The Strange (Somewhat Italian) Case of Meatballs and Spaghetti

For some of us it was always “meatballs and spaghetti,” while for others it was “spaghetti and meatballs.” We saw it written both ways on menus surrounded by red-checkered tablecloths and candles popped into basket-covered Chianti bottles. To actual Italians, however, it was more like, “Huh?”

It is a delightful irony of American food history that the single dish defining the Italian-American immigrant experience, for non-Italians and eventually for the immigrant families themselves, wasn’t something any Italian mama ever cooked up in the Old Country. The Chinese in China who never made “chop suey” might feel sympathetic, but in truth there’s no dish more Italian or absolutely less Italian than the combination of spaghetti with meatballs.

Meatballs, of course, were nothing new or even specific to Italy. As “kottbullars,” they were popular in Sweden (surely you’ve heard of Swedish meatballs, especially at IKEA), while as koftes they were beloved in Turkey and other parts of the then-Ottoman world. There were meatballs in Italy long before the great immigration to America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They were known as “polpette.”

All the same, nobody thought of putting them with spaghetti or any other pasta, not least because pasta was always its own course, often followed by a meat course that might even be polpette – with no sauce of any kind in sight. Meatballs didn’t even get respect, since anyone who cooked at all in Italy was presumably able to make them. “Don’t think I’m pretentious enough to tell you how to make meatballs,” a Florentine silk merchant named Pelligrino Artusi wrote in 1891, his effort the first true Italian cookbook. “This is a dish that everybody can make, starting with the donkey.”

That donkey’s contribution notwithstanding, we know the first people to set meatballs atop a mound of spaghetti and cover the whole thing with what they liked to call marinara (sailor sauce) lived not in Italy but in the United States. They were often bound to ethnic neighborhoods called Little Italys and basically poor and uneducated, but they were also, in an American sense, living the dream. Researchers say these immigrants were spending only 25 percent of their income to feed themselves, compared with 75 percent in the Old Country. And that meant they could afford a lot more meat.

No one knows who the first Italian-American to make the spaghetti-meatball-marinara connection was, though it was probably somebody at home rather than some chef in an Italian restaurant. Still, as with other immigrant groups before and since, restaurants proved entry-level businesses for newcomers with little education or financial backing. They worked as waiters and cooks for earlier arrivals, usually relatives by blood or marriage, until they could open their own little place.

As Americans became, more and more, the customers in these Little Italy restaurants, the meal patterns evolved as well.  In addition to eating earlier, Americans generally didn’t embrace pasta as a separate course of a long, leisurely meal – no surprise there – but as part of a complete single plate. And everybody loved red sauce (or “gravy,” as many Italian-Americans still prefer to call it).

So… The tomato, originally developed in ancient Mexico, initially thought to be poisonous and promoted as food in America and Europe by none other than Thomas Jefferson, found its true calling in Italy – thanks to “spaghetti and meatballs” and people from Italy newly arrived in America.


For modern American families, the hardest and most time-forbidding part of making spaghetti and meatballs for dinner is the marinara sauce, or simply red sauce or red gravy. Using recipes from a real Italian family in Texas, we feel we’ve done a pretty solid job with our Mom’s line of solving that problem for you. Making the meatballs, boiling the spaghetti and pouring the wine we’ll leave to you.

1 1/4 pounds ground sirloin
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce1 egg, beaten
1/2 cup Italian breadcrumbs
1/4 cup grated Parmesan, Parmigiano-Reggiano or Romano cheese
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 tablespoons dried minced onion
2 tablespoons dried parsley
1 tablespoon Italian seasoning, or dried oregano
Salt and pepper

1 jar Mom’s brand Special Marinara
½ cup dry red wine
1 pound spaghetti
Salt, for pasta water
Grated cheese, such as Parmigiano-Reggiano or Romano
Crusty bread or garlic bread

To make the meatballs, combine all the ingredients in a mixing bowl and cook until done in a pan or skillet with a little olive oil. (Yes, you can finish them in the microwave, but only once they are very brown for flavor and texture). Drain the meatballs and wipe out the pan, adding the meatballs and the sauce and red wine. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat simmer for about 15 minutes, adding a little water or more wine if you prefer a more liquid sauce. Cook and the spaghetti until “al dente” (not quite soft) in salted boiling water; drain. Combine the spaghetti and toss with a bit of the sauce. Serve the spaghetti warm with meatballs and more sauce on top. Sprinkle with grated cheese and accompany with crusty bread. Serves 6.

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