Although Americans and most of the rest of the world characterize Italian food with an ample bowl of spaghetti and meatballs swimming in a sea of sauce this combination is not to be found in Italy. At least not as we know it.
More than likely you’ll see delicate bite-sized meatballs served as cicchetti in a Venetian bacaro (wine bar) or as Polpette alla Napoletana (Neapolitan-style meatballs), made with lean minced beef and assortment of ingredients like raisins and pine nuts. Both served without pasta. There are regional pockets in Italy of polpette “meatballs” served with spaghetti and sauce where a dish is made sort of resembles the spaghetti and meatballs we know of. Pallottine (bullets) are very,very tiny meatless meatballs from Abruzzo. There is also a dish from Puglia (orecchiette with turnip greens ) that is sometimes made with sausage where the sausage chunks look like miniature meatballs.
Depending on the part of Italy and the culinary and cultural landscape of the region some meatballs are not even made with meat like the Tirolese Canederli. Flavored with Alpine ingredients from Italy’s SudTirol and studded with speck, a local cured ham. These meatball like dumplings are served in a broth, in stews, or as a side dish with butter or lots of gravy.
In Milan there is a version called Mondeghili (MON-deh-KEE-lee), a classic aperitivo snack. Milanese meatballs are made with the leftovers of boiled or roasted meat, finely ground, with chopped mortadella from Bologna then pan-seared in butter until crusty.
The big saucy bowls of spaghetti topped with baseball-sized meatballs come from the recipes of generational Italian immigrants that came through Ellis Island to the US from Naples and Southern Italy in the 1920s. Meat as an ingredient was reserved for special occasions in Italy, or only used sparingly. With easily obtainable ingredients in the United States, immigrant cooks expanded their recipes creating a new Italian-American cuisine.
Although pasta and meatballs and many other so-called “traditional Italian” dishes aren’t very traditional in Italy our Nonna embraced the abundance of American and happily adapted her recipes and never looked back and that’s why we love spaghetti and meatballs.