Now that's a tasty meatball!
Imported Italian bread the key to Altamura's tender, succulent meatballs
Last updated 1/31/2024 at 4:56pm | View PDF
Meatballs come in about as many varieties as you can imagine, with different kinds of meats and fillers. I once judged a meatball contest and ate one that contained raisins.
But at Altamura in Hinsdale, the meatball is kept simple. One single ingredient is key to making the meatballs tender and delicious.
"This is our imported bread. This is what I use for bread crumbs," said Carmela St. John, who owns the Italian take-and-bake pizza and specialty shop with her husband, Steve. "That's what makes everything we do a little bit more special, a little bit more different."
Carmela and I begin by pulsing a large piece of the flat bread in a food processor to create the crumbs. Then we add them to six pounds of ground beef (80/20 lean) along with eight cloves of pressed garlic, four eggs, two cups of milk, one cup of imported Parmesan ("Parmigiano," as Carmela pronounces it), a tablespoon of salt and a bunch of fresh Italian parsley, finely chopped to release its flavor.
"Smell. You can smell it," she says, holding the cutting board up to my nose. "See the difference?"
She drops the parsley in the bowl and it's time to mix. Ingredients need to be thoroughly incorporated, she notes.
"A lot of times I let the meat sit out for a bit and get a little more at room temperature. It's easier to work with. When the meat is not as cold, the ingredients will mix better and also bake more evenly," she said.
Carmela doesn't roll the balls - she presses the meat together and then tosses it from hand to hand.
"When you put the balls together, you don't want to make it too too tight. It gets really dense," she said. "You've got to have enough milk in there. You've got to have the right bread for them not to be really heavy and dense."
The six pounds of meat will make about 45 meatballs at about 2.5 ounces each. Carmela used to weigh each meatball, but now she uses a small measuring cup to portion out the meat.
We make a batch of 15, or enough to fill the foil tray. They smell great even at this stage.
"It's all about the ingredients. People think Italian food is fattening and bad for you and blah, blah, blah," Carmela said. "Americans have bastardized it in some ways, because if you use the freshest of ingredients - and you're going to bake a lot of the fat off of these meatballs when you are baking them and then you use a fresh tomato to cook them in - you can feel good about eating meatballs."
She slides the tray of meatballs into a pizza oven with a stone to bake at 400 degrees for about 15 minutes.
Carmela remembers her mom making meatballs when she was kid in Altamura, Italy.
"I grew up with my mom frying the meatballs," she said, noting that she bakes the meatballs only partway through.
"We finish cooking them in the sauce, for about an hour. It makes all the difference," she said.
The finished meatballs are used in paninis, on a new pizza (the Altamura Ultimate) and sold in containers of six. My favorite way to eat them is with a fork - or maybe a spoon to scoop up some of that yummy sauce.
Even after helping Carmela make a batch of meatballs, I can't believe how such a simple recipe can deliver such amazing taste and texture.
"Our bread is what makes the difference," Carmela said. "I can't express it enough."