We have loved this recipe, straight from the first Marcella Hazan, cookbook, for decades. Small, light and almost crispy, they were a far cry from the large, soft and very dense meatballs served in the New Jersey restaurants of my childhood. I had no complaints at the time, but they were nothing like this heavenly version.
I served them with pasta--usually spaghetti--but I would not want to suggest that Marcella Hazan gave a recipe for spaghetti and meatballs. She assuredly did not. This meatball recipe, for example is listed as a second course. She suggests various soups for first courses, and advises a fine assortment of vegetable side dishes. None of these had any appeal for our family. For us, trained in the Italian restaurants of New Jersey and Long Island, these meatballs with spaghetti were close to perfection.
So, with apologies to Marcella, here's my adaptation of her meatballs (polpettine) recipe from The Classic Italian Cookbook
While the milk is cooling, mix one pound chopped lean beef, one small finely chopped onion, one tablespoon chopped parsley, one egg, a pinch of nutmeg, three tablespoons freshly grated parmesan, one tablespoon olive oil, one teaspoon salt and a few grindings of pepper into a bowl. Then add the bread and milk. Mix everything thoroughly by hand.
Gently, without squeezing, shape the mixture into balls, about one inch in diameter. Roll the meatballs in bread crumbs.
Find a pan large enough to hold all the meatballs in one layer that has a properly fitting cover. Cover the bottom of the pan with oil. When the oil is quite hot, gently slip the meatballs into the oil--using a spatula and trying to avoid splattering. As the meatballs brown, carefully turn them. (Wait a little so the fat from the meat joins the oil--making it less likely that they'll stick to the pan). When the meatballs are nicely browned, turn off the heat, and tipping the pan, use a spoon to remove as much of the excess fat as you can. Then add a cup of chopped canned Italian tomatoes--with their juice, and salt. You can, of course, use the whole can—I often do. Cover the skillet and cook until the tomato thickens into a sauce, turning the meatballs from time to time. This should take about 25 minutes.
While the meatballs are cooking, bring water for pasta to boil--and make some spaghetti. If you've timed it brilliantly--and why shouldn't you? --pasta and meatballs should be done at the same time--and there you are.