Thursday, September 10, 2009

Italian Wedding Soup and all of it's relatives.(By Marriage) Including Carolyn Cusolito's Meatballs

I seem to drift very easily into uncharted and contentious territory with some of these recipes.
I always feel very inadequate when I am doing some of the recipes that I remember from childhood, so I ask anyone who is willing to talk to me about how they did this or that and I end up more confused than ever.
The problem is that everyone has little variations in these old recipes. For example, my mother hated cooked greens like Swiss Chard so she left them out of traditional recipes. Everyone had issues with some common ingredient that their mother or grandmother used, so variations occurred.
Then, we landed in the US or Australia where an entirely different cuisine developed based on the things that could be found there, or based on things that could not be found there.
Now, many luxury grocery items of the nineteen-teens or twenties are pretty common, and we do not have the original recipes anymore to use them in.
Another example of this is that many of the sweets that were made in the islands were drenched in wine boiled down to a sweet syrup. This was very similar to honey which can get pretty expensive. The people of Australia that had no access to grapes or cheap sweet wine began to use Golden Syrup and here, we use simple syrup or(God forbid) Maple syrup. Honey was widely used in the islands and the Cafarellas were evidently well known for it. Here in the States, it would be rather expensive to drench a big pile of pastries in honey.
Back to the subject: I have been asking for information from all of my Aeolian friends and relatives over the last couple of days. I have been trying to pin down the origins and the recipes for little dumplings in soup that we all remember as Padotolas.(the spelling being completely phonetic and there are a number of other spellings)
It seems that this is a dish that has weathered a few changes in the last 120 years. According to some of my sources from the islands there is a note from the 1890s by Duke Salvatore regarding this recipe. He said: "Their meatballs are called Badduotuli made of ground meat, egg yolks, moistened bread and raisins, simmered in beef stock eluted from bones for this purpose." However, most of the recipes that I have heard of from a number of sources do not follow this method. The basic meatball recipe is not far from the norm, but the method of cooking varies a lot, and meat versus cheese is a subject for debate along with the raisins. Who uses beef and raisins together. We will discuss that later.
I remember Mom putting about a pound of ground beef in a bowl(Grammie demanded that the butcher re-grind it a couple of times despite his objections that it was already ground.) On the islands the meat might be ground in a pasta maker and/or a mortar and pestle.
She added a few tablespoons of Parsley. We usually only had dried available. Then she would put a mound of dried crushed breadcrumbs in the bowl. It seemed to me that it was about a third of the volume of the meat. She added about the same amount of Parmesan cheese. She was not a snob about this. She used Romano cheese if the Parmesan was not available or too expensive. She sometimes stooped to the stuff in the green can, but this was a last resort! She warned that Romano and the green stuff were way too salty and I would have trouble when I used it.(From that point on I have never bought that stuff unless I was going on a camping trip or something!)
She would moisten the crumbs with a little water, pepper and an egg. All this was mushed(The scientific term) together into a fairly smooth paste. It was not so soft as to be runny, but it could be fairly sticky if it was too dry. There is a balance that you recognize with trial and disconcerting errors.(Watch the facial expressions of your victims for confirmation.) A bit of the paste would then be fried up in a pan and tasted. Adjustments could be made for salt,(There is rarely too little)cheese or crumb levels.
We all ended up on meatball duty for the next hour or so. Sometimes we would all sit around the kitchen table and sometimes we would retreat to a tray table in the den and roll tiny meatballs about the size of a hazelnut. We were warned to keep a count of how many we were doing.
Then we went to the stove and dumped them into the simmering chicken broth. Aunt May did a broth from roasted beef bones that tasted very much like marrow and very little like beef. But at home, I remember nothing but chicken broth from a can. It was probably home made broth when I was small and Mom had not come down with MS. She did not stand at the stove very much after that happened. When all of the meat mixture was used up, the total number was added up and a call went out to Uncle Phil with the final number. This tradition went on for many years. The calls went back and forth between my brother, Uncle Phil, Aunt May and me on Christmas eve, Thanksgiving eve, New Years eve and Easter. We were always proud of the number of meatballs we could get out of a pound of beef. I do not remember a prize being offered, but I do remember a feeling of great satisfaction if I had the highest number. The competition was not so straight-forward with Uncle Phil. He was actually trying to lose. There was a running joke that he liked big meatballs while Grammie and Mom liked them small. Uncle Phil would always complain when he came to our house for a holiday. He liked big meatballs! I suspect that this was all a ruse to keep everyone off balance while he tried to get possession of the turkey gizzard or heart. It was a rough game, but no one ever got a fork in the back of the hand as a result. Anyway, Mom got tired of the debate. She would ladle out the steaming bowl of soup with mounds of the little meatballs to everyone at the table. She somehow always left Uncle Phil for last. He would have a small mound of the meatballs with one large one perched on the top. This would be anywhere from twice the size of a walnut to the size of a Mandarin orange depending on how big a laugh she wanted. Uncle Phil(Unkie) always acted surprised despite the fact that this occurred year after year.
I tried making this one year to take to my mother-in-law for Christmas. As sometimes happened they were pretty salty despite my best efforts. She worked her way through a bowl of them, but it was plain that she was unimpressed.
I often put lots of extra broth in the soup after the second day and added the tiny pasta we all remember. This also cut the salt. Then on the last day, I would add asparagus spears or greens chopped up in it. It was all good.
Parmesan is not a cheese that was common on the islands. Even there, this would be a luxury item. Romano(Pecorino Romano) or a similar cheese might be there. Another possibility would be Ricotta Salata. In any event the cheese would be a salty, grating cheese.
Grammie used to make a cheese that was similar to Feta. This could be dried to a similar consistency to the grating cheeses if they lasted that long in a big family like hers.
The meat is also problematic. Meat was a luxury. Storage was an issue.
The pigs were slaughtered at a certain time of the year to facilitate curing in correct temperatures and so you did not have to feed too many animals through the winter.
You could not kill too many of your chickens unless you were trying to cure an illness or the priest was coming for dinner. If you kill them all, you ended up with no eggs.
Don't get me started on goats. Butchering goats was a good opportunity to disgust a child with the process or reduce a child to tears when their pet appeared at the table. Ask Anerio Cincotta about this.
Beef was ordered from Lipari in small quantities and leftovers would be stored underground or hanging in the cistern to keep it cool.
Generally, meat was for special occasions.
That leaves us with at least 276 days of the year that would be heavy on the fish, vegetarian, eggs or legumes like lentils for protein.
As a result there are many who remember this soup as having balls made with:

