Italian Food Rule – No Meatballs On Top of Spaghetti

“Mamma, mia, thatsa spicy meatball,” the red-faced “Italian” man said each time his stereotypical wife plunked down a steaming plate of spaghetti and meatballs … until the antacid commercial hit its punchline.

Mamma, mia, thatsa spicy meatball! 1969
“Mamma, mia, thatsa spicy meatball!” 1969

“Spaghetti and meatballs, now that’s Italian!” is found in the script of many a b-movie.

Even Lady and the Tramp have their first kiss over spaghetti and meatballs served up by Tony, the mustachioed Italian singing cook in 1955.

The most famous kiss over spaghetti and meatballs
The most famous kiss over spaghetti and meatballs

Now, it’s time for the Italian Food Rule:  Spaghetti is not served topped by meatballs in sauce. Do not order “spaghetti and meatballs” in Italy!  At the very least, your waiter will laugh at you. (A sighting of “spaghetti with meatballs” on a menu found anywhere in Italy means that you are eating in a tourist trap.) If pasta and meatballs are served in the same meal, the two ingredients will be served separately – the spaghetti as a primi and the meatball(s) (polpettone or polpette) as a secondo.

Spaghetti with meatballs is not an authentic Italian dish. Like tiny bowls of olive oil set out for for dunking bread (another Food Rule for another day) spaghetti served with “red sauce” and topped with meatballs is an American creation. The pasta recipe probably made its first appearance in New York or New Jersy in the late 1800s.

Spaghetti with meatballs is an American favorite, not an Italian tradition
Spaghetti with meatballs is an American favorite, not an Italian tradition

The concoction is an American adaptation developed most likely as a reaction to the socio-economic conditions experienced by a wave of Italian immigrants who arrived at the turn of the 20th century. These Italians, predominantly from the regions of Sicily and around Naples, had been through the unification of Italy (1861) and World War I (1918). They left Italy poor and started lives in America poor. Meat was costly. For special occasions, when meat was served, the portions were small – too embarrassing to sit alone on the plate. But as a topping for cheap pasta and thin tomato sauce, meatballs the size of walnuts made the platter a celebration.

The meatballs eventually took over
The meatballs eventually took over

Of course, with prosperity came exageration. The platter of pasta was the same size, but the sauce became thicker, drowning the spaghetti, and the meatballs grew to the size of a kid’s fist.

The Italian-American spaghetti and meatball myth always invokes grandma’s recipe (ricetta della Nonna). In this tale, Nonna stands in her tiny kitchen, wearing a snowy-white apron around the barrel of her tummy, but showing off her still-shapely legs, waving a saucy spoon in her hand.

But the elegant Marcella Hazan, well into her 80’s, will tell all who hang on her every word about authentic Italian cooking, that the Italian Food Rule mandates: no meatballs on spaghetti. See herehere and here. She will give you a fine recipe for pasta with a meat sauce (ragu), but outlaws untidy balls of meat that roll down a heap of over-cooked spaghetti.

Spaghetti and ragu is a traditional Italian recipe
Spaghetti and ragu is a traditional Italian recipe says Marcella Hazan

In the 1930s, the Nonna gave way to jolly Chef Boyardee (Ettore Boiardi, who left Piacenza in 1915 at age 17 to land a job in the kitchen at the Plaza Hotel in NYC. By 1928, he had invented a meatball-making machine.).

Ettore Boiardi takes over the hearts and minds of American school children
Ettore Boiardi takes over the hearts and minds of American school children

Like Tony in the Lady and the Tramp, Ettore (soon known as Hector) liked the spicy meatballs and he put them in a can with spaghetti, ready to be opened at every American kid’s lunch.  And so this song (sung even on Sesame Street) was heard around scout campfires from sea to shining sea:

On top of spaghetti, 
All covered with cheese,
I lost my poor meatball, 
When somebody sneezed.

It rolled off the table,
And on to the floor,
And then my poor meatball,
Rolled out of the door.

It rolled in the garden,
And under a bush,
And then my poor meatball,
Was nothing but mush.

The mush was as tasty
As tasty could be,
And then the next summer, 
It grew into a tree.

The tree was all covered,
All covered with moss,
And on it grew meatballs,
And tomato sauce.

