Quick, Classic Meatballs (Polpette)

A plate of Italian meatballs (polpette)
A plate of Italian meatballs (polpette). William Reavell/DK/Getty
  • 25 mins
  • Prep: 15 mins,
  • Cook: 10 mins
  • Yield: 12-14 meatballs (4-6 servings)

While spaghetti and meatballs have come to symbolize "Italian food" in the U.S. as much as pizza does, many Americans might be surprised to learn that many Italians have never heard of, let alone eaten, this dish. In the south of Italy and Sicily, small meatballs are sometimes served with pasta, but baseball-sized meatballs on top of a pile of spaghetti are really more of an Italian-American thing. (For more on this, see this Smithsonian article: "Is Spaghetti and Meatballs Italian?". Though it contains some errors, it also has some interesting info on the history of "spaghetti and meatballs" and "marinara sauce.") (For more Italian foods that actually originated in America, see: "11 'Italian' Foods You Won't Find in Italy.")

Meatballs in Italy do indeed exist, but they are generally smaller (ranging from marble-sized to about the size of a golf ball) and eaten either on their own or in soups. They're more of a home-cooking dish than a restaurant item, and they're usually made with a mixture of different meats, rather than just ground beef chuck (as is more common in the U.S.) and I find that (just as in my ragù meat-sauce recipe) a mixture of ground beef, pork, and veal is the ideal combination in terms of flavor and texture. Since ground veal can be difficult to find, though, I wrote this recipe to call for just ground beef and pork, but feel free to substitute some of the total amount with ground veal. Generally I would have the ratios of the total ground meat be: 1/2 beef, 1/4 pork, and 1/4 veal. 

These quick, pan-fried meatballs are crusty and dark-brown on the outside, moist and tender on the inside. The secret ingredient is the yogurt, which adds flavor and tanginess and keeps the meatballs tender during cooking so that they don't turn out dense, dry, and tough. 

Feel free to serve these with a simple tomato sauce and pasta, in a sandwich -- or alone! They make a great antipasto appetizer, or cocktail party finger food, skewered on toothpicks and perhaps with a dipping sauce, or in small buns as meatball sliders.

What You'll Need

  • 2 slices of white bread (crusts removed and discarded, torn into small pieces)
  • 6 tablespoons of Greek yogurt (3 fluid ounces)
  • 2 tablespoons of milk (stirred into the yogurt, or in place of the yogurt/milk mixture, 1/2 cup buttermilk)
  • 3/4 pound/340 grams ground beef
  • 1/4 pound/113 grams ground pork
  • 4 tablespoons Parmigiano-Reggiano (freshly grated)
  • 2 tablespoons fresh parsley
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 1 small clove garlic (peeled and finely minced)
  • 1 teaspoon salt (fine sea salt)
  • Black pepper to taste (freshly ground)
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil (or amount needed for pan-frying)

How to Make It

  1. First, combine the pieces of bread and the yogurt-and-milk mixture (or the buttermilk) in a small bowl, mashing everything together with the tines of a fork to form a smooth paste. Set aside and let soften (about 5 to 10 minutes).
  2. When the yogurt-milk mixture is softened and smooth, transfer it to a medium mixing bowl.
  3. Add all of the remaining ingredients (except for the vegetable oil) and use your hands to gently mix them together. Still using your fingers, gently form the mixture at a time into golf ball-sized meatballs (about 1-1/2 inches/4 centimeters in diameter). 
  1. Be careful not to overwork the mixture, to avoid making your meatballs dense and tough, but the meatballs do need to be formed tightly enough that they won't fall apart during cooking. You'll get the hang of it after trying it once.
  2. In a high-sided sauté pan, heat about 1/4-inch (1/2 centimeter) of vegetable oil over medium-high heat. When a meatball dropped in sizzles immediately, the oil is hot enough. 
  3. Fry the meatballs, without overcrowding them, turning them as they cook so that they brown evenly on all sides (I find that chopsticks are great for this purpose!), about 10 minutes. You might need to prop them up against the edges of the pan or against each other to brown all sides. 
  4. Drain the meatballs on a paper-towel lined plate and serve hot.