The Humble yet Almighty Polpetta

April 30, 2014 / Food & Wine
Milan, Lombardia

This note on polpette is related to our recently published gastronomic murder mystery, The Revenge of the Milanese Butcher! (Please remember to leave a review on Amazon if you’ve bought the book, thanks!)

Every region, city, town, home in Italy has its own recipe for polpette, which calls for anything ranging from beef, chicken, pork, breadcrumbs, eggs and parmigiano as ingredients.

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Perhaps it is considered one of the most undervalued foods in gastronomic history because of its humble contandino (farmer) origins, usually made of leftovers scraps of lesser quality cuts of meat, such as lesso/bollito. Yet polpa means “pulp” and describes the most tender and important part of the meat. So it is likely that polpetta got its fancy sounding name (lit., little ball of tender meat pulp) because, as humble as it might be, it is simply so darn good. (By the way, polpettone means “very large ball of tender meat pulp”, i.e. meatloaf.)

The word polpetta was first used in the 1400s in the Libro de Arte Coquinarie by Martino de’ Rossi. Who? Well, Maestro Martino was THE European celebrity-super-chef of the Renaissance. To avoid ruining our story, we’ll just ignore the fact that his polpetta was more of an involtino allo spiedo. Still, Maestro Martino was born in the Duchy of Milan around 1430…


And since Milan is so well known for its bollito, arrosti and stufati, the avanzi (scraps) of which are essential meatball ingredients, it makes sense that the city proudly considers itself primus inter pares (first among equals) in Italy as far as polpette are concerned.

And sure enough Artusi, our wealthy 19th century banker but really cooking scientist and first national recipe collector, opens his section on the polpetta like this:


Do not believe that I have the presumption to teach you how to make meatballs. This is a dish that everyone can make, even a donkey (fool/ass)…

(..full translation of Artusi’s recipe in a note coming soon!)

Anyhow, in case there was any doubt by this point, here are some sayings that confirm the central role that the polpetta plays in Italian culture:

Si fan polpette di qualcuno (lit., to make meatballs out of someone. To beat someone up.)
Regalare una polpetta velenosa (lit., to give a poisoned meatball. The Italian equivalent of the Trojan Horse, cunning revenge.)
Leggere un polpettone (lit., to read a meatloaf. To read a really boring, overly highbrow book.)
And my favorite…
Ascoltare un polpettone indigeribile (lit., to listen to an undigestible meatloaf. To listen to a incredibly boring intellectual who is hard to stomach.)

Photos are courtesy of Il Tinello Restaurant in Bologna. Thank you, they look mouthwatering!

Remember… polpette and more in the gastronomic murder mystery The Revenge of the Milanese Butcher, our first published book, available on Amazon.

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by GB Bernardini

Editor, Italian Notebook

17 Responses to “The Humble yet Almighty Polpetta”

  1. Anne Robichaud

    well, let’s just call your latest one…”mouth-watering”, GB!
    …and next? one on the vegetarian polpette, like polpette di melanzane?

  2. Rosemary

    And I thought the meatball was a southern Italian invention! My Napolitan and Sicilian families made the best ones!

  3. Roseann

    GB, are those pickles floating in that tomato sauce? They look like pickles, certainly not like basil leaves.

    • GB

      Who knows, maybe they are! Everyone has their own recipe.. then again, based on what I’ve seen in other recipes, what you’re looking at in these photos are most likely some VERY cooked celery stalks. Will have to ask Stefania, who kindly sent us the photos.

  4. Sally M

    I would say the green ingredient that is floating, might be baby zucchini. I, too want the recipe.

  5. Anstell Ricossa

    Actually I grew up learning that meatballs were made with tomato sauce. They were made with beef and veal and a little pork. Polpette were made from leftover meats (bolito, roast, etc.) made in a rectangle shape and simply fried – and simply delicious ! …….. My mother “era Pisana”.

  6. Where can I get a copy of the hardcover (or soft) book The Revenge of the Milanese Butcher. It is only available in electronic form (Kindle) on Amazon according to my library.

  7. Wasn’t thinking of meatballs but I am now… Thanks GB for another mouth watering post.

  8. Denise McInerney

    Wow, that looks delicious! Any hope of getting a recipe?

  9. Jan Johnson

    Thanks for a mouthwatering story GB. Can’t wait to reacquaint myself with the real deal!!

  10. Giuseppe Spano
    Giuseppe Spano

    so many variations of popette e carne formata, many is Molise make somewhat flattened football shaped chopped meats in a onion brown sauce , while in lower Puglia a tangier small meat ball in cherry tomato sauce with hot peppers and raisin and cinnamon both of which (among other types) I make in my cooking class after which we open some wine and enjoy,….


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