Spaghetti and Meatballs, an Italian-American Myth

Spaghetti and meatballs: is it really an insult to Italian cuisine?

For years the famous (or infamous?) spaghetti and meatballs, ubiquitous in the United States, especially in the restaurants of Little Italy, have represented one of the many false myths of Italian cuisine abroad, like fettuccine Alfredo, actually very Italian, born in Rome by Alfredo Di Lelio in 1908 in the trattoria of his mother Angelina in Piazza Rosa, where today stands the Galleria Alberto Sordi.

The fortune of the dish, in this case, arrived a few years later thanks to the encounter with Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, silent film stars who enjoyed the recipe in the restaurant in Via della Scrofa opened by Alfredo in 1914.

Similar case, although with due differences, is that of spaghetti with meatballs, made famous by the 1955 Disney classic “Lilli e il Vagabondo” (Lady and the Tramp)

Spaghetti and meatballs, the dish of Italian emigrants in America

For many Italians, in fact, spaghetti and meatballs are an unthinkable combination, acceptable they are in the animated film famous precisely for the scene of the romantic dinner between the two little dogs who share a plate of pasta on the notes of “Bella Notte”.

Yet, the recipe was already known many decades before, in the early 1900s, the years of Italian emigration to the United States.

They were poor people, Italians in search of fortune in the Big Apple, who could afford very little and spent most of their savings on food: spaghetti and canned tomatoes were undoubtedly among the cheapest foods of the time.

Then work, the warm American welcome and some extra money allowed them to start enjoying meat in America, which was certainly more available than in Italy, starting with the less valuable cuts: minced meat, for example, which cost less but had a tasty flavor, especially when mixed with other ingredients and made into delicious meatballs.

To be added to that simple tomato sauce, to enrich the dish and create a more substantial, though not opulent, cuisine.


Spaghetti and meatballs in Italy

This seems to be how spaghetti with meatballs as we have known them over the years was born, among the favorite first courses of Americans, even though the combination of meatballs and pasta actually has much more ancient roots in Italy, especially in some regions. Abruzzo, for example, where spaghetti alla chitarra goes perfectly with “pallottine”.

It is a pasta which comes to life from a beech wood frame on which are stretched parallel steel wires, precisely called “chitarra”: the result is spaghetti with a square section, about 30 centimeters long, seasoned in many ways, traditionally with pallottine, small meatballs of beef or lamb in sauce which enrich egg pasta, as well as timballo alla teramana made with scrippelle (a sort of crepes in the Abruzzese way). In Campania as well, it is not rare to find meatballs together with egg pasta, lasagna in primis, and they are also inevitable in sartù, the rice timbale stuffed with meatballs, boiled eggs, peas and mozzarella.

It is not by chance, then, that to invent spaghetti and meatballs were those emigrants coming mainly from Central and Southern Italy, starting from Abruzzo and Campania.


The birth of meatballs

In short, a dish that was not so new to Italians (it seems that originally meatballs were much smaller than those prepared today in Italian-American restaurants, more similar to Abruzzi’s pallottine), but revolutionary in America, so much so that it soon became one of the most beloved recipes of all time.

Perhaps this innovation also led in time to the creation of a day dedicated to meatballs, National Meatball Day, celebrated in the United States every March 9th.

There is no certain information about the origin of these greedy balls, however the most reliable theory is that they were born in Persia: kofta (typical meatballs of the Middle East) probably comes from the Persian koofteh, that is “pounded meat”.

They initially spread in the Middle Eastern countries and then in the Arab ones, which brought them in Europe with the occupation of Spain.

A primordial version of meatballs was already being prepared in Rome, Apicius called them esicia omentata but it was rather a round dough made of red wine, myrtle berries and garum, wrapped in omentum, pork net.

Although meatballs and pasta dishes with meatballs have existed for a long time in Italy, the version of spaghetti and meatballs in the collective imagination (the one of the animated movie, to be clear) remains a specialty of the Italian-American culture, not known – nor appreciated – in the Peninsula.



Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top