Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Little Owl's Italian Meatballs: for Sandwiches, Spaghetti, Sliders, Whatever!


This is, quite possibly, the best meatball recipe ever. Ever. EVER! Um, see that all caps? I must really mean it. BEST EVER, EVER, EVER. EVER! Ok, ok, I don't know for certain if this is the best meatball recipe ever due to the simple fact that I haven't tried every meatball recipe in the whole wide world, but this one is pretty darn good. In fact, this recipe is now the recipe I measure all other meatballs by. It's tasty, folks.

In my experience, meatballs are usually a disappointment. Salty and tough, or mushy and bland, meatballs tend to be the ugly stepsister at the party. You can dress them up in fancy sauces all you want, but the awful is still there underneath. Most of the time, I just avoid meatballs altogether.

But this recipe is different. It's a revelation. It's a foretaste of the Kingdom of Heaven. I think the secret to why this recipe tastes so amazing is the trio of meats. The first time, I only used two kinds, and I thought this recipe was ok. The second time, all I used was one, and they were a major dissapointment. But the third time, the third time being a charm, I followed the recipe to the letter, and behold, a choir of Angels appeared as I took my first bite, and a light shone from heaven, and I was rewarded with meatballs from the Italian section of the celestial city. I was, in short, in meatball paradise. Are you persuaded yet? Will you try them? Will you?


In case you are wondering, this recipe did not descend directly from heaven, written on a golden scroll. It came through a much more mundane source: my local library. Every week I've been trying to get the baby out of the house, and we go the the library every Tuesday. They have an ongoing book sale at the Huntington Beach library, and I've become somewhat, er, addicted, to cheap books and magazines. Can you believe I bought a first edition of Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking for only 50 cents? The treasures that are buried there! It's hard to limit myself to only $5, and only once a week.

One of my favorite things to buy is back issues of home and cooking magazines, and I have amassed quite a collection of Martha Stewart Living and Bon Appetit. This particular recipe was the cover of the September 2007 issue of Bon Appetit, and it's pulled from a little restaurant in New York called "The Little Owl." If I ever make it to New York, and to the Little Owl (you know, if Little Lord Thunder Thighs ever lets me out of the house again), I'll do my best to kiss the cook on behalf of everyone in the whole wide world.


The Little Owl's Italian Meatballs: Just About the Best Meatball Recipe EVER

At The Little Owl, these are served as sliders, but you don't have to eat them that way. They are great with spaghetti, and they make a mean meatball sandwich as well (or so Nate tells me). And honestly? They are pretty darn good all by themselves.

This also includes a recipe for sauce to go along with the meatballs if you want to make sliders or a meatball sandwich. If you want to make the sauce, make it first, before the meatballs, because it needs a good 20 minutes or so of simmering, and it can cook away by itself while you are making the meatballs.

For the Meatballs
vegetable oil for frying
1/2 lb ground beef
1/2 lb ground pork
1/2 lb ground veal
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan, Pecorino, or Romano Cheese
1/3 cup finely chopped fresh Italian parsley
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon fresh cracked black pepper
1/2 cup fresh, fine bread crumbs
(I just take a piece of gluten-free bread, rip it up into pieces, and them give the pieces a whirl in the blender. You can use Panko if you want, but you need the crumbs to be moist, so be sure to rehydrate them with 1/2 a cup of water when you mix them into the meat).

If you want to make a meatball sandwich: For the Sauce
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
6 garlic cloves, chopped
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup fresh basil, packed (use 2-3 tablespoons dried if fresh is not available. Maybe 1 tablespoon of Oregano too).
1 + 1/2 teaspoons fennel seeds (so essential! Don't skip!)
3 cans fire-roasted, diced tomatoes (14.5oz each)

In a medium bowl, combine 1/2 lb ground beef, 1/2 lb ground pork, and 1/2 lb ground veal.

Add 1 large egg and the yolk of 1 large egg.

Then add 1/2 cup fine fresh bread crumbs (These are easy to make, just take a piece or two of bread, gluten free or not, tear it into pieces, and give it a whirl in the blender. So easy, by baby could do it. Blindfolded.) If you opt to use panko, be sure to also add about 1/4 cup of water to the mixture to moisten it, so your meatballs don't come out crunchy.

Now for 1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan/Romano cheese...

... and 1/3 cup finely chopped italian parsley.

And FINALLY (home stretch!), 1 teaspoon kosher salt, and 1/2 teaspoon cracked black pepper.

Now mix it all up together... until it is mixed. Do it with your hands. You know you want to.