Grated cheese, breadcrumbs, raisins, chopped parsley,eggs and some milk or water.
This might be cooked as above in broth, or sometimes in tomato sauce.
This was good as a stuffing as well, and variations might easily appear in Calamari(with raisins?), Bracciole, or artichokes.(See recipes elsewhere) I remember Mom doing Roast Turkey and Chicken with regular Sage, bread, onion and celery stuffing in the big cavity(Raisins too)and the smaller neck-end cavity would be stuffed with the bread and cheese mixture.
There was always drying bread sitting on the kitchen counters somewhere. It would be on the warming shelf behind the stove when there was a wood stove.
Grammie said that there was always a "treat" of dried bread in the pantry after she saw her aristocratic grandmother, kissed her ring and was expected to sit quietly. I really like to make such recipes with several day old bread. And many people definitely use bread. But, I never saw anyone in my family do these things with anything but dried bread crumbs.
The last few slices and the heels of the bread would be left out on the counter. Then, as the big day approached(or the pile got too high)it was all spread out in the oven at a very low temperature till it dried and toasted slightly. They really appeared more yellow gold than toasty brown. It was very definitely DRY though.
It would be crushed with the bottom of a pan or a big cup and put into containers till it was used.
No one ever cared that we were using that nasty cheap white bread with little to no nutrition. Scala bread sometimes showed up, and you could taste the sesame.
Remember that my memories come from my youth in Northern Maine. Many of you had access to Italian bakeries and many had Italian grocers in the family.
I was speaking to Carolyn Cusolito Tavares yesterday. She volunteered her family recipe for meatballs for soup. There are tons of recipes like I have already given you here in the text. About this much of this and about this much of that. It is rare that I have something so specific as this to pass along. So thanks cousin Carolyn.


1 Cup of grated cheese
3 Eggs
1 Pound of ground meat(beef is the usual choice)
2 Cups of home made bread crumbs
1 Eggshell of water as needed
1 handful of chopped Parsley

These proportions seem a little foreign to me, but I have faith. I usually use more crumbs than others, so this fits in with typical island economy and I think that from what I observed, Carolyn is a great cook.

I would suggest that we all try this recipe with raisins included.

There is as classic combination of meats that is common in Italian ground meat recipes. This combo is 1/3 beef, 1/3 veal and 1/3 pork. This is good for meat sauces like Bolognese. It would be a good choice for these or other meatballs. It would not be unusual to use ground chicken. In fact there is a recipe from one of my Stromboli E-acquaintances which uses chicken breast and minced garlic(grinding the garlic with the side of a knife would be even better for this recipe).

Moving on, Mom would also make little hamburgers. She would use this or her own less "bready" meatball recipe to form little patties. They were not very big, perhaps 3 inches long by 1 1/2 inches wide. They were more or less oval. The real shape was supposed to be diamond or Lozenge shaped, but that is hard to make and to keep the shape through the cooking process. The cheese taste was very strong when they were fried like a burgher. This was usually served with plain spaghetti with oil, cheese and pepper. this would also be good with roasted cherry tomatoes and bell peppers. See the sauce recipes for instructions. She called these Papetta(i). The word for paste-like meat mixtures in Italian is Polpetta or plural: Polpetti. Basically it is pulp. Meats ground in a mortar would definitely be a pulp.


  1. Oh man, it's a little weird seeing the bodduotolo/papetta recipe in print!

    Your grammies recipe is pretty much identical to my Nonna's and your experience of being called in for duty to roll them also parallels my own!

    Our family tradition was to have a spaghetti and meatball dinner for everyone; family, girlfriends, boyfriends, friends etc on Sunday nights. It wasn't uncommon to have 15-20 people for dinner, so that was a LOT of meatball rolling happening on a Sunday afternoon.

    These were always fried quite slowly in olive oil, and turned very gently with a pair of forks. They were a bit smaller that your Grammies papetta; about 2 inches by 1 I reckon.

    Sometimes they'd be dropped into the tomato sauce for the pasta to reheat and soften a little, then taken out and served in a big bowl at the table.

    John Cafarella
    Melbourne Australia

  2. Mom really made these when she did not have time to do the sauce and the rest of the spread. They were used in a snadwich if there were any lwft over...which was not often. You cannot imagine how thrilled I am to have a response from Australia...Got any other recipes?