Almost everyone has at one point in their life gotten to experience the culinary masterpiece that is spaghetti and meatballs. This classic dish is considered a family staple when it comes to dinner time. After all, nothing is more comforting than a heaping plate of noodles soaked in marinara sauce and delectable meatballs. But when did this delicious pasta favorite start? And how?
Contrary to popular belief, if you travel to Italy, you won’t likely find a dish called spaghetti and meatballs on the menu. While it’s largely known as an Italian dish, spaghetti and meatballs actually didn’t originate there. Sure, Italy has their own version of meatballs, but they’re different than what you’ve likely had in the past. They’re called polpettes, and are primarily eaten sans spaghetti. They’re also made with any meat, from turkey to fish, instead of primarily ground beef and are made no bigger than golf balls. If you do find spaghetti and meatballs in Italy, it’s largely to satisfy the cravings of the typical American tourist.
The origin of spaghetti and meatballs started with Italian immigrants coming to America in 1880 to 1920. The majority of immigrants were extremely impoverished, and had been spending 75 percent of their income on food in Italy, compared to only 25 percent in the U.S. Meat quickly became a staple, and families were putting meatballs more frequently on the table.
Then came the sauce. For cooks in the United States, “sailor sauce” dominated Italian-American cuisine because canned tomatoes were among the only items available at local grocers. The marinara sauce originates from Naples and comes from the Italian word “marinaro,” meaning sailor.
Spaghetti also became greatly popular in the U.S. because it was one of the only Italian ingredients available. Soon people began eating all three together. Anglo-American diners were accustomed to having starch accompaniment to their proteins. Pasta was first documented in Italy before 1295, when Marco Polo returned from China. Polo spoke of lasagne, which then meant “noodles” to describe what he had seen. By 1400, it was being produced commercially. What became Italian-American cuisine started with a base of Campanian food, minus the many veggies and cheeses and plus a lot of meat. Even seasonings like garlic, hot pepper flakes and oregano became more and more prominent that immigrants used as they were assimilated into American culture.
An online culinary program can delve even deeper into the history of pasta, marinara sauce and meatballs for a better understanding of the classic dish.