Form the mixture into balls.

Heat oil in a heavy bottomed skillet (cast-iron is great!). Cook meatball in batches, turning every 4-5 minutes, until meatballs are brown all over. Serve in the manner of your choosing. Enjoy!

For the Sauce/ Meatball Sandwich

In a heavy bottomed pot or skillet (I like to use my enamel cast iron Stew pot) saute onions, garlic, and fennel seeds until onions are softened and beginning to brown, 5-10 minutes.

Add tomatoes and their liquid to the onions, as well as basil/oregano. Reduce heat and let simmer about 20 minutes, until sauce has thickened. Puree in a food processor until smooth, but not TOO smooth. We wouldn't want it to be a beverage :)

Return to pan, and simmer Meatballs in sauce 5-10 minutes.

Mm... tasty looking, yes?

Lay some arugula on a toasted bun.

Top with meatballs. But we're not done!

Add some more sauce. You'll be glad you did.

Oh, and don't forget the cheese. Never, ever forget the cheese. Forgetting the cheese makes baby Jesus cry.

This is my favorite part. Enjoy!


  1. OH MY GOODNESS. I have been to Little Owl and ever since (last November) I have been DREAMING of the Meatball Sliders. Honestly, life changing. You are a Goddess for posting these, seriously, you have no idea the cheers I screamed out when I saw this post. YES! I am making these like this weekend. THANK YOU!
    - Whitney

  2. These seriously look like the best meatballs ever! I'm pretty addicted to collecting cheap magazines and cookbooks from our local second-hand bookstore too!

  3. What - no garlic in the meatballs??

  4. I made gluten-free meatballs this weekend and used pork rinds instead of breadcrumbs. They turned out really well.

  5. i have bookmarked this page, and I can't wait to try this...the meatballs look yummy. I tried a Jamie Oliver recipe which uses cream crackers, and had no onions, and they didn't turn out so nicely. So, I've been meaning to try another meatball recipe to cancel that one out....your baby is so cute!

  6. I made these last night and they fell completely flat. Everyone was completely underwelmed and I regretted the build-up I gave them. (Should have tasted first.)

    The problem was they were tasteless. The seasoning in this version amounts to the fat from the Pork and 80% lean Beef, Salt, Pepper, Cheese, Parsley. What dominates, and shouldn't, is the Parsley.

    My take is that the Veal adds great cost and little value to the dish. Consider 2/3 Beef to 1/3 Pork proportion and drop the Veal.

    The Bread ratio is too lean - consider upping to 1 1/2 C bread crumbs and moisten with milk, not water. I don't recommend Panko as they have little taste. Go for a robust crumb from real bread such as French or Italian. Reduce your liquid if using fresh crumbs by one-half.

    Do not overwork meat. In fact I got better results by using very chilled meat and carefully mixing them first and separately. You want to preserve the distinction between the meat and fat in the grind to improve the final texture. Allowing the meat to warm will give you a paste - even more so if you use Veal - and the result will be too dense. Re-chill the meat mix and blend other ingredients separately. Then carefully fork together before forming meatballs.

    Consider adding garlic, onion both minced to add flavor to the ball.
    Consider adding 1 teas bacon dripping to the meat before mixing.
    I also substituted beef bouillon paste for salt and cut parsley to 1/4C.

    OK, so it's not same recipe anymore. Which is a good thing IMHO.

  7. Dear Anonymous,

    I'm sorry the meatballs were such a dissapointment! Just out of curiosity, did you try the recipe as is?

    I tried making these with all beef, beef/pork, and beef/pork/veal, and I really thought the veal made a difference, and 1/2 a pound doesn't seem like a terribly large amount, especially since (IMHO) it makes a difference in the taste. I hadn't thought about the temperature of the meat during mixing, however - I always mix mine straight out of the fridge, so if course it would be cold when I mixed it, but I can see how it would get heavy and pasty if it were warm meat, overmixed.

    I think I agree with you on the panko - I haven't really been impressed with it in the past, and I can't eat it now anyway, so I have always made this recipe with gluten-free bread. I am wondering if moistening the bread-crumbs makes a difference - I did once (as the original recipe called for), and it was a flop (to be fair, it was also the time I used all beef instead of the meat mix). Ever since, I just make fresh bread crumbs, and it gives is a really nice, light texture.

    Hope it works out better next time!

  8. Hi Becks, I like your blog sooo much:)
    Macedonian fan, Vera!

  9. Awesome! I was looking for this recipe! As soon as I tried the meatballs, I knew this was THE meatball recipe I had to have.