Stay on the Ball

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The meatball is an Italian tradition that today serves as a modern canvas to showcase a chef’s favorite flavors from around the world.

Meatballs, long pigeonholed as the hearty staple of Italian cooking in America, are enjoying a renaissance in creative applications that transcend cultural borders. From Swedish to Moroccan cuisine and all around the Mediterranean, meatballs are acting as a blank canvas for creative ethnic fare to shine.

“Meatballs are so much more universal than what people think,” says Angelina Bastifas, a “Top Chef” (Season 13) alum who helms Chicago’s AMK Kitchen and Bar. “Pick your guilty pleasure of how you want these delicious bites prepared: fried, baked or poached.”

Meatballs are just ground meats blended with seasoning, some type of breading and egg for binding. It’s a simple, affordable and versatile dish that once offered Italian immigrants new to America an easy way to stretch small rations of beef.

Today, chefs are taking advantage of its economics, presenting rich and complex flavor profiles that stretch staid convention. Where meatballs become exciting is when chefs showcase creativity with herbs, spices and flavors, putting their own stamp on an Italian classic.

It doesn’t always have to be “your usual meatball with marinara,” says Bastifas. It’s more than a nod to Italian tradition; It’s a template to display your favorite flavors.

From personalizing family recipes to blending exotic spices, here are U.S. chefs who are doing it their way.

Moroccan Meatballs
Seven Lions, Chicago IL
Executive Chef Patrick Russ

Made with spiced tomato sauce, pine nuts, golden raisins and raita, Moroccan Meatballs from Chicago’s Seven Lions is an international interpretation of meatballs. “We wanted to do meatballs, but we wanted to do something that was different,” says Executive Chef Patrick Russ, whose modern menu is inspired by the classic clubhouse with worldwide flavors, including India, Thailand, Italy and Argentina.

“The meatballs are a take of a traditional Middle Eastern beef kofta, ground beef seasoned with spices,” says Russ. “We use a mix of ground beef and pork seasoned with cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and cumin with some pulverized raisins to add a little sweetness and moisture.”

They’re complemented with a spicy tomato sauce spiked with sambal chili paste, cumin and garam masala to echo the recipe’s warm spices. “We offset the heat with a cooling yogurt raita,” says Russ. “We also finish the meatballs with a spiced pine nut dukkah.”

Lena’s Meatballs
FireLake Grill House and Cocktail Bar, Minneapolis MN
Chef Jim Kyndberg

The upper Midwest, with a cultural lineage tracing back to northern Europe, is undoubtedly meat and potatoes country. Jim Kyndberg, the acclaimed Minneapolis chef who runs the kitchen at FireLake Grill House and Cocktail Bar’s two locations, embraces the way menu staples like meatballs allow fresh, flavorful ingredients to do the heavy lifting.

Kyndberg is committed to sourcing ingredients from local farmers and producers, including meat, cheese and even honey and syrup. Lena’s Meatballs, which blend Americana tradition with Scandinavian techniques, are no exception. With a combination of beef, pork and duck, he includes Midwest staples like white bread, milk, onion, butter, honey, eggs and spices—a true reflection of local flavors. The dish is finished with lingonberry compote and glazed with a house-made porcini mushroom sauce, all served on a bed of white cheddar-herb mashed potatoes. “Prepared in the Swedish tradition, the ingredients speak for themselves with just a hint of spice,” says Kyndberg. “We serve them with zucchini pickles.”

Beef and Pork Cheek Meatball
AMK Kitchen and Bar, Chicago IL
Chef Angelina Bastidas (Pictured on cover)

In Chicago, Chef Angelina Bastidas is taking inspiration from her grandmother’s recipes and adding a modern twist. “There’s a ton of love behind this meatball, where it’s almost indescribable,” says Bastidas. “It starts with a special blend specifically made for our restaurant—no one else, to my knowledge, uses the same blend of ground beef and pork cheek.”

The meat is mixed with ricotta and Parmesan cheese, basil, thyme, black pepper, salt, white bread, whole milk, onions and garlic. Once blended, it’s portioned and molded into 8-ounce balls.Unlike many meatball recipes that rely on baking or frying, Bastidas poaches her meatballs in a light San Marzano tomato sauce, made with milled tomatoes, tomato paste, sugar, salt, garlic confit, basil and thyme, all of which simmers for about an hour.

“They’re almost like pillows,” she says. The dish is finished with cool whipped ricotta cheese, grated Parmesan and a slice of grilled ciabatta bread. “I’m not changing classic recipes; I’m simply putting a twist of elevation on it while still giving it that nostalgic feeling.”

The Meatball
Sophia’s, Austin TX
Chef Mark Sparacino

“In the early days, when money was tight, a family of nine would need to stretch the small amount of beef they could afford,” says Chef Mark Sparacino, who has more than 20 years of experience behind the Italian dining scene. “What better way than mixing ground beef and pork together with breadcrumbs, eggs and cheese?”