So if you eat spaghetti,
All covered with cheese,
Hold on to your meatball,
Whenever you sneeze.

This quintessential American song should be proof enough that spaghetti and meatballs would never find its way to a traditional Italian table, and thus, ranks very high in the list of Italian Food Rules.

Italian Food Rules by Ann Reavis is available now. You can buy Italian Food Rules by using these links:

Italian Food Rules: The Book

Amazon. com (U.S.) eBook for Kindle & Kindle Apps

Amazon. com (U.S.) paperback (United Kingdom) (Italy) (Germany) (France)

Barnes & Noble (U.S.) eBook for Nook

20 thoughts on “Italian Food Rule – No Meatballs On Top of Spaghetti

  1. Who cares?
    Seriously, wo gives a ratatouille’s butt?
    Recipes evolve over time to fit the economic perils of the time. You state that the steady flow of Ialian imigrants and the shortage of meat is why Italians started doing this in America, so – Italians are the ones who did this to feed their families. It wasn’t “Americans.” I don’t think the Irish, Dutch, French, etc. imigants were opening up Italan restaurants in NYC and serving up “authentic” Italian meatballs and spaghetti. Italians broke their own rule.

    So they did it in America. Big deal. Some of the best ideas in the world came from America!

  2. Food “rules” are made to be broken, and whether or not something is “authentic” is irrelevant to whether or not it’s good. Every rule was once an experiment, and everything authentic was at one time a contrivance.

  3. I have to agree with some of the other commenters- it’s absolutely absurd to think one should follow any sort of food rule because of “tradition.” Guess what- tomatoes were not native to the old world, so “Italian” cooking (meaning the many city-states that occupied the region we now call Italy) didn’t involve ANY tomatos at all until a couple hundred years after Columbus invaded the shores of some islands in the west Indies. Does that mean we shouldn’t eat any kind of tomato sauce, or bruschetta, or anything else involving tomatoes, because it isn’t authentic?

  4. Cavemen ate raw meat. Cannibalism was quite common in early times when food was scarce. Food rules. Using chef boyardee as a proxy for American bastardization of ‘Italian’ food is insulting. To use your own words and scale, the meatball and spaghetti is over 200 years old. Tomatoes themselves weren’t widely available in Italy until well into the 17th century. What exactly do you mean by Italian? Attitudes like yours are what drives people away from learning about food. Purists and rules, high browed and close minded. Food is sustenance. Food is life. Food is love. It is what we make for our families to feed both the body and the soul. Why not teach about good food, no matter the origin? Why look down on something that is the labor of love and life for a family? Origin is based on your perspective and the scale of time, but taste is true and real. If it’s good it’s good, and that’s what matters. Be kind and appreciate how blessed you are; for abundance makes a critic of all, and a grateful man few. Remember.

  5. I agree no meatballs on spaghetti. Wrong type of past for the thick tomato based sauce. Bucatini or fettacini would hold the sauce much better. The fact that ITALIALIANS didn’t produce the dish in Italy but in the US does not negate it’s authenticity. Shame on you for degrading all of the beautiful Itialian Americans that helped make the US the GREATEST country in the history of this earth.

  6. WRONG! Chitarra alla Teramana is a traditional Abruzzese dish.
    La chitarra alla teramana con polpettine è un tipico piatto della tradizione abruzzese, molto amato da grandi e piccini, che può spesso sotituire il secondo piatto essendo molto completo…

  7. I see that the article is over 7 yrs old now. I’m glad that, in the meantime, there’s enough feedback here on how silly it is. First off, there does exist polpettine with long pasta and red sauce in parts of Italy. Second, Italian-American cuisine developed as many cuisines do in our world. It is actual food.

  8. WIth all due respect, they are basicly telling us what we can eat or not eat. I’ve eaten it like that a few times in my life and if l want spaghetti and meatballs l’ll order it like that.
    What really is the difference of having meat sauce with hamburger or meatballs? They’re still hamburger in a different shape!

  9. Funny how may commenters were ticked off with ‘don’t tell us what to eat’ attitude. The author of this article should’ve cleared this out.

    Nobody can tell you what to eat and what not. Just don’t take the dish as authentic Italian, that’s all. Might save you some embarrassment in the future. 🙂

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