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 Polpette The word "meatballs" sounds so much more exotic when we say it in Italian.
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The word "meatballs" sounds so much more exotic when we say it in Italian. When I see polpette ("Pole-PET-ay") on a menu, I don't expect a comforting bowl of Italian-American spaghetti and meatballs in tomato sauce, though, but something a little more refined.

A new upscale Italian eatery in our town (Primo, on East Market Street in Louisville) makes estimable polpette, and they serve it two ways: In the traditional meatball form, tossed with wide pappardelle pasta in a light cream sauce with wild mushrooms, and in fat patty form as one of the best hamburgers I ever ate.

Primo makes its polpette special by using tender veal as the base for the meatballs, and adds an unexpected ingredient to kick the flavor up a munch with the tangy, earthy character of Gorgonzola, the archetypal Italian blue cheese.

After working my way through both dishes at the restaurant, I could hardly wait to try to re-create it at home. Rather than asking restaurateur Bim Deitrich to share Primo's recipe (men don't ask directions), I back-engineered it on my own. I used the traditional Italian technique of lightening the meat with a portion of milk-soaked bread as filler, and made a couple of decisions aimed at holding the fat content of the finished dish within reason: I baked the meatballs rather than pan-frying them, and I made a milk-based bechamel with a little cream rather than indulging in a heavy-cream reduction for my sauce.

The result was fine, and if it's not exactly the same as Primo's, it's certainly in the same (meat)ball park.

INGREDIENTS: (Serves two)

4 ounces (120g) Italian or French bread
1 cup (240ml) milk
1 ounce heavy cream
12 ounces (360g) ground veal
4 ounces Gorgonzola cheese
6 ounces brown or fresh wild mushrooms
1-2 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons (30ml) olive oil
4 ounces pappardelle, fettuccine or other "ribbon-style" dried pasta
1 ounce white flour
1 ounce butter
Dash cayenne


This dish requires several steps, none particularly complicated, but it helps to plan out your procedure and orchestrate things so all the steps come together at the same time. You'll want to make, form and bake the meatballs, sautee the mushrooms, make a simple sauce and boil your pasta.

1. Mix the milk and the cream in a cup. Cut off the bread crust and cut the bread into several slices or chunks. Put them on a plate or shallow bowl and pour just enough of the milk-cream bread mixture over to soak the bread. Let it sit for five or 10 minutes, then lift out the bread, letting any excess liquid drain back into the plate; return this liquid to the remaining milk and cream and set aside. (If you don't have at least 3/4 cup left, add a little more milk.)

2. Put the moistened bread into a bowl with the ground veal, and gently mix them together with a fork, taking care not to over-handle. The less you have to mash the veal, the lighter the meatballs will be. Crumble the Gorgonzola and work it in, then season to taste with nutmeg (freshly grated from a whole nutmeg is by far the best), salt and pepper. Shape this mixture into about a dozen 1-inch (2.5cm) meatballs, and place them on a lightly greased cookie sheet. Bake in a preheated 400F (200C) oven for about 15 minutes, just long enough to cook them through. You can turn them halfway through for more even browning, but this isn't really necessary.

3. Rinse and dry the mushrooms and cut them into slices. Mince the garlic. Heat the olive oil in a saute pan or skillet and cook the garlic until it's aromatic and starts to turn golden. Put in the mushrooms, season with a little salt and pepper and "sweat" until they wilt and turn soft. Turn off heat and set aside.

4. Start your pasta simmering in a large pot of boiling, salted water.

5. Make a simple bechamel sauce: Melt the butter over medium-high heat. When it stops bubbling, put in the flour all at once and whisk quickly until the flour and butter are well blended and start to turn a pale gold color. Whisk in the remaining milk and cream from step 1, a little at a time, whisking constantly until the sauce is thick and smooth. season with just a pinch of cayenne, stir in the mushrooms with all their juices, and turn the heat down to very, very low to keep the sauce warm. HINTS: A whisk is definitely the tool of choice for sauce-making, and a "saucier," a heavy saucepan with a rounded bottom, makes the job easy, although a standard saucepan (as the name implies) will get the job done.

6. Drain the pasta when it's done, and stir it into the sauce. Serve in warm pasta bowls, topping each serving with a share of the meatballs.

A full-bodied white wine, Chardonnay or a Rhone or Provence or Southern Italian white, would be a good choice; but we were in the mood for a red, and a Chianti-style Sangiovese from Le Marche worked just fine.

If you have questions, comments or ideas to share about this article or food and cookery in general, you're welcome to drop by our Food Lovers' Discussion Group, where I've posted this article as a new topic, "FoodLetter: Polpette,"

Click the REPLY button on the forum page to post a comment or response. (If your E-mail software broke this long link in half, take care to paste it all back into one line before you enter it in your Web browser.)

If you prefer to comment privately, feel free to send me E-mail at

Want a copy that's easy to use in the kitchen? You'll find a simple, plain-text version of this recipe, suitable for printing, online at

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Last week's Wine Advisor Foodletter: Santoku! (Oct. 13, 2005)

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Thursday, Oct. 20, 2005
Copyright 2005 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.

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