Sparacino credits watching his ‘nona,’ Sabastiana Sparacino, mixing into rustic balls that always varied in size, then browning them to perfection in a hot cast iron skillet before soaking them in a rich tomato sauce called ‘sugu’ for hours. “With a name like Sparacino, and coming from a large Italian family that immigrated from Sicily in the early 1900s, it’s important to have a great meatball on your menu.”

Sparacino, whose culinary resume includes helming kitchens at the trendy Topo Gigio and Prosecco restaurants in Chicago, now runs the show at Texas-based Sophia’s, a modern version of a classic Italian-American Supper Club.

Chef Sparacino’s forthrightly named ‘The Meatball’ is a nod to his own Sicilian heritage and his ancestors, Italian immigrants who knew how to stretch a portion to feed a crowd. To adapt the recipe for the masses, he blends veal and pork and tops it with housemade tomato sauce and chiffonade basil. “At Sophia’s, we add ground veal to the mix and make a much larger version than Nona did, which makes for the perfect shareable appetizer.”

Steamed Beef Ball with Bean Curd Skin
Tim Wo Han, New York NY
Chef Mak Kwai Pui

Believe it or not, meatballs have even been ingratiated into Chinese cooking. At Tim Wo Han, the dim sum chain that gained notoriety for being the lowest-priced restaurant in the world to get a Michelin star, chef Mak Kwai Pui offers savory steamed beef balls served over a small bed of thin bean curd skins.

“This is a highly traditional dish that was introduced when dim sum first started, but I don’t think that many people know about it in the U.S.,” says Pui. “It is a must-have item for a traditional dim sum menu.”

To create a dim sum menu at Tim Ho Wan, Pui and his team turned to what he calls the “Four Kings” of dim sum culture: har gow (shrimp dumpling), siu mai, steamed beef ball with bean curd skin and steamed spare ribs with black bean sauce.

“We are best known for our dim sum,” Pui says. “Our chefs are trained with traditional dim summaking techniques, and we consider ourselves dim sum specialists.”

Since most of the dim sum items are wrapped in a thin wrapper, Pui decided to create a beef dish without the wrapper. The ingredients used to make the dish stand out from others are dried orange peels, fresh lime leaves, and a proprietary blend of spices.

“We first marinate the beef overnight, and then we mix the beef in a mixer with traditional ingredients,” says Pui. “We add each ingredient one at a time, controlling the mixer speed to ensure the beef is under 35 degrees F [before steaming them].”

Bamba Balls
Taco Bamba, Vienna VA
Chef Victor Albisu

At his taqueria and Mexican bar, Taco Bamba, Chef Victor Albisu blends Italy and Mexico in his unique Bamba Ball taco, made of ancho- and oregano-spiced beef meatballs stuffed with Oaxacan cheese and braised in a chipotle tomato sauce. The tacos are served with cotija cheese and Mexican giardiniere.

“I use house ground beef, [proprietary]Bamba spice blend, eggs, cotija cheese and ground tortillas,” says Albiso. “They are loosely mixed to not toughen the texture. Then they’re stuffed with cheese, pan-fried and braised in a tomato chili sauce.”

The dish is a twist on Albondigas, a traditional Mexican soup with spicy meatballs, which Albiso calls a “classic vehicle for extending meat.'” “Its origins are humble and different from American meatballs,” says Albiso.

“It’s bold, brash, flavorful, spicy and memorable. I like how the beef reacts to the cheese and spice mix; that’s how I grew up eating them.”

Traditional tacos are mainstays on Albiso’s menu, but he rotates out recurring specials like the Bamba Ball Taco, as well as a “Guest Taquero” special, where he invites other local chefs to debut their own creations. “This is grandmother food in most countries, so the recipes change from home to home.”

Italian sausage meatballs
Park Avenue Tavern, New York City, NY
Executive Chef Shane LeBlanc

At Park Avenue Tavern, a New York City gastropub, Executive Chef Shane LeBlanc showcases American cuisine with influences from many countries. “It was an easy decision to add [meatballs]to the menu,” says LeBlanc. “It fit in with our concept.

LeBlanc likes simple dishes with modern flair. With a love for Southern food and Texas-style barbecue, he gives most of his recipes a sense of tradition. His Italian sausage meatballs are an updated version of a family recipe that blends both beef and spicy Italian sausage with ricotta cheese, breadcrumbs, Parmesan cheese, oregano, fennel seeds, thyme, basil, eggs, onion and garlic.

“There are two reasons I chose to use Italian sausage and beef: fat and flavor,” says LeBlanc. “It adds just the right amount of fat to help keep the ball moist.”

“I know there have been Nonnas rolling out hundreds of meatballs by hand with this beef and sausage combo way before I was ever did,” says LeBlanc. “But I am not going to lie; you can add this sausage to anything, and it will take it over the edge.”

The meatballs are first seared to get a heavy caramelization and then deglazed with red wine. Then, they’re braised in a spicy pork sauce, which cooks them through.

“We add San Marzano tomatoes and let the whole thing slowly stew together until most of the moisture is evaporated.”

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