By contributing writer Mary Cressler
I love getting new recipe ideas from places I travel to. Whether it’s experimenting with a new spice or preparing a protein, I always discover something unique that I’m inspired to try back home, and often it’s understanding the indigenous story behind the food, people, and experience that gets me most excited.
When I recently visited Sicily, I was impressed by not only the wines I tasted, but also the food and the people hosting us. From the simple, fresh ways they prepare their seafood to the unique uses for eggplant, or the signature Arancini di Riso (fried rice balls), I was exposed to many staples in Sicilian cooking that I’m not accustomed to in the Pacific Northwest, USA. One thing that was present at nearly every meal (sans breakfast) was platters full of meatballs.
The meatballs weren’t served on the typical spaghetti and meatball plate I’m used to seeing here. Instead, they were almost always served as an appetizer in small golf ball size bites and never with noodles. Sometimes they were doused in a tomato sauce, and sometimes they had no sauce at all. Most often they were made from beef, but we also came across a variety of other meats representative of the island’s diversity.
So what makes a meatball specifically Sicilian?
In articles you may find via Google, you’ll often find that many think the addition of pine nuts and currants (or other dried fruit) is what makes them distinctly Sicilian. I don’t remember having any of the meatballs prepared with pine nuts or dried fruit, though those ingredients were present in many of the fish dishes we enjoyed (specifically the Polpette di Pesce, fish balls).
I reached out to my host and Sicily native, Salvatore, to see if he had any insight to what makes Sicilian meatballs so unique. He explained that there isn’t one specific thing that makes them unique, but it’s likely the combination of simple fresh ingredients (including fresh herbs instead of dried) and the genuine hospitality of the people who served them.
I can get behind that explanation. Just like a delicious pasta sauce, every grandma and cook has his or her own special sauce that differentiates it from the next. And the same goes for these meatballs. Each host prepared them their own way, but they were equally savory, juicy, tender, and delicious. Often times these recipes were handed down from generation to generation.
I do love the idea of adding dried fruit to meatballs, just like my favorite sweet Cranberry and Red Wine Turkey Meatballs I make every holiday season. But this time I wanted to tone down the sweetness, so I used raisins and a combination of beef and pork as the main proteins, for added flavor. I also followed Salvatore’s advice by using as many fresh herbs and ingredients I could find. These meatballs, while not made by some of the lovely people I encountered on my trip, definitely reminded me of the flavors I enjoyed in Sicily.
This is easily a meal I can make any day of the week to remind me of a memorable trip.
- 1 pound ground beef
- 1 pound ground mild Italian pork sausage
- 3 eggs
- 1 shallot, finely chopped (approx ¼ cup)
- 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- ¼ cup pine nuts, roughly chopped (optional)
- ¼ cup raisins, roughly chopped
- ¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
- 1 tablespoon fresh parsley, chopped
- 1 teaspoon fresh oregano, chopped (or ½ teaspoon dried)
- 1 teaspoon fresh thyme, chopped (or ½ teaspoon dried)
- ½ teaspoon dried marjoram
- Salt and pepper
- ½ cup breadcrumbs (you may need up to ¾ cup, depending on how moist the mixture is, see notes)
- 1 jar homemade or store bought marinara sauce
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line a large baking pan with non-stick cooking paper (such as parchment paper).
- In a large bowl, add all of the ingredients (except the marinara sauce!) in the order they are listed and mix well with your hands. You want to avoid crushing the ingredients together, instead gently fold the ingredients into the meat.
- Form meatballs into the shape of a golf ball (about 2 inch diameter) and place them onto the prepared baking pan.
- Bake 20-25 minutes, until the internal temperature of the meatballs is 165 degrees.
- While the meatballs are baking in the oven, warm up your favorite homemade or store bought marinara sauce in a large saucepan.
- When you remove the meatballs from the oven, transfer into the simmering sauce and allow them to cook in the sauce, covered, for an additional 30 minutes.
Nero d’Avola is the main red grape of Sicily and indigenous to the region. Translated to “The Black Grape of Avola,” it refers to the grape’s dark skin that originated in the island’s southeast town of Avola.
Grown all over the island, you’ll find a wide variety of examples of Nero d’Avola, from light fresh examples that have bright berry fruit aromas meant to be consumed young, to the deep, rich, and complex examples worthy of age. Regardless of style, these are highly aromatic wines (with lots of red berries and spice) with moderate tannins and high acidity.
In nearly all the examples I tried, from the young fresh wines to the most complex, they all demonstrated a bright, vibrant acidity that makes them great candidates for a wide variety of food items such as meats and foods with high amounts of acid, like tomato sauce. And I was almost always sipping on some Nero d’Avola with each dish of meatballs served to me on my trip, making them a natural match for this recipe!
You can get started exploring Nero d’Avola wines by using the Wine4.Me app. Try these:
Cusumano Nero d’Avola (Sicily, Italy) ~ $11
Fresh with ripe red and black berry fruit aromas and flavors.
Villa Pozzi Nero d’Avola (Sicily, Italy) ~ $10
Intense and perfumed with berries, herbs, vanilla, and spice characters. Full-bodied with some richness on the palate.
Cantine Colosi Nero d’Avola (Sicily, Italy) ~ $15
Aromatic with lots of dried fruit, cherry, and baking spices, and some savory notes that will be a great match for the sweet and savory meatballs.
These are all examples of the aromatic, fruity, fresh, and affordable style of Nero d’Avola. They also have a softer profile, making them nice to sip alone, or with food. I loved the mix of fruity, spicy, and savory notes in the wines that really play well with meat and red sauce.
Have you tried Nero d’Avola? What are your thoughts? And do you have a secret ingredient you add to meatballs to give them a special touch? What is it?
You might also enjoy…
- Cranberry and Red Wine Meatballs
- Slow Cooker Sloppy Joes Recipe and Wine Pairing
- Easy Beef Stroganoff Recipe and Wine Pairing
- Meatloaf Recipe and Wine Pairing
We hope you enjoy our wine pairing choices. If you want to know which wines YOU will like best, download the FREE iPhone app Wine4.Me. Tell it what wines you know you like and get your own personalized rankings of best-selling, widely available wines in the US.
Mary Cressler is a Certified Sommelier, a Wine Location Specialist, and the proprietor of Vindulge: Wine Education & Consulting. She conducts wine classes and events and offers consulting for individuals, restaurants, and event planners.
She writes about wine, food, and travel on her blog Vindulge. Mary resides in Portland, Oregon with her husband, twin boys, and two Chihuahuas.