September 22, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Magic Meatballs

By |2018-03-21T18:22:12+01:00January 1st, 2005|Food & Wine Archive|
Alex gets happy — fast...

y mother-in-law changed my life with meatballs. It was August. We were by the sea in Puglia, at the family’s white stucco summer house under the pine trees. My 17-month-old son, Alex, ate outside in the high chair, a steel and aluminium contraption that had remained bone-white through the ordeal of serving five grandchildren over the course of a decade. Alex did his best to be that chair’s undoing. At first, he insisted on feeding himself, his inept fingers dolloping porridge all over himself and the chair, dribbling little down his gullet. One day, his spoon became a catapult, the bowl, a cauldron of gruel, poured over the ramparts onto my lap. He had put up with four months of unimaginative mush concocted to avoid allergens, grease, salt and choking hazards. At last, he would have no more of it.

Chewing was not a skill within his reach: He had only six teeth, all incisors. Then my mother-in-law made a revelatory suggestion: There were meatballs leftover from the older cousins. The meatballs were soft, boiled versions of the fried Italian favorite — and tasty. Alex ate six of them in a single sitting.

Meatballs not only added a new staple to Alex’s diet, they opened a treasure trove of possibilities: I realized that Italian cuisine is full of kid-friendly adaptations of regional and national favorites. Below you’ll find a few tips I’ve collected from my Italian in-laws that have saved my child time and again from hunger or junk food. (If you are unsure whether a suggestion below is appropriate for your child, please check with your pediatrician.) At the end of this article, you’ll find some Italian web sites with enough baby and toddler recipes to fill a book. If you’re still in doubt — or desperate — ask the Italian mother or grandmother closest to you for advice: she may have just the recipe to suit your child’s dietary gap. Good luck and happy feeding!


Seasoning without salt or butter — My pediatrician forbade butter and salt for my son until he was 18 months old, but endorsed my sister-in-law’s suggestion of seasoning most everything with generous dashes of parmesan cheese and olive oil. Parmesan cheese is salty, but it also fortifies food with calcium. Olive oil is not only tasty, but one of the healthiest forms of fat on the planet. If your child is old enough to take on pine nuts, pesto also offers a terrific way to add variety to pasta and to almost any cooked vegetable, particularly green beans and spinach.

Red meatballs 300 gms lean, organic ground beef (can also use ground chicken or turkey); 1 or 2 eggs; 3 tablespoons bread crumbs

1 tablespoon milk; pinch of finely chopped parsley; freshly grated parmesan cheese

Ingredients for tomato sauce (see recipe below)

Olive oil — Mix the meat, egg, bread crumbs and milk. Mix in parsley and parmesan cheese to taste. Form meatballs by rolling small amounts of the mixture in your palms. Prepare the tomato sauce: sauté garlic and onion until blond and translucent, add chopped tomatoes and sauté for a minute or two. Add tomato juice. As soon as the tomato mixture comes to a boil, add the meatballs to the skillet. Cook for twenty minutes. Remove garlic. Serve meatballs with tomato sauce, or use the sauce for pasta. Sprinkle grated parmesan on the cooked meatballs or pasta.

White meatballs — Follow the above recipe for the meatball mixture. Cook in milk instead of tomato sauce. Add grated parmesan before serving.

Tomato sauce — 1 or 2 tablespoons olive oil; 1 garlic clove, cut in two or three pieces; 1 medium, chopped onion; 1 can (250gms) peeled tomatoes/ Heat olive oil in a skillet over medium flame. Add garlic clove and onion, sauté until the onion is blond and translucent. Cut off the hard area around the stem of the canned tomatoes, remove excess seeds and water, and slice tomato meat. Save the thick tomato juice in the can. Add chopped tomato to the onions and garlic, and sauté for a minute or two. Pour in the tomato juice remaining in the can. Bring to a boil. Lower flame and cook for fifteen minutes or until the sauce has reduced by half and turned a slightly darker shade of red. Remove garlic.

Ragu for tots — 300 gms lean, ground beef; mixture of finely chopped carrots, onions, celery (can buy frozen and grind in a mixer); olive oil; 1 cup of milk; 1 can (250gm) peeled tomatoes. Sautè the chopped carrots, onions, celery until cooked through. Add meat and cover. When the meat has just turned brown, add milk. Remove stem area of tomatoes, chop and remove excess seeds. Save thick juice in can. When the milk has evaporated, add the tomatoes and juice. Bring to a boil, reduce flame and cook for 30 minutes.

Tender chicken fillets — 1 chicken fillet; milk; bread crumbs; olive oil; pinch of salt. Marinade chicken fillet in milk for at least 20 minutes. Cover with bread crumbs. Heat a small amount of oil in a non-stick skillet, over medium flame. Sautè until golden brown on both sides. Salt to taste. Dab with paper towel to remove excess oil.

Vegetable puree (Passato di Verdure) — 1 package of frozen mixed vegetables; 1 or 2 “ciuffetti” or clusters of frozen spinach. Put the vegetables and spinach in a pot. Just cover with water. Cover and boil for 30 minutes. Cool for a few minutes. Purée. Can be served over pasta or by itself. Add grated parmesan and olive oil to taste.

Pasta with zucchini and ricotta — Olive oil; 1 garlic clove cut into two or three pieces of zucchini shredded or cut in small strips; pinch of chopped parsley; fresh ricotta cheese. Sautè garlic clove for one minute. Add zucchini and cook for about ten minutes. Add chopped parsley and remove garlic. Transfer mixture to bowl or food processor. Add ricotta. Mix it with pasta.

Ricotta chocolate pudding — Fresh ricotta cheese; a few drops or spoonfuls of milk; cocoa powder; sugar. Whip ricotta cheese with a small amounts of milk until it achieves a light, smooth, pudding texture. Add cocoa powder and sugar to taste. Note: It is easy to make the pudding too sweet, so add one coffee spoonful of sugar at a time.

About the Author:

Emily Backus is a freelance journalist in Milan, where she lives with her Italian husband and three boys. She was raised in San Diego, came of age in New York City, but wishes more of the world was like San Francisco, where she, too, was a ‘99er during the Internet boom. In New York, she worked as an investigative television producer for nearly five years. She left TV for the Pew Fellowship in International Journalism in 1999. After brief detour in communications, she crossed the media divide into print.