti al pomodoro -- spaghetti with tomato sauce -- and then the polpette, or rather the meatballs. They could not, however, under any circumstances, have spaghetti with meatballs served on top of it. "I don't understand," one of the women said. after we sheepishly passed on his message. "Why can't we eat the spaghetti and the meatballs together, all at once? What's the problem?"
The problem of course is that spaghetti with meatballs is a dish enjoyed almost exclusively in the United States, and does not exactly exist in Italy (I might have briefly covered this here). It is a culinary no-no, up there with eating seafood pasta served with cheese and ordering a cappuccino after dinner. In the end, the American family ordered first their pasta, then their meatballs, bemused but in the end respectful of the chef's stubborn refusal to mess with the strict rules and principles of Italian cuisine.
So, here's the good news: While it’s true that spaghetti and meatballs are not exactly culturally acceptable here in Italy, what would you say if I told you could, within the rules and regulations of Italian cooking, make one giant meatball, bake it in the oven, and serve that up to your friends?! Who really needs spaghetti or penne or fettuccine or pasta of any kind when you have something as cool as an enormous delicious meatball? Allow me then to introduce you to polpettone (which, surprise surprise, means “big meatball” in Italian) and can also be described as the more worldly and beautiful cousin of the basic American meatloaf. You're already intrigued, right?!
This polpettone contains the usual basic meatball ingredients -- eggs, bread soaked in milk, half an onion -- with a few little extra touches. It's dotted with bits of salty rich prosciutto, brightened with a dose of fresh green parsley, sprinkled with a generous spoonful of grated sharp Parmesan cheese and baked in a cozy, sage-y tomato and white wine pan sauce, which is used to baste the polpettone as it does its thing in the oven. It is the very picture of cozy cold weather cooking, intensely satisfying on a cold day, and arguably easier than forming a bunch of different individual meatballs that need to be cook in a bubbling and slightly messy pot of sauce on the stove. Oh, and it's incredibly delicious, too, so much so that my sister looked genuinely wistful when we finished the last remaining piece the next day. Don't feel bad for her, though -- after all, she lives with a food blogger.
A couple of notes: You can use ground veal instead of ground beef here, or use a combination of veal, pork, and beef if you'd prefer. If you don't have a skillet that can go in the oven, you could probably just as well pour the pan sauce from the skillet into a baking dish (about 9-inch) and place the polpettone on top of that (the skillet to oven method just makes things a little easier and makes things go a bit quicker). Keep an eye on the pan sauce and add water so it doesn't dry out (this can lead to burned onions and carrots and can also burn the bottom of the polpettone). Finally, this is delicious served with roasted rosemary potatoes, but I suspect it would also be great with mashed potatoes, roasted carrots, or any other veg you like.
Looking for other cozy mains to ward off that autumnal chill?! Thought so. Check out this Chickpea, Kale, and Sausage Soup, this Butternut Squash Risotto, this Risotto with Pancetta and Peas, this Pasta alla Gricia, this Pici with Sausage Ragù, or this Butternut Squash and Caramelized Onion Galette.
POLPETTONE AL FORNO
Ingredients for polpettone:
1 pound (500 grams) ground beef
1/2 cup (50 grams) bread
1/3 cup (68 grams) milk
1/2 onion, chopped
Scant 1/2 cup (50 grams) prosciutto, chopped
3/4 teaspoon salt
Pepper, to taste
1 tablespoon grated Parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
Ingredients for pan sauce:
1 tablespoon chopped sage
1/2 cup (100 grams) crushed tomatoes
1 carrot, chopped
1/2 onion, coarsely chopped
1/3 cup (60 grams) white wine
Preheat the oven to 340 degrees Fahrenheit (180 degrees Celsius) and move the oven rack up to the middle setting. Tear up the bread into small pieces and place in a bowl with the milk. Mix everything together and set aside. In a large bowl, place the ground beef, eggs, onion, prosciutto, Parmesan, parsley, salt, and pepper, then add the bread-milk mixture.
Mix everything together with a spoon to get you started, then use your hands to mix everything together (it's the easiest and best way). Shape the meat mixture into an oval and set aside.
Next, make your pan sauce. Smash the garlic clove into the sage and mix everything around. Heat a little olive oil in an oven-proof skillet, and add the sage-garlic mixture, the carrot, and the onion. Cook until the onion starts to soften and then add the wine. Let the wine reduce for a bit, about 5 minutes. Add the crushed tomatoes to the pan and bring to a bubble.
Move the vegetables to the side of the pan to make a bit of space for the polpettone. Place the polpettone in the center of pan and place in the oven. Check the polpettone as it bakes, adding more water to the pan sauce if it starts drying out, spooning the tomato, carrot, and wine sauce over the polpettone as you go. Bake the polpettone for about 45-60 minutes, or until it is fully cooked in the middle (cut a slit in the center with a knife).
Let the polpettone cool slightly and then cut in to slices. Feel free to garnish with a little fresh parsley for color. Serve with the carrots and onions, plus any side dish you want (roasted potatoes with rosemary are particularly nice)! Serves 4.
Recipe barely adapted from www.salepepe.it.