Did you happen to view the YouTube from yesterday of the old 1970’s commercial for Alka-Seltzer with the Italian guy saying, “that’s a spicy meatball”?? I cannot remember a time EVER that I did not love meatballs and spaghetti or meatballs and nothing. I know many of you feel the same. You can give it any name you like but if it’s a ball of flavorful meat, I’m going to like it.
I spent a lot of time with my paternal grandmother when I was very young. Everyone called her Bigma but her name was Lela. My brother was diagnosed with cancer the year I was born so I spent my infant years with her that forever bonded me to her in a very special way. She was the first person who taught me what creativity looked like. She loved to sew and quilt and spent many hours doing needlework of all kinds. She tried to teach me how to crochet but sadly, I never got the knack for that talent.
She was a country cook as most women of her generation were. She was born in 1901 and lived through the great Depression. She buried a husband and lost a son on the beach at Normandy. She worked hard. She was also a bit of a gossip but I won’t go into that here.
My favorite was her meatballs and spaghetti. She didn’t have access to many of the ingredients we have today such as olive oil and fresh basil. She had the everyday ingredients such as canned tomatoes and ketchup. I remember she had a very large stainless-steel pot that seemed to cover half the stove and that is the pot she used to make her meatballs and spaghetti in. Her meatballs were about the size of a 50-cent piece. Her sauce was made simple with canned tomatoes and ketchup with a little oregano, garlic, chopped onions, sugar, salt and pepper. Very simple ingredients but it tasted fabulous. I think her trick was cooking it slow and low for half the day. She also liked to mix it all together instead of serving the meatballs and sauce over the spaghetti.
One funny story that has been told many times over the years was the time she told my Dad that she wanted to help my Mom out and cook dinner one weeknight. Mother had gone back to work after my brother passed working in our community school as a teacher’s aide and bus driver. So, having a night off from cooking truly was a help to her in those days.
As soon as we were home from school I would run to Bigma’s house, which was in the same yard as our home, to tell her about my day. She usually had some type of treat waiting. This day she had that huge pot of meatballs and spaghetti ready. She told me that she felt we needed to be the ones to give it a “little taste” to make sure it was good enough for supper that evening. Being about 7 or 8 years old, I was game! So, we tried a few meatballs and yeah…they were REALLY good. We tried a few more. Even better. In fact, we sampled so many that by the time supper time came and we took the pot across the yard to our house and presented it to Daddy for supper there MAY have been a dozen meatballs left to split between the five of us. Imagine three pounds of spaghetti with sauce and twelve little meatballs. I never heard or saw my Dad get angry or disrespectful with his mother ever but that night he came very close. I felt SO badly since I was about to pop having been one of the two that eat about forty meatballs that afternoon. I do recall at one point asking her if we should stop eating to make sure there was enough left and I very vividly remember her telling me, “Don’t worry, I made plenty so we can’t run out.” Uh…..
Needless to say, cracks of me eating all the meatballs have continued 40+ years later but that’s okay. I always try to make sure when I make meatballs we never run out either!
Let’s face it, it’s the meatballs NOT the spaghetti most people love. We were watching one of our favorite cooking shows of Lidia Bastianich several months ago and she made a recipe from her childhood called Meatballs and Red Gravy. According to Lidia, Italians do not call it sauce but gravy. So, I started playing around with her recipe and came up with my own version that, I think, is the best I’ve ever had. I do not normally toot my own horn that loudly but for this recipe, I will. The flip is leaving the pasta out, though you could certainly add it if you must but truly, it only needs some great French or Italian bread for dipping and sopping. It’s thick enough to eat with a spoon but why would you when you could use your bread instead? The key is to make sure you add the red wine, one with a high alcohol content like a Merlot. The higher the alcohol content the “thicker” the wine thus the thicker the gravy will get as it simmers on low for a couple of hours. Look for a red wine with 25-30% alcohol content. Note: you should not require any Alka-Seltzer unless you increase the heat factor yourself!
For the Meatballs:
2-3 lbs. ground chuck or beef
2 eggs, beaten
1-2 cups bread crumbs
1/3 c Worcestershire sauce
Fresh parsley, finely chopped (as much as you like)
1 small red onion
4-6 gloves garlic
1 t. salt
1 t. pepper
½ c. grated parmesan cheese
Lightly separate the ground chuck in a large mixing bowl.
- Add the eggs, bread crumbs, parsley, cheese, Worcestershire and spices – but do not mix at this point.
- Grate the onion and garlic into the meat mixture.
- Gently mix together until all ingredients are incorporated. Try not to handle the meat too much as it will make a tougher meatball.
- Roll into balls (whatever size you like) and place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
- Bake at 375 degrees until meatballs are lightly browned but not cooked completely through. Remove from oven and assemble the gravy.
For the Red Gravy:
1 large can crushed tomatoes or 2 cans small
1 – 1 ½ c. red wine (start with one and if it needs more, add the extra half cup)
1 bay leaf
4-5 cloves garlic, left whole
1 c. Kalamata olives
1 lb. mushrooms (optional)
1 – 2 red peppers, chopped (I like to use piquant peppers for added heat)
1 red onion, chopped
1 t. Tony’s
1 t. black pepper
½ t. red pepper flakes
3 T tomato paste
1 t. oregano
2 T. sugar
Grated parmesan cheese – sprinkle over at top of serving
- Combine all ingredients in a large saucepan or Dutch oven until well combined. Allow it to come to a bubble and taste for seasonings. Add more wine or seasonings as to your own taste.
- Add meatballs into gravy and allow to simmer on very low for about 1-2 hours. Stir occasionally. You could cook this much faster but I have found that the gravy develops a depth of flavor if allowed to simmer on very low for a longer cooking time. It would even be great to make this early in the day of when you plan to serve it and allow it to sit all day once cooked.
The brininess of the olives coupled with the slight heat of the peppers and red pepper flakes, the acidity of the tomatoes and the slight hint of sweetness from the sugar make this amazingly good.
I’ve tested it on several friends and of course Cas and Mom and everyone agrees it’s the best. I think Bigma would approve. I hope you do too! GO MAKE THIS.
Recipe serves 4.