Two Meatballs in the Italian Kitchen
Pino Luongo and Mark Strausman
Published: Jan 01, 2007
Category: Food and Wine
My wife worked for Pino Luongo for years and years.
Mark Strausman cooked our wedding dinner.
And now, burdened by this massive collaboration and friendship, I’m going to try to convince you of a proposition you may find extremely unlikely: This is the most practical — and certainly the most fun — Italian cookbook out there.
Let’s start with the fun. These guys, as the title almost suggests, are goofballs who will fight with one another over just about anything. Start with meatballs. Luongo insists they should be pan-fried in olive oil, “only occasionally served with tomato sauce and never on the same plate as spaghetti.” Strausman wouldn’t dream of cooking them that way. For him, meatballs are to be simmered in tomato sauce and invariably to be served over pasta.
And they have their reasons — just ask them. In one of the dialogues that launch each section, Luongo and Strausman explore the philosophical depths of their disagreement. Here’s a highly abridged version:
Strausman: I like the sense of abundance you get with a big, juicy meatball.
Luongo: But the proportion is all off.
Strausman: Is the dish too humble for you? Oh, I forgot: You were born in northern Italy, wearing an ascot.
Luongo: What you’re talking about has no basis in Italian tradition.
Strausman: Meatballs are all about the meat. Italian-Americans came to this country with nothing, and as soon as they could afford to buy meat, however inexpensive, they created big, juicy meatballs.
Luongo: Yes, you put raw balls of meat into tomato sauce and cook them long enough to suck all the juices out of the meat.
Who wins? You do. “A cook-off is in order — let the reader decide,” Strausman proclaims. And so you can. And you can also go on to cook Mark’s mom’s meat loaf, Pino’s meat loaf, Pino’s fresh pasta with meatballs and mushrooms, Mark’s turkey meatballs in spicy tomato sauce and Pino’s meatballs with amaretti.
In short, two books in one.
Well, one, actually, for Pino Luongo and Mark Strausman are really brothers separated at birth. Luongo may be one of New York’s most successful restaurateurs — his establishments have included Le Madri, Coco Pazzo, Tuscan Square and Centolire — but he remains the son of a loving Italian mother. Strausman may have been at the helm of some of Manhattan’s most satisfying restaurant’s — he now is chef of Fred’s at Barneys New York and Coco Pazzo — but he too is a kid from the old neighborhood. It’s just that Luongo’s from Tuscany and Strausman’s from a working-class section of Queens. One’s tall, one’s short. One’s Catholic, one’s Jewish. Otherwise, no difference.
What Luongo and Strausman agree on is all that ultimately matters: “The simplest food is best.” That’s why more than a third of this book is given over to pasta recipes — hey, it’s what you like. Fish? A few recipes, mostly for the grill. Meat? A hearty Tuscan pot roast, ribs (no baby back for Strausman!), even pork chops. There’s an entire section on — gasp! — Italian-American cooking: veal and chicken parmigiana, sausage and peppers, the dishes you find on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. Because Sunday is for family, there’s a section on hearty meals. As a sop to modernity, there are nine vegetable recipes. And in the short dessert section, the range goes from “ugly but good” cookies to pears in vin santo with sweet polenta.
This is not, the authors emphasize, a book for readers. It’s for daily cooks, people who need to set dinner on the table for their families. Old-fashioned? Try this: They see nothing wrong with serving chicken every Tuesday, pasta every Wednesday, just as it was when the authors were kids.
So okay, these are boys who never grew up. But they’re hardly prisoners of their childhoods. They’re keepers of the flame, protectors of the idea that “sometimes the best dish for the moment is the one that makes you forget about your problems and brings back happy memories of times past.” Amen.
What recipe to feature? One of these guys will be offended, no matter which recipe I choose. (I could choose two, but it’s fun to stir the pot here). Because our daughter likes the Italian-American version, I’ll go with Mark Strausman’s simmered meatballs in tomato sauce. (But you never know, palates change. Someday…..)
SPAGHETTI AND MEATBALLS ALLA COCO PAZZO
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup minced red onions
1/2 pound ground veal
1/2 pound ground beef
1/2 pound ground pork
4 ounces sweet Italian sausage, removed from the casing
3 tablespoons ground Sicilian oregano
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano cheese
1/2 cup grated pecorino Romano
1 cup pieces day-old sourdough bread, crust removed, soaked with 1 cup milk
1/4 cup chopped parsley
Freshly ground black pepper
1 clove garlic, crushed with a knife and peeled
1/2 cup red onions, minced
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/2 cup dry red wine
2 large cans whole peeled Italian plum tomatoes with juice and seeds, pureed
Kosher salt to taste
1 tablespoon crushed red pepper
1 1/2 pounds spaghetti
Heat the olive oil in a large frying pan, then sauté the onions until translucent.
Place the meat in a large stainless steel mixing bowl and mix together with your hands. Add the rest of the meatball ingredients, through the parsley, one at a time, mixing them until thoroughly combined between additions. Mix in the cooked onions. When you have added all the ingredients, mix for 1 additional minute. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
To make the sauce, in a large casserole pot sauté the garlic and onion in the olive oil.
Once the onion is translucent, add the tomato paste and sauté for 1 additional minute. Then add the red wine and the tomatoes and season with salt and crushed red pepper.
Bring to a boil, then reduce to a gentle simmer. Simmer for 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, make the meatballs. Take pieces of meat about the size of a ping pong ball and shape them in the palms of your hands to make small spheres.
Place the meatballs in the sauce and simmer for 1 1/2 hours. (Cut into a meatball to make sure they are cooked through.) Count the cooking time from the point when the sauce returns to a simmer after you add the meatballs. Do not let the sauce boil once the meatballs are added, as they will dry out and the fat will separate from the meat.
Just before serving, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook spaghetti until al dente. Drain, transfer to a large serving bowl, and top with meatballs and sauce. Serve immediately.
Serving suggestions: If you prefer, you can prepare this dish without the spaghetti and simply serve the meatballs in the sauce with lots of good bread.
To buy “Two Meatballs in the Italian Kitchen” from Amazon.com, click here.
For Pino Luongo’s web site, click here.