I watched my Noni make them from the time I was very little, in the upstairs apartment of the home she owned in Denville, NJ, working the stages of the recipe with sure hands that smelled like onions and garlic.
She never looked at a recipe — old Italian ladies make meatballs from sense memory: ground beef and pork, and veal if you could get it, eggs, finely chopped Italian parsley, black pepper, scads of the best Parmesan she could find and enough minced, fresh garlic to clear a room. Breadcrumbs, too, but Noni told me once that she used fresh bread instead, to soak in more of the juices.
When Noni left us in 1997, my grandmother took up her mother’s annual charge, barricading herself in the kitchen for days constructing meals for Christmas Eve, Christmas morning, Christmas dinner, a big pot of sauce on a constant, slow bubble atop the stove.
The sauce itself is another study in simplicity: crushed tomatoes, smashed garlic, fresh basil and good olive oil. The sort of Italian cooking that has passed through our family kitchens is not complicated, but it’s labor-intensive. After making the meatballs, Noni would start on a batch of ravioli big enough to feed 100 people, twirling the pasta dough across a broom handle to make a sheet.
Nobody in the family makes ravioli anymore. I wouldn’t even know where to begin.
After Grandma moved on from her kitchen, Aunt Lisa took over the annual meatball detail. And then this year, when it was decided we’d stay in North Carolina for Christmas, the task fell to me.
Aunt Gloria had a loose recipe, quantified years ago after watching my grandmother work, and like the women who came before me I let sense memory guide me, working my hands into the mixture and frying little patties up to gauge the taste.
The meatballs get finished in the sauce, along with sausage, braciola or any other meat you want to throw in. After a couple hours on the stove, everything comes together in a rich, red stew.
This year’s meatballs were fine. Excellent, even. Next year’s will be even better, but also exactly the same.