Our culinary repertoire is often shaped by our mothers and grandmothers. Here is a different inspiration – Italian food courtesy the mafia!
(This is part of a series where our current resident foodie, Somali Roy, will take readers through experimenting with various cuisines in their home kitchens).
Those who were stoked with The Godfather and later Goodfellas, the two greatest mafia movies ever – may know I am alluding to a dish that was conjured and later iconized by the wave of Italian immigrants (mostly Sicilians) settling in America at the turn of 19th century, namely Spaghetti and Meatballs.
You watch these swarthy, sunglass wearing, thick accented Italian-American bad boys in The Godfather, cutting, slicing, stabbing people at the drop of a hat and then you double take when one of them (Peter Clemenza), deftly instructs Michael, son of the Godfather, on cooking this very dish:
“Heh, come over here, kid, learn something. You never know, you might have to cook for 20 guys someday. You see, you start out with a little bit of oil. Then you fry some garlic. Then you throw in some tomatoes, tomato paste, you fry it; ya make sure it doesn’t stick. You get it to a boil; you shove in all your sausage and your meatballs; heh…? And a little bit o’ wine. An’ a little bit o’ sugar, and that’s my trick.”
Francis Ford Coppola, the Director of The Godfather is believed to have said – if the movie flops, people would at least learn to make Spaghetti sauce. Well, bonus points – I loved the movie and picked up a recipe that jump-started my tryst with Italian cooking at home.
One of the most versatile dishes I know, Spaghetti and meatballs fits the one-dish–for-all bill. It can be picked as a weeknight dinner owing to its ease of preparation or cooked for guests because it looks fancy on a plate or served at a kid’s birthday party because it’s mild on the palate.
One of the most versatile dishes I know, Spaghetti and meatballs fits the one-dish–for-all bill.
And, though it entails four simple staccato steps – cooking the pasta or spaghetti in this case, preparing the meatballs, the tomato sauce and lastly bringing everything together – there is technique involved, which once mastered becomes second nature, and goes a long way in cooking many other Italian pasta dishes.
While all you need to care about in cooking the pasta is to generously salt the boiling water before putting the spaghetti in to let it soak the salty flavour and to cut the heat precisely when the pasta is al dente or firm to the bite, let me assure you there is room for creativity and personal touch in cooking meatballs and tomato sauce. And creativity beckons variety, options and opinions.
No two people will have the same recipe for meatballs and each will vouch for theirs to be superior. Martin Scorsese, Director of Goodfellas, asked his mother to cook the onscreen food and she used veal, pork and beef for her meatballs that we watch Vinnie so delicately put in his tomato sauce in the prison scene, where incarcerated mobsters are preparing a lavish dinner.
As besotted as I am by the cooking scenes in a Mafia biopic, I stick with ground chicken for my meatballs. But do try to follow the two precepts of meatball making – using fatty chicken, so that it’s juicy when fried and highly seasoned meat that will exude great flavours. And this is where I partly depart from mainstream Italian and go native. Think of the unseasoned bland meat, as an empty canvas and use your imagination. I season the meat with garam masala, chopped green chillies, coriander/parsley and lemon juice in my version.
Call it indolence or convenience, I often use bottled pasta sauce and flavour it with chopped shallots, garlic, oregano and a pinch of salt and pepper in the pan. Tomato puree works perfectly well too. Bear in mind that Italian pasta dishes do not swim in their sauce, therefore use in moderation. But in case you need to thicken or thin the sauce later, always reserve the starch water from cooking the pasta to adjust the consistency.
Finally, it’s not just the flavour of the sauce that matters, but also how and when the sauce and the pasta come together. I always have my sauce ready together with the pasta or ideally before it. The pasta shouldn’t have to wait for the sauce, rather the other way round. Once the sauce is nearly done I add the meatballs and let them flavour the sauce before adding the pasta.
All said and done, chances are you might not even find this dish on your trip to Italy, except on menu turistica (tourist menu) owing to its American provenance. But every time I sit with a bowl of luscious meatballs smothered in comforting tomato sauce clinging onto perfectly cooked strings of Spaghetti, I wonder if this homespun recipe is any less representative of the Italian cuisine that we so lovingly devour.
Spaghetti and Meatballs Recipe
For the scene in The Godfather where Clemenza is cooking, Francis Ford Coppola originally wrote in the script, “Clemenza browns some sausage”.
Upon seeing this, Mario Puzo, the author, crossed out “browns” and replaced it with “fries”, writing in the margin, “Gangsters don’t brown.”
So, depending on your mean streak, feel free to fry or brown your meatballs!
Ingredients (serves 2)
For the meatballs
250 gms ground chicken
½ beaten egg
1 tbsp Parmesan cheese (optional)
1 tsp garam masala powder
1 chopped green chilli
Coriander leaves / parsley roughly chopped
Breadcrumbs (to bind it all together)
1 tsp lemon juice
Pinch of salt and pepper
Olive oil for frying
For the sauce
1 tbsp of extra virgin olive oil
1 shallot or half medium sized onion
1 tsp minced garlic
1.5 cups canned pasta sauce / tomato puree
1 tsp oregano
Pinch of salt, pepper
200 gms Spaghetti cooked as per packet instructions.
Parmesan cheese grated on top
Handful of basil leaves
Combine all ingredients for the meatballs in a bowl and mix them together with a fork. Now, using the palm of your hand, roll 1-inch meatballs. This mixture will yield about 8 – 10 balls.
Heat olive oil in a non-stick pan and gently place the meatballs in oil. Very carefully turn them around using a spatula and brown them on all sides over medium-low heat for about 10 minutes. Remove the meatballs on a plate covered with kitchen towel to soak the extra oil.
In the same pan, put some olive oil and heat. Put minced onion and stir over medium heat till translucent. Add chopped garlic and cook for a minute. Now put the tomato sauce and stir everything together. Sprinkle some oregano, a pinch of salt and pepper. Return the meatballs to the sauce and simmer for 5 to 7 minutes on low heat. Add reserved pasta water to adjust the consistency of the sauce if needed.
Add the cooked spaghetti to the sauce and stir everything together for about 2 minutes. Serve onto plates. Garnish with basil leaves and grated Parmesan on top.
*Photo credit: Subhashish Dasgupta