Neapolitan Meatballs: Polpette alla Napoletana

Polpette all NapoletanaAlong with pizza and spaghetti with tomato sauce, meatballs must be the most internationally recognized Italian food. The meatballs found in the US and then that spread around the world are derived from recipes of the millions of immigrants that came through Ellis Island to the US from Naples and Southern Italy in the 1920s.

But meatballs in “Italian-American” food have been corrupted. When those Italian immigrants came to the US and found the plentiful meats at low prices, they decided richness, wealth and status was an opposite to the practice of adding bread to meatballs to “stretch” them; to feed a large family on a little meat. But these all meat meatballs turn out to be dry, tasteless and basically spherical hamburgers. Americans are returning to the traditions of those Italians of nearly 100 years ago and using the “stretchers” in this recipe but this time for taste.

Meatballs can be served alone or after they have been simmered in a tomato sauce as a main course. “Spaghetti and meatballs” is a totally American invention but one worth perfecting.

Recipe for about 20 meatballs.

Ingredients and equipment:

  • 3 cups of crustless bread cut into 1-inch cubes (day old bread is great for this)
  • 1 cup of milk
  • 1 ½ pounds of ground meat (2 different varieties of meat – ¾ pounds each)
    • Ground beef (not lean) and ground pork
    • Ground beef (not lean) and ground veal
    • Ground Beef (not lean) and ground turkey
    • Ground turkey and ground pork
    • Etc.
  • 3 eggs
  • ½ cup grated Pecorino cheese
  • ¼ cup finely chopped Parsley
  • Salt and pepper
  • Olive oil
  • Heavy bottom pot
  • Spatula and a pair of tongs
  • Ice cream scoop

Note: There are many many variations of this recipe. Try adding more or less bread or meat. Add pines and raisins for a sweet and sour taste. Add chopped onions for a sweeter taste. Add grated lemon peel for a Lemon scented meatball.


Place the crustless bread in a bowl and add the milk to the bowl.

In another bowl, add the meats, eggs, Pecorino cheese and parsley but do not mix.

Squeeze the bread with your hands and drain out the milk. Crush the bread with your hand to tear it up. Add the squeezed bread to the bowl with the other ingredients. Add salt and pepper (you’ve got to just guess on the seasoning). Combine with a hand to mix completely but not so far as to make it a paste.

Heat the olive oil in the heavy bottom pot and heat to just smoking. Using an ice cream scoop and your hands, create a uniform meatball, form with your hands to create a sphere and gently place in the heated oil. Fry as many meatballs at the same time as you’d like but don’t crowd the pan, it will drop the oil temperature.

You’ll need to gently turn the meatballs to fry all over. Use a spatula to loosen the meatballs from the pot and then use the tongs to reposition the meatballs to fry another raw side of the meatball. Keep turning the meatballs every 2 to 3 minutes until fried and crusty all over (about 10 minutes total). The trick here is a crust on the outside and a soft texture on the inside.

Remove the meatballs to paper towels to drain or place in a prepared tomato sauce to simmer and impart the flavor to the sauce.

Suggested Accompaniments:

  • Tomato Sauce

Join the Conversation

  1. Good morning my name is Glen I’m attempting to learn how to cook and I’m confused about all these different types of sauces which is Italian which one really isn’t and Italian cooking and Italian American Cooking and I’m wondering what sauce goes with what marinara sauce can go with spaghetti or rigatoni but maybe it’s supposed to only go with pizza and bolognese sauce goes with spaghetti or maybe it goes on Pizza on I’m just really confused about all these different sauces and how I’m supposed to use them I could use a little adult supervision on this thank you

    1. Glen: I’m so sorry but I just came across this comment from 2020. I don’t know how I missed it. Please let me know what help you need. I can help with different types of sauces but you may have moved on in your cooking journeys. Joe

  2. Vin D’Angelo says:

    I’ve read a lot of meatball recipes over the years. Yours is the only one I’ve seen that is exactly as my grandmother, my dad, and I make them. They melt in one’s mouth because of the bread. Other recipes include pine nuts and raisins. I don’t know where those folks are from, but they are not Napilitano.

    1. Thank you very much. This is exactly the way my mom made them when I was growing up. She no doubt learned these from my grandmother who was from Naples. The raisin and pine nuts version is from Sicily. I think they are made when served without tomato sauce. The sweet and sour combo comes from the Arab influence in Sicily’s past.

      Thanks again! Joe

  3. Eva M Bunnell says:

    Wait-Neopolitans put pine nuts and raisins in our meatballs. And traditionally we only use ground beef/veal/pork.

    1. Joe Author says:

      Eva: No, I just meant that’s something you can try as a variation of the classic meatball. Pine nuts and raisins are sometimes used in Sicilian meatballs if served without sauce. Thanks. Joe

  4. Melina Hosier says:

    My Mamma is from Napoli she too made her meatballs like this. The only difference is she coated in flour before frying which I think gives it a nicer crust. What do you think about that? Is there a reason that should not be done? Also can this recipe be baked instead of fried. What would be the difference in the flavor?

    1. Ciao Melina! The flour will give the meatballs a nice, crusty exterior. They are delicious that way as well! Absolutely can be baked – I prefer them fried as they a have a crustier exterior. -Michele

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