Among big immigrant groups who contributed the most to the making of modern America, Italians stand out. Escaping first from war and then from desperate rural poverty, Italians flocked to the United States in astonishing numbers. The years between 1880 and 1920 alone saw more than four million Italians becoming new Americans, the majority coming from Sicily and Southern Italy, and they changed the flavor—and tastes—of America forever.
Today, it’s impossible to think of American cuisine without its Italian dishes: pizza, spaghetti and meatballs, lasagne, mozzarella, parmesan and on and on. The seasonings Italians immigrants introduced to the American palate, such as basil and garlic, are now woven inextricably into the fabric of American food. This week is the mother of all Italian-American celebrations, the San Gennaro Festival in New York’s Little Italy. The Feast, started in 1926, was originally a one-day religious celebration on September 19 when Italian immigrants gathered along Mulberry Street to celebrate Saint Januarius, the Patron Saint of Naples. Since then, the festival has grown into a bustling 11-day street fair celebrating all things Italian American. But it’s the food that’s the real draw…think overstuffed sausage & pepper sandwiches and bags of piping hot, sugar-coated zeppoles straight out of the fryer. Among the main attractions this year are the Grand Procession, when the Statue of San Gennaro is paraded through the streets, the world-famous cannoli-eating competition, and a meatball eating contest hosted by Brooklyn’s own Tony Danza.
To celebrate New York’s longest running and most famous food festival, we brought out a real treat, Jeannine’s grandmother’s meatball recipe. Whether you serve these meatballs with the sauce on the side, or simmer them together and serve with pasta, this is the real deal, “red sauce Italian” cooking at its most elemental. The depth of flavor you can achieve with simple ingredients, treated with care and given time to develop to their fullest, is what Italian-American cooking is all about. Buon appetito!
1 pound ground beef chuck
1 pound ground pork
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 cup plain breadcrumbs (preferably homemade)
½ cup parmesan cheese, freshly grated is best
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
¼ cup half & half or whole milk
3 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
2 teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tsp fennel seeds (optional)
Combine all ingredients in a large bowl. Blend with your hands until just combined, don’t overmix. Using your hands, form the mixture into roughly two-inch meatballs (or bigger if you want more of an old-school, restaurant vibe). Heat a combination of olive oil and vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Fry meatballs, turning once or twice, until well-browned and cooked through. Transfer to baking sheet lined with paper towels to absorb excess oil.
Either simmer in homemade red sauce for 30 minutes, or serve with sauce on the side.
¼ cup olive oil
Pinch of red pepper flakes
1 onion, finely diced
4 garlic cloves, finely diced
2 28-oz cans of Italian whole tomatoes
2 fresh bay leaves
2 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
Freshly ground black pepper
5-10 fresh basil leaves roughly chopped or torn
Freshly ground parmesan for serving
Heat oil with red pepper flakes in heavy pot or dutch oven over medium heat for a few minutes. Add onion and cook over until translucent, then add garlic. Cook until garlic is fragrant, one minute or so. Add tomatoes and bay leaves. Simmer for about 20 minutes. Crush tomatoes with the back of a spoon or a potato masher. Add salt, pepper, sugar and half the basil. Let simmer for at least another 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Toss in remaining basil and adjust seasonings. Remove bay leaves. If you like, add meatballs and simmer for 30 minutes or more.