Above: Classic handmade orecchiette tossed with tomato sauce and meatballs. It’s common to find this dish in Puglia and is considered a traditional recipe.
When we visited Lecce and the Cantele winery in early January of this year, we went to eat at Doppio Zero on the first night of our time in Puglia.
It’s one of the coolest restaurants in the area and some would say that it’s one of the coolest restaurants in Italy right now. Very progressive, very youthful. And with a menu that’s based on the highest-quality ingredients and wholesome foods that are sourced daily by the owners — both locally and from across Europe.
One of the bloggers on the trip was surprised that another one of the bloggers ordered the meatballs.
His response: “This is the land where they invented meatballs!”
And honestly, the meatballs at Doppio Zero are pretty rocking.
With all due respect to my colleague, I would tweak his declaration slightly. It’s unlikely, in fact, that they “invented” meatballs in Puglia. The dish can probably trace its roots back to kofta (kefta or kifta) in the Middle East. That’s probably where it originated.
But Puglia, because of its location and its historic role as a bridge between the east and the west, is where the art of the meatball was refined to resemble the meatball that we know today.
And this brings me to my point. In America, we spend a lot of time talking about how “spaghetti and meatballs” are an American invention and that Italians never serve spaghetti with meatballs.
Both of those observations may be true but in Italy, and in Puglia in particular, meatballs are traditionally served with pasta. Not spaghetti, no. But with pasta like the orecchiette, above.
And it makes perfect sense, the smallish meatballs that they favor in Puglia tuck themselves neatly into the crevices of the pasta (which, btw, is more like a dumpling than a short pasta or macaroni shape).
I recently came across a post for the Smithsonian (the Smithsonian!) website by a misinformed writer who reports all kinds of interesting tidbits about Italian food history but neglects the fact that meatballs are served with pasta in Italy (my photo above is a case in point!). She’s also wrong when she says that the first waves of Italian immigrants to the U.S. didn’t have much meat in their diets. In fact, they ate a lot of meat and wouldn’t have recognized what we call pasta today. But that’s another story for another time.
The origins of spaghetti and meatballs probably can be traced to the 1960s wave of Italian immigration to the U.S. that came in great part from Puglia (whereas the earlier waves were from Sicily and Campania).
The 1960s were also the years when dried pasta as we know it today became overwhelmingly popular in Italy and the U.S. (again, another story for another day).
I believe that the confluence of these trends is what gave birth to the cinematic spaghetti and meatballs that we associate with pizza parlors across the U.S.
The only thing I can say for certain is that the meatballs and orecchiette in the image above were delicious!