"My father was raised in South Philly when it was all Italian," says Marc Vetri, chef and owner of three of the best Italian restaurants in the U.S. – Philadelphia's Osteria, the more formal Vetri, and Amis, a casual trattoria. Growing up, Vetri would head over to his grandmother's house behind the old South 9th Street Philadelphia Italian Market every Sunday, play stickball in the alleyways, and then help his father, Sal, with the family supper. Sal usually got meatball duty, mixing ground veal, beef, and pork with a little bread soaked in milk, a recipe handed down by his Sicilian grandmother. "Dad instilled three things in me," Vetri recalls. "First, work for yourself: No matter what, be the boss. Second, have integrity: You are only as good as your word. Third, always use veal, pork, and beef in meatballs. Life really is that simple!"
Vetri dates his own love affair with food to those South Philly Sundays. He cooked in restaurants for extra cash in high school, at Drexel University, and after that at the Musicians Institute in Los Angeles, where he studied guitar, hoping to become a professional. He went on to a cooking job in Italy, bouncing around restaurants there for two years before moving back to Philadelphia. Home again, he started a family, opened his own restaurants, and established his uniquely elegant take on classic Italian fare with dishes like "stuffed baby lamb on a spit" and "pig's head Bolognese."
Mario Batali, who wrote the foreword for Vetri's latest book, 'Rustic Italian Food,' says that his first time at Vetri was "perhaps the best meal of true Italian deliciousness with sublime mouthfeel and honest and clear flavor I had ever had outside of the boot." It comes as little surprise, then, that the multigenerational recipe for "Sal's Old-School Meatballs" remains a Vetri touchstone and is included in his cookbook. And while the typical Italian-American red-sauce joint serves meatballs as a sauce element for spaghetti, Vetri recommends a more classic approach: meatballs alone on a plate with a splash of sauce and an extra sprinkling of parmesan and parsley.
• 1/3 lb ground veal
• 1/3 lb ground pork
• 1/3 lb ground beef
• 1 slice white sandwich bread, torn
• 3/4 cup milk
• 1 egg
• 2/3 cup freshly grated parmesan, plus more for garnish
• 1/3 cup grated pecorino
• 2 tbsp fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped, plus more for garnish
• 2 tsp kosher salt
• 1/4 tsp freshly ground pepper
• 1 small clove garlic, minced
• 1/2 cup tipo 00, a fine, additive-free Italian flour, or all-purpose flour
• 2 tbsp grapeseed oil
Combine the meat, bread, milk, egg, cheese, parsley, salt, pepper, and garlic in a mixer fitted with a flat blade. Mix on medium-low speed for 1 minute.
Scoop out 1/8-cup portions of meat and gently roll between your hands, forming golf ball-size servings. Put flour in a bowl and toss meatballs in the flour as you work.
Place the grapeseed oil in large skillet on medium heat. Add the balls; cook until golden brown, 8 to 10 minutes. The internal temperature should be about 155°. Makes about 20 1-oz balls.
Vetri insists that good meatballs needn't be served with anything but the simplest marinara: Italian canned tomatoes, chopped and then simmered for 30 minutes with a little salt – nothing more.