Spaghetti with meatballs: when Italian traditions are made in the US


Imagine two cute dogs in love, wandering around a big city. Now imagine the two eating a savoury dish of meatball spaghetti, and when they are chewing the two ends of the same spaghetto they end up kissing each other… can you guess the movie?

Of course this is one of the most romantic scenes from the 1955 Disney movie ‘Lady and the Tramp’, in which the two sweet dogs fall in love over a renegade piece of spaghetti. This is just one example of how movies and TV-shows have enforced the legend, and nowadays most non-Italians truly believe that spaghetti with meatballs is a traditional Italian dish. But in fact, this is not totally correct.

To prove it, next time you visit Italy try ordering spaghetti with meatballs in a non-touristic restaurant. Locals wouldn’t have a clue what you are talking about. So how has such a well-known dish born outside of Italy become so iconically  ‘Italian’ afterwards?

Research suggests that spaghetti with meatballs was invented in New York back in the 1920s.  It is hard to say when legend gave way to history, but, this is the most reliable version and the most romantic one. Just like the Disney movie. It’s said that Italian immigrants in New York were poor and spent most of their salary on food. At the beginning the only cheap food they could afford was in fact some spaghetti and some tomato sauce - Cheap enough to be affordable, but also good enough to feel like home.

The subsequent growth of the US economy raised their quality of life and the new Americani could now afford some cheap meat. Not enough for a good steak, but let’s be honest… once minced and fried, any meat can taste good. Especially if you are very hungry. The next pretty obvious step was to add fried meatballs into spaghetti with tomato, and the dish was fast becoming a fixture. The new recipe was immediately so juicy and successful that Spaghetti with Meatballs became a must in every Ristorante Italiano for tourists. Movies and TV-shows re-enforced the legend, and nowadays most non-Italians truly believe that Spaghetti with Meatballs is a traditional Italian dish. However, in some southern region of Italy there are some traditional recipes in which pasta and tiny juicy minced meatballs make for a delicious duo. Some are documented earlier than the New York version, for example the Pasta Seduta (literally ‘seated pasta’), with different versions in Puglia, Abruzzo or Sicily. Most of the time the meatballs are smaller than the US version, and maybe added later during the cooking process. Sometimes there is no tomato sauce at all.

In fact there isn’t a definitive version, for every family has a handed-down recipe, used in most cases to eat up the Sunday roast leftovers. The American version is less contested, and this one is worth the time it takes to make it:

Ingredients for 4 portions:

For the meatballs

400 g minced beef

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

a pinch mixed herbs

1/2 cup fresh white bread crumbs (2 slices, crusts removed)

2 tbsp olive oil

For the sauce

1 tbsp olive oil

1 onion, chopped

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

1 x 400g can tomatoes

Some leaves of fresh basil

A generous squeeze of concentrated tomato paste

400g dried spaghetti

salt and pepper


Tomato sauce: heat a large saucepan and add the olive oil. Add onions and tomato concentrate, and cook gently for 4-5 minutes. Add garlic, and continue to cook for two minutes until aromatic. Add the tomatoes and bring the sauce to a simmer.

Meatballs: mix together the mince, garlic and herbs, crumbs, salt and pepper. You should be able to make about 15 small meatballs. Fry the meatballs in hot olive oil, and cook until golden and crispy.

While you cook the spaghetti in boiling water, gently roll the fried meatballs into the tomato sauce.

Once the pasta is cooked, drain it and toss it in the tomato and meatball sauce. Serve hot and sprinkle with grated parmigiano. Decorate with basil leaves on top.