Orecchiette with Mini Meatballs

published Jan 22, 2023
Orecchiette with Mini Meatballs Recipe

This recipe embraces the more traditional serving style of red sauce meatballs and pasta, only with an eye on making it practical for the home cook.

Serves4 to 6

Prep50 minutes

Cook2 hours

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Orecchiette with mini meatballs plated in bowl with grated cheese on the side.
Credit: Photo: Linda Xiao; Food Stylist: Jessie YuChen

My favorite type of spaghetti and meatballs hails from Abruzzo, a mountainous region of Italy where my Grandpa is from. It’s made with tiny, miniature meatballs that are boiled and tossed with tomato sauce. That’s right — tiny meatballs! Not the large, two-per-plate polpettes we’ve all grown to love here in the U.S. But for me, the best pasta and meatball dish of all omits spaghetti altogether. It comes from Southern Italy, and it features slightly marble-sized meatballs and orecchiette. 

Orecchiette, which means “little ears,” is my favorite pasta shape. They are small yet formidable, and deliciously chewy in a way that only semolina-rich pasta can be (because of durum wheat’s high protein content). While they are the perfect pasta to accompany ragù due to their cup-like architecture, orecchiette becomes something else entirely when paired with similarly sized meatballs. The orecchiette can be scooped by the spoonful with the mini polpettes to be enjoyed simultaneously like a stew.

The Case for Smaller Meatballs

In Italy, meatballs have historically been made to be much smaller than the American version we know, and I think smaller meatballs actually make for a better overall pasta dish. Like the laborious preparations of meals you get at a fancy restaurant, having all the ingredients be of the same size makes for a more streamlined sensory experience. Italian American spaghetti and meatballs, while a classic, is a bit clunky in comparison. You need a fork to saw off a piece of meatball, then you must twirl some spaghetti around it. The components tend to work against each other. Here, orecchiette and meatballs work as a team.

Rolling them is time-consuming, and therefore an arduous process, but this is a dish that will wow guests. And I think you’ll find the juice is worth the squeeze — er, the ball is worth the roll.

Credit: Photo: Linda Xiao; Food Stylist: Jessie YuChen

If You’re Going to Make This Recipe, Some Notes and Tips

  • Use two full pounds. I don’t like recipes that ask you to use a half pound of ground meat. Most packages sell them by the pound, so this recipe calls for two. It makes a lot of meatballs, so you’ll likely have extra. That’s OK, though — meatballs freeze well.
  • Use buttermilk. I personally believe in using a base of bread and milk, called a panade, when making meatballs. It makes for a light and airy, not sturdy and dense, polpette. Here, I use buttermilk which imparts not only richness, but also a delightful tartness to the mixture.
  • Let the meatballs finish cooking in the sauce. I like to sear my meatballs in a cast iron skillet with oil, then finish them in an herby marinara. Letting the meatballs cook in red sauce not only flavors the sauce, but also tends to make the meatballs a little more moist as well. 
  • Use bay leaves. Speaking of red sauce, I’m also a big believer in using bay leaves in tandem with basil. Both will add a level of light herbaceousness to the acidic and savory tomatoes.

Orecchiette with Mini Meatballs Recipe

This recipe embraces the more traditional serving style of red sauce meatballs and pasta, only with an eye on making it practical for the home cook.

Prep time 50 minutes

Cook time 2 hours

Serves 4 to 6

Nutritional Info

Ingredients

For the red sauce and pasta:

  • 5 cloves

    garlic

  • 1

    medium white or yellow onion

  • 2 (28-ounce) cans

    whole peeled tomatoes

  • 1/4 cup

    olive oil

  • 1/2 teaspoon

    red pepper flakes

  • 6 sprigs

    fresh basil

  • 1

    dried bay leaf

  • 1 pound

    dried orecchiette pasta

  • 3 tablespoons

    salted or unsalted butter

  • Kosher salt

  • Freshly ground black pepper

For the meatballs:

  • 3 slices

    white sandwich bread, such as Wonderbread

  • 1/2 cup

    whole milk or buttermilk

  • 6 cloves

    garlic

  • 1/2 medium bunch

    fresh parsley

  • 2 ounces

    Pecorino Romano or Parmesan cheese (1 cup firmly packed freshly grated or 2/3 cup store-bought grated), plus more for serving

