Whether surrounded by a glistening moat of polenta, shoved inside a springy sub roll, or hidden among tangled ropes of sauce-covered noodles, a good Italian meatball is a magical thing. But what’s the secret to the classic red sauce accompaniment that’s guaranteed to make nonnas everywhere nod in approval? There are certain agreed-upon techniques – for instance, the need for a panade, a mixture of starch and liquid, is widely accepted as necessary for a juicy result – but it can be a divisive thing. Everyone has a passed-down secret that makes their meatball recipe the hands-down best meatball recipe. One cook may wax poetic about why soaking hand-torn shards of stale bread in half-and-half is the key, while another may talk about why it’s a scoop of ricotta added to the mix that sends it over the top.
Chef Donald Counts is no different. “My biggest secret is to soak the breadcrumbs in milk before molding the meatballs,” says Counts, who is National Executive Chef of the restaurant and music venue City Winery. “It keeps everything texturally sound and easy to work with.” (The staler the breadcrumbs, the better, he adds, as they lock in more moisture.) And when it comes to choosing pork and beef, choose something with a little bit more fat to ensure the meatballs are as juicy as possible. Oh, and don’t overmix the ingredients. The resulting meatballs will be too dense.
Fair enough. Born and raised in Mississippi but now living in Nashville with his family, Counts, who wanted to share his meatball recipe with us, learned to cook at home with his grandmother. However, while his recipe is called “Nonna’s Meatballs”, she’s actually not the namesake. (She prefers to be called “Mawmaw”, not “Nonna”). Rather, it was given to him by his best friend’s grandma, who taught him the fine art of forming meatballs. It was a lesson he’d remember forever.
“It’s incredibly special to me because it was when I learned that cooking and eating is best when shared with friends,” says Counts. “Friends become your family when you cook a great meal together.”
Counts is the father of two boys, an infant and a four-year-old. And while his sons aren’t ready to be in the kitchen yet he’s excited for that time to arrive. Cooking with family has always been a huge part of his life (“I have six siblings so when we all work together in the kitchen alongside our mom and dad, we put out some truly amazing meals,” he says) and he can’t wait to continue the tradition.
“I’m happy to cook for my family any day of the week,” says Counts. “But I’m the happiest when I’m cooking with my family.” Whether or not they agree on the finer points of the meatball recipe below, it’s safe to say that nonnas everywhere would certainly agree with that sentiment.
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 20 minutes
1 large egg
1 lb. ground pork
1 lb. ground beef
2 tbsp kosher salt
½ cup parsley
2 peeled garlic cloves (minced)
B tbsp onion powder
Sp tsp red pepper flakes
½ cup grated parmesan
3 ½ cups breadcrumbs
1 cup milk
1. Whisk the egg in a medium bowl. Add pork, beef, salt, parsley, garlic, onion powder, red pepper flakes, and grated parmesan.
2. In a separate bowl, combine breadcrumbs and milk. Stir contents until milk is absorbed. Do not let sit or crumbs will clump.
3. Add breadcrumbs to other ingredients and gently mix until combined. Be careful not to over mix or meatballs will be tough. Form mixture into 4 oz meatballs.
4. Preheat oven to 400 °. Place meatballs on a sheet pan 1 ”apart and bake for 15-20 minutes. Remove and cool. Serve with your choice of noodles or polenta with your favorite marinara sauce.