I’ve never been a fan of meatloaf. That is until I lived in Italy and tasted the Italian version – polpettone. It was there, also, that I learned that the meatloaf I disliked had its genesis in Rome.
Like most Americans who grew up in the fifties and sixties, meatloaf made an appearance on our dinner table on a regular basis. Meatloaf is a dish of ground meat mixed with other ingredients, formed into a loaf shape, then baked. The loaf shape is usually formed by cooking it in a loaf pan, thus the name. Meatloaf is usually made from ground beef, although lamb, pork, veal, venison, poultry and seafood are also used.
The first known recipe came from Apicius, a collection of Roman recipes, usually thought to have been compiled in the late 4th or early 5th century AD. This was the cookbook erroneously attributed to the culinary writings of Marcus Apicius, noble and erudite Roman gourmet of the time of Tiberius. Apicius is said to have derived his gastronomic learning from Greek manuscripts and to have founded a school devoted to the culinary arts. His own manuscript was in fact lost, and the work, which was printed under his name, was derived from notes supposed to have been written by one of his pupils; these notes were copied, apparently, two hundred years after the death of Marcus Apicius.
Throughout the Roman Empire the recipe traveled until there were German, Scandinavian and Belgian versions, including the Dutch meatball. American meatloaf has its origins in scrapple, a mixture of ground pork and cornmeal served by German-Americans in Pennsylvania since Colonial times. However, meatloaf in the modern American sense of a loaf of ground meat did not appear in cookbooks until the late 19th century.
Recently, Frank Bruni and Jennifer Steinhauer, both contributors to the NY Times, shared their passion for meatloaf, having been exchanging recipes via phone, email, and text message for decades, in a new book, A MEATLOAF IN EVERY OVEN. It is their homage to a distinct tradition, with 50 recipes from Italian polpettone to Middle Eastern kibbe to curried bobotie; from the authors’ own favorites to those of famous chefs and prominent politicians.
The name polpettone is derived from polpette, which are Italian meatballs. Polpettine are tiny meatballs and polpettone is a large or giant meat ball (large enough to share).
One of my favorite cookbook writers is Pellegrino Artusi, author of the famous Italian cookbook La Scienza in Cucina e l’Arte di Mangiare Bene (The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well). Writing 100 years ago, Artusi is the father of Italian cuisine. Luckily for me, his seminal book has been translated into English.
Artusi riffs on “Mr. Meatloaf” who is “shy” and “feel[s] inferior” to other dishes. To Artusi and many Italians, polpettone is a way to use left-over meat and stale bread to create a delicious meal for the family.
Artusi, like Lidia Bastianich, soaked stale bread in milk (see Lidia’s video), which perhaps is one answer to improving the dry meatloaf of my youth. Artusi cooked his giant meatball in a pan on top of the stove creating a crispy crust surrounding a juicy center. He made an eggy cream sauce to pour over the finished meatloaf, an improvement on the catsup of today.
Artusi also offered a recipe for a stuffed meatloaf alla Piedmontese with hardboiled eggs at the center to give the meatloaf “a more attractive appearance when it is sliced.” Mario Batali’s home-style Italian polpettone ripieno wraps a 50/50 ratio of ground beef to sweet or spicy Italian sausage around vegetables, which keep the meat moist and adds much-needed flavor to the traditional dish. Notice, a loaf pan is not used in Batali’s recipe.
Dario Cecchini, the famed butcher of Panzano serves a polpettone, known as Il Cosimino, (find “Il Cosimino” in the artistic photograph on his home page) in his restaurants and sells it in his macelleria (butcher shop). Dario’s polpettone is a hand-formed, oven-baked beef meatloaf with a small amount of lean pork, garlic, red onion, thyme, salt and pepper. The name is derived from a dish that was served for the first time at a banquet for Cosimo de’ Medici’s christening in 1519, it brought him great luck for this baby from the more obscure branch of the Medici clan became the first Grand Duke of Tuscany.
Il Cosimino can be sliced or cubed. I like it best with a spicy-sweet Mediterranean sauce made of bell pepper and peperoncino. I can’t wait to be back in Panzano to have Cosimino again.