SICILIAN MEATBALLS & NERO D'AVOLA
When I was twelve or thirteen years old my uncle took me to Arthur Avenue in New York City, the Bronx’s version of Little Italy, for lunch. He told me we were going to start with the meatballs, and that he wanted me to have an open mind because these meatballs were not going to be like any others I had ever tasted—they had some “different things inside” he said.
I was a bit confused. After all, weren’t meatballs just balls of meat? What “different things” could you possibly think to put in a meatball? “These have raisins and nuts,” he said. Eyes wide, and a pregnant pause later, my naive brain forced to my mouth an uncomfortably loud, “Are you kidding me?”
But there was no joke. These meatballs were distinctly Sicilian, and they too were no joke. And in the 30+ years that have followed, I have never made meatballs any different.
The toasted pine nuts add texture and nuttiness, while the currants (or raisins) add a slight sweetness to the meat. And in New York where I grew up, mixing equal parts pork, veal and beef was so standard that not only Italian specialty markets but general supermarkets as well would sell the trio of meat pre-packaged. The three meats yield the best texture and flavor as they contribute added fat content to the mix.
My dad would pan fry the meatballs before finishing them in his homemade roasted tomato sauce, and as kids we would just love it when he would finish cooking a meatball in a pan and let us try it. But when adding the raisins and pine nuts to the mix, pan frying can risk loosing some of both out of the meatballs. So we like to bake them and keep every last raisin and pine nut inside.
As much as we loved it when it was meatball day (usually Sundays) growing up, we never knew how good they were until we were allowed eat them with a glass of wine. And if you are going to make Sicilian meatballs, then it is only right to drink a glass (or four) of Sicilian wine. And here we look at Nero d’Avola, a grape native to Sicily, in one of its best representations in Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG, the only DOCG in the region. A vividly colored ruby red, the name Cerasuolo means "cherry like", and you'll taste black cherries here, along with strawberry and hints of flowers and spices.
These are the best meatballs you will ever taste in your life. Try them once, and you’ll uncomfortably exclaim, “Are you kidding me?” when you are served a representation missing raisins and pine nuts.
Equal parts ground pork, ground beef, ground veal (you want some amount of fat content here, so 70-80% lean is as far as we recommend; fat adds flavor)
Slices of white sandwich bread, which all give the meat some added tenderness (2 slices per lb of meat)
Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, finely grated (3/4 cup per lb of meat)
Breadcrumbs (3/4 cup per lb of meat)
Freshly chopped parsley (1/2 cup per lb of meat)
Freshly chopped basil (1/2 cup per lb of meat)
Roasted Garlic (two heads per lb of meat)
Onion, finely chopped (1 med onion per lb of meat)
Black pepper, Salt to taste (2 tsp per lb of meat)
Italian seasoning (4 tsps per lb of meat)
Crushed red pepper flakes (2 tsp per lb of meat)
Pignoli nuts, lightly toasted (1/4 cup per lb of meat)
Yellow (sweet) Raisins (1/4 cup per lb of meat)
Whole Milk (1/2 - 3/4 cup per lb of meat)
Egg, lightly beaten (two per lb of meat)
- Soak your protein in the milk overnight.
- Roast the garlic and mash up (see steps for roasting below)
- Preheat your oven to 400°F
- Peel and discard the papery outer layers of the whole garlic bulb.
- Leave intact the skins of the individual cloves of garlic
- Using a sharp knife, cut 1/4 inch from the top of cloves to expose the individual cloves of garlic.
- Place the cut garlic heads in a baking pan (a muffin pan works great for this), cut side up.
- Drizzle olive oil over each exposed head, using your fingers to rub the olive oil over all the cut, exposed garlic cloves.
- Cover with aluminum foil.
- Bake for 30-40 minutes, or until the cloves are lightly browned and feel soft when pressed.
- Allow to cool and remove the roasted garlic cloves from their skins.
- Sauté onions until lightly browned.
- Soak the bread slices in whole milk until fully saturated, and then mash into a crumbly paste.
- Gently mix all ingredients, careful not to overwork the meat
- Pro Tip: Don't overwork or overpack the meat, or it will result in overly dense, tough meatballs
- Pro Tip: We recommend keeping all your ingredients cold prior to mixing (that means only taking your proteins out of the fridge when you are ready to mix them with all of the other ingredients, and allowing your cooked onions and garlic to cool down before including in the mixture)
- Form into balls about 2/3 the size of a baseball.
- Bake or fry per below directions, and finish in homemade roasted tomato sauce for at least 15-20 minutes on simmer.
- Space on baking sheet, and drizzle with olive oil.
- Bake at 410 for 10 minutes, followed by 2-3 minutes under broiler to brown.
- Fry in oil at medium temperature until browned on all sides.
Nero d'Avola, when represented in Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG, is between 50-70% of the blend, with Frappato making up the difference. The Nero d'Avola contributes the wines power and full body, while the Frappato adds the fruitiness.
Nero d'Avola is the most widely planted grape in Sicily, and has been a permanent resident for centuries. Its history has it being a blending grape, but you can now find it also as the only variety in the bottle.
And if you cannot find it, but want something similar and also Italian, just hop over to the mainland for Aglianico or Primitivo (also known as Zinfandel) for its closest relatives.
Primary Grapes: Nero d’Avola (50-70%)
Secondary Grapes: Frappata (30-50%)
Flavors: Black and sour cherries, strawberry, raspberries, pomegranate, hints of flowers and spices.
Sicily is nothing if not beautiful. Here is Mount Etna, one of the world's most active volcanoes, and surrounding vineyards planted in the mineral-rich and fertile soils typical in volcanic regions.
Expressing to you so much more than simply "enjoy your meal".