I was lucky enough to share in Neil’s first experience (aka: the beginning of his love affair) with New York City. When we first met I couldn’t believe that he had never been there before. For someone who’s so passionate about food, culture, art, music and history, it seemed like a crime that he had been missing out on a city that’s known for the best of all of it.
Especially when it comes to the food. Oh, the food.
When we took that first trip together, Neil had a list of restaurants and food items to try that could have lasted us about a year and a half.
We only had 4 days. I’ll spare you the gluttonous details.
But among the amazing meals we had was the unforgettable night we shared sitting on the street-side patio at Morandi in the West Village. And the best part was that we had stumbled upon it randomly, knowing nothing about the place or the chef.
Jody Williams (now famous for her appearances as judge on Food Network’s ‘Chopped‘) was the chef there at the time and the menu really got us excited. Nothing fancy, just simple Italian trattoria fare but with the kinds of exciting ingredients that always feed our passion for food in New York.
We ordered the fried artichoke with lemon to start and I actually remember our collective reaction after taking the first bite. We got that knowing look in our eyes followed by ‘Oh My God’s and a shared laugh marking our extreme fulfillment.
We also experienced real burrata for the first time ever that night, and we knew we had stumbled upon something special.
But it was Morandi’s Sicilian meatballs (Polpettine alla Siciliana) that really stole our hearts. We were so enamored with the interesting addition of pine nuts and raisins. It seemed untraditional at the time but whenever I think of Italian meatballs now, these are the version that I crave.
We immediately set out to craft our own version when we got home. We created our recipe from scratch, inspired by the meatballs at Morandi, but adding our own touches including lemon zest, which I love in this dish. Many, many batches later, these meatballs have become one of our favorite comfort foods and always remind us of that first trip to NYC.
When I made them the other night, Neil gave me the best compliment ever when he said that our kitchen smelled like his nonna’s as soon as he walked through the door. That made me smile.
These meatballs are rustic, flavorful and delicious enough to eat on their own as a meal. We serve them with salad, crusty bread and a generous heaping of the thick, rich tomato sauce.
Polpette Rustico: Meatballs with Pine Nuts, Raisins & Simple Tomato Sauce
1 medium onion, chopped
1 small bulb of fennel, chopped, fronds reserved and roughly chopped
1 bottle of strained Italian tomatoes
3 Tbsp olive oil
½ cup water
1 Tbsp balsamic vinegar
Handful basil leaves, chopped
Salt & pepper to taste
½ pound ground veal or lean ground beef
½ pound ground pork
¼ cup chopped basil leaves (approx 10 leaves)
½ cup raisins (golden or sultana)
½ cup pine nuts (you can toast them for more intense flavor or leave them raw)
Zest of 1 lemon
1/3 cup plain breadcrumbs
* Makes approx 20 large-sized meatballs.
In a deep sauce pan, heat 3 Tbsp of olive oil on medium-high. Add the fennel and onion and sauté for 5-7 minutes. Roughly chop the fennel fronds and add to the pot. Add some salt, to taste, and keep sautéing for another 1-2 minutes.
Add tomatoes, water and basil. Mix and season again with salt and pepper. Add in the balsamic vinegar. Mix well. Lower heat to a simmer and cover.
In a large mixing bowl, add all eight ingredients for the meatballs. Mix well with your hands to incorporate all of the ingredients.
Form into balls. You can make them as big or as small as you want. If you’re eating them with pasta then make smaller balls but if you’re having them as a meal on their own (as we like to do) then form larger meatballs.
Heat about 1 Tbsp of olive oil on medium-high heat in a large frying pan. Add the meatballs and brown on all sides, turning each one using tongs. You might have to do this in two batches. When the meatballs are browned on all sides, add them one at a time right into the simmering tomato sauce.
Some pine nuts and raisins may come loose and end up in the pan. We like to scoop them up and add them right into the sauce to add extra flavor.
Once all the meatballs are added into the sauce, cover the pot and simmer on a medium-low heat for approx 35-45 minutes.
Cut into a meatball to make sure they’re cooked all the way through before serving.