Why Italian Meatballs Is Actually An American Invention


Although rooted in Italian cuisine, most of the dishes we associate with Italy have little similarity with actual Italian food. Spaghetti and Italian meatballs soaked in the red marinara sauce make up what is probably the second best-known Italian dish stateside. However, if you go to a restaurant in Italy and ask for spaghetti with meatballs, you’re likely to receive nothing more than an unpleasant, almost pitying look from the waiter.

Are Spaghetti and Meatballs Really Italian?

The answer is both yes and no. While the spaghetti-and-meatballs combo was introduced to America by Italian expats, it only marginally resembled the dishes they used to eat in their country. In the last two decades of the 19th century and the first two decades of the 20th century, America had become home to more than 4 million Italian refugees. The majority of them came from poverty-stricken areas in the south of Italy, where political tensions and economic hardships had become too difficult to handle.

Italian Meatballs

The Italian-Americans were forced to adjust to their new living conditions and make their favorite dishes from the old homeland with the ingredients they were able to get in America. Food was something of a luxury back in Italy, but here they suddenly had a chance to buy more food for less money than they were used to spending.

Meat quickly became part of a regular meal and was used in large amounts. Because canned tomatoes and spaghetti were among the few items that were widely available in stores at the time, they, too, have found their way to the plate. Canned tomatoes were turned into marinara sauce, all the ingredients were served together, and that’s how we got the spaghetti and meatballs dish we love so much.

How Is This Different from Italian Cuisine?

The meatballs we eat nowadays originally come from Sweden and Turkey. The real Italian meatballs are known as polpettes and are significantly smaller in size. Their bread-to-meat ratio is approximately 50:50, so there’s no need to supplement them with additional bread or pasta. The reason meatballs have become larger, meatier, and light on breadcrumbs lies in the fact that the Italian immigrants suddenly found themselves able to afford all this meat they couldn’t even dream of back home.

The food became so disconnected from the authentic Italian cuisine that an Italian chef in the 1950s, having tasted them, thought spaghetti and meatballs were an original American delicacy. He figured they were called Italian just for fun. Funnily enough, he thought they tasted great!

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