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.
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.