- The Washington Times - Monday, October 10, 2005

My little hometown in southern Austria was so close to the Italian border that, growing up, I sometimes felt as Mediterranean in spirit as I did central European. Judging by the enduring popularity of Italian food all over the world today, almost everybody feels at least a little bit Italian - and never more so, perhaps, than on Columbus Day.

For many of us, Italian food is the ultimate comfort food, especially when it comes to pasta. And no pasta dish is more comforting, I think, than spaghetti and meatballs.

So it might interest you to know that spaghetti and meatballs really isn’t all that authentically Italian. In the homeland, people enjoy spaghetti with tomato sauce or meat sauce. They also like good, moist, well-seasoned meatballs. But it took Italian restaurateurs in greater New York City, about a century ago, to decide that their customers needed a generous serving of meat added to make them order pasta. So I like to think of spaghetti and meatballs as the national dish of Italy and the Tri-State area.

Make that Italy, the Tri-State area and Beverly Hills, based on the reaction we get by offering the dish as a Friday lunchtime special at Spago. It’s always the first to sell out, and some customers actually order it in advance when they call to make reservations. They say our meatballs are some of the best they’ve ever tasted.

What makes them so good? I’ll share the secret: lightness and moisture. We achieve that in our kitchen by using ground veal, combining milk-soaked bread with the meat, then cooking the meatballs slowly and gently in our homemade tomato sauce until they’re fork-tender. Of course, adding to the mixture Italian flavors like garlic, oregano, parsley, basil and grated Parmesan cheese also helps. If you like, substitute ground beef or pork for some or all of the veal; or use ground turkey instead.

Here’s another secret that I really don’t want my customers to know, but I can’t hold back from you: Sometimes, we’ll make twice as many meatballs as we plan to serve at lunch, and keep them overnight in the refrigerator. Why? Because I especially love hot meatball sandwiches. The next day, we’ll pile them inside split Italian rolls that we’ve first spread with soft garlic butter, top them with slices of provolone cheese, and bake the sandwiches in a preheated 400 degree (200 C) oven until the meatballs are hot, the cheese has melted and the rolls are crusty, 10 to 15 minutes. If you want to do the same, double the meatball quantities in my recipe.

Sit down to that for lunch and you’ll really feel Italian!


Serves 6 to 8


1/4 cup (60 ml) extra-virgin olive oil

2 small onions, minced

6 garlic cloves, minced

2 tablespoons tomato paste

4 pounds Roma tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and diced

2 cups (500 ml) good quality store-bought chicken broth, heated

1/4 cup (60 ml) julienned fresh basil


Freshly ground black pepper


4 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 medium onion, minced

3 garlic cloves, minced

4 slices Italian bread, crusts trimmed and discarded, crumb cut into small dice

1/4 cup (60 ml) whole milk

2 pounds (1 kg) lean ground veal

1 large egg, lightly beaten

1/4 cup (60 ml) freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley

1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon sugar

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 pound dried spaghetti

Chopped fresh parsley leaves, for garnish

Freshly grated Parmesan cheese, for garnish

Two hours before serving, or the night before, make the Tomato Sauce: In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the onion and saute until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and saute 1 minute more. Stir in the tomato paste and tomatoes and cook 3 minutes. Stir in the broth and simmer briskly until thick, 20 to 30 minutes. For a finer consistency, pass through a fine-meshed sieve into a clean saucepan. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Stir in the basil. If making in advance, cool to room temperature and refrigerate, covered, in a non-reactive container.

About an hour and a quarter before serving, start the Meatballs: In a medium skillet over medium heat, melt the butter. Saute the onion and garlic until soft, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, soak the bread in the milk for 10 minutes. Then, add the onion and garlic, veal, egg, Parmesan, parsley, basil, oregano, salt, sugar and pepper. With a spoon, a fork, or clean hands, mix thoroughly.

Wetting your hands with cold water, shape one eighth of the mixture into a large, even ball and place it on a large plate or baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining mixture to make 8 meatballs total.

In a large saucepan over medium heat, bring the Tomato Sauce to a very gentle simmer. One at a time, using a large spoon, carefully lower the meatballs into the sauce. Reduce the heat and simmer very gently, covered, until the meatballs are cooked through, about 45 minutes.

About 20 minutes before the meatballs are done, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Checking the package instructions, add the spaghetti to the water so it will be cooked al dente, tender but still slightly chewy, when the meatballs are done.

With a slotted spoon, remove the meatballs from the sauce and transfer to a plate. Remove 1 1/2 cups (375 ml) of the sauce and keep it warm. Drain the spaghetti, instantly add it to the sauce in the pan, and toss to coat thoroughly.

Mound the spaghetti on each of 6 to 8 warmed serving bowls or plates. Top with the meatballs and drizzle with the reserved sauce. Sprinkle with parsley and Parmesan and serve immediately.

Chef Wolfgang Puck’s TV series, “Wolfgang Puck’s Cooking Class,” airs Sundays on the Food Network. Also, his latest cookbook, “Wolfgang Puck Makes It Easy,” is now available in bookstores.

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