the Italian issue

A Chance of meatballs

by Liz Williams S easoned minced meatballs can be found from China to Europe. In Italy they are known as polpette (polpetta is the singular). Polpette can be made of any minced meat, and in Italy they are usually either eaten alone or in a soup.There is no Italian dish that is the equivalent to our American spaghetti and meatballs. It is the perfect example of the transformation of ethnic cuisine into American cuisine. We in America tend to treat pasta as a vehicle for sauce. Until very recently we haven’t understood that Italian food is about pasta in one shape or another. Sauce is chosen to best reflect the pasta. And it never drowns the pasta.That is why the very best pasta is often just presented with olive oil and a bare sprinkling of cheese. Sometimes in our rush to more, we lose the detail. American tomato sauce is robust and very often sweet. Sweet with sugar.When it is done right, the sweetness is the perfect foil for the saltiness of the cheese and the umami of the meatballs. Restaurants and home cooks have made their reputations on the balance of their tomato sauce. Especially when the traditional American sauce is made with canned tomatoes, some form of brightness beyond sugar is needed for balance.That brightness can be achieved by the addition of wine vinegar, lemon juice, orange zest or some other secret ingredient closely guarded by the chef. The meatballs, served with the sauce, are just the final touch of excess that is so American. In Italy, where famine and poverty caused so many Italians to come to America,meat as the central part of the meal is not the norm.Indeed when a polpetta is served alone on the plate, it is often for a celebration or other special meal.

Pascal’s Manale has been serving pasta with meatballs since 1913 when the restaurant was just Manale’s. BBQ shrimp were invented during Pascal Rodasta’s reign (1937-1958), along with the restaurant’s signature red gravy. Rodasta’s wife, Francesca, and sister-in-law made it and the meatballs at their house on Louisiana Avenue. When they were done, they’d call for the younger generation to come pick them up.That wasn’t the women’s only job.They also washed and ironed and folded the fabric bibs handed out with the peel-and-eat BBQ shrimp. Wop Salads With the tens of thousands of Italians who came to America from the late 19 th century into the early 20 th century, there was sometimes resentment as the new immigrants settled. Often they worked in and opened restaurants, fished, grew and sold produce, and took other food related jobs, like butchers and grocers. In a less politically correct time, restaurants — including Italian restaurants owned by Italians — served a salad that was full of cheese and garlic and olives. That salad was a wop salad and the epithet referred to Italians, especially southern Italians. Today those restaurants serve an Italian salad. But a few holdouts still have a wop salad on the menu, such as Rocky and Carlo’s on St. Bernard Highway. At Delmonico’s there is a guappo salad, which is said to be the origin of the word wop. Guappo referred to a well-dressed, perhaps swaggering man, perhaps more uppity than others thought he had a right to be. It is a measure of the deep roots of the Italians in the community, regardless of how American they have become, that some retain the wop salad on their menus.



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