  • 1 pound

    ground beef

  • 1 pound

    ground pork

  • 1 cup

    panko breadcrumbs

  • 2

    large eggs

  • 2 tablespoons

    olive oil

  • 1 1/2 teaspoon

    kosher salt

  • 1 teaspoon

    freshly ground black pepper

  • 1/2 teaspoon

    red pepper flakes

  • 1 cup

    canola, vegetable, or grapeseed oil, for frying

Instructions

Start the red sauce:

  1. Smash 5 peeled garlic cloves with the back of a knife. Peel and halve 1 medium white or yellow onion. Place 2 (28-ounce) cans whole peeled tomatoes and their juices in a food processor fitted with the blade attachment (do in 2 batches if the processor is very full). Pulse until almost smooth, about 10 (1-second) pulses. (Alternatively, crush the tomatoes by hand.)

  2. Heat 1/4 cup olive oil in a Dutch oven over medium heat until shimmering. Add the garlic and 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes. Cook until the garlic is fragrant and lightly golden brown, about for 2 minutes.

  3. Add the tomatoes (be careful, they will splatter!), onion, 6 fresh basil sprigs, and 1 bay leaf. Stir to combine. Increase the heat to high and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat to low. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until the sauce reduces and thickens a little bit, and oil droplets appear on the surface, about 45 minutes. Meanwhile, make the meatballs. (Remove the sauce from the heat if it is ready but the meatballs aren’t.)

Make the meatballs:

  1. Tear 3 slices white sandwich bread into bite-sized pieces and place in a large bowl. Add 1/2 cup whole milk or buttermilk and stir until the bread is moistened. Let sit for at least 10 minutes.

  2. Meanwhile, prepare the following, adding each to the bowl with the soaking bread as it is completed but not stirring it in: Finely chop 6 garlic cloves (about 2 tablespoons). Pick the leaves from 1/2 medium bunch fresh parsley and finely chop (about 1/3 cup). Grate 2 ounces Pecorino Romano cheese on the smallest holes of a box grater (about 1 cup), or measure out 2/3 cup store-bought grated cheese.

  3. Have a rimmed baking sheet ready. Add 1 pound ground beef, 1 pound ground pork, 1 cup panko breadcrumbs, 2 large eggs, 2 tablespoons olive oil, 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, 1 teaspoon black pepper, and 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes to the bowl. Mix with your hands until thoroughly combined.

  4. Roll the mixture into little marble-sized meatballs (about a heaping teaspoon each) and place on the baking sheet in a single layer. You will have 90 to 100 meatballs.

  5. Heat 1 cup canola oil in a large frying pan over medium-high heat until shimmering. Fry the meatballs in batches of 20 to 25: Add to the pan in a single layer and cook until browned, 1 to 2 minutes per side (they will not be fully cooked). Transfer to a second baking sheet lined with paper towels or a wire rack. You will have more meatballs than will fit in the sauce, so cook the last batch until cooked all the way through, then freeze or refrigerate for another use.

Finish the sauce and pasta:

  1. Remove and discard the onion and bay leaf from the sauce. Add the meatballs to the sauce so they are submerged in the sauce. Simmer over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until the meatballs are cooked through and the flavors meld, about 30 minutes.

  2. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a boil over medium-high heat. Add 1 pound dried orecchiette and cook according to package directions until al dente. Reserve 1 cup of the pasta cooking water, then drain the pasta.

  3. Add the pasta to sauce and meatballs and stir to combine. Add 3 tablespoons butter and stir until the butter is melted, adding some of the reserved pasta water a little at a time if the pasta looks too dry. Increase the heat to medium and cook, stirring occasionally, until the flavors meld, 1 to 3 minutes more. Taste and season with more kosher salt and black pepper as needed. Serve garnished with more grated cheese.

Recipe Notes

Make ahead: The meatballs can be cooked up to 1 day ahead and refrigerated in an airtight container. Alternatively, the sauce can be made and the meatballs simmered in the sauce up to 1 day ahead; refrigerate together in an airtight container. Bring back to a simmer before adding the pasta.

Storage: Leftovers can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 4 days.