Technique: Cibo e Beve’s Linda Harrell on perfect meatballs and marinara

Explore the subtle nuances in this simple dish
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Photograph by Andrew Thomas Lee
Photograph by Andrew Thomas Lee

At Cibo e Beve, Linda Harrell’s most popular appetizer is a trio of meatballs doused in marinara then crowned with a dollop of ricotta and a crisp-fried basil leaf. Although not difficult to make, achieving the desired flavor and texture—neither too dense, too spongy, nor too dry—takes know-how. To help the rest of us master the art of the meatball, Harrell let us in on some of her tricks.

Harrell prefers a mixture of ground meats rather than just beef. “Pork adds juiciness, and veal makes them more tender,” she says. Egg binds the mixture, but too much can make for a spongy meatball; use about one egg per pound of meat. Milk, breadcrumbs, and finely grated hard cheese further lighten the mixture. Many traditional cooks soak the bread in milk first, but Harrell often finds that she can control the texture better if she adds them separately. If the mixture feels too wet, she adds more cheese. If it’s too dry, a splash more milk will do the trick.

And rather than sear the meatballs in a skillet, Harrell prefers to bake them in the oven, in a pan with a little water in the bottom. The water keeps them moist but still allows for caramelization on top.

The breakdown

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1.  Mix together 1 lb. ground beef, ½ cup ground veal, ½ cup ground pork, 1 finely chopped yellow onion, 4 minced garlic cloves, 2 Tbs. minced Italian parsley, 1 Tbs. dried oregano, 2 tsp. salt, 1 tsp. pepper, and a pinch of red pepper flakes.

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2.  Pour in ½ cup half-and-half; mix to incorporate. Make a well in the center of the meat. Add 2 large eggs. Blend thoroughly with your hands.

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3.  Mix in ½ cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and 1 cup plain dry breadcrumbs until the meat holds an indentation when pressed with your thumb.

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4. Break off bits of meat with a 2-ounce scoop (or smaller, but never larger), then lightly roll them into balls between your palms.

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5.  Arrange the meatballs on a rimmed baking sheet. Pour about ¼ inch of water into the pan. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 15 to 20 minutes.

Linda Harrell’s Marinara Sauce

Tomato Tips
Even when tomatoes are in season, canned San Marzanos ($4.49 at Toscano & Sons Italian Market) are still the ideal base for red sauce. It takes very little to dress up this sweet varietal that’s grown in the rich volcanic soil at the base of Mount Vesuvius in Italy, just east of Naples. Only cans marked with an official D.O.P (Denominazione di Origine Protetta) label are authentic.

Ingredients
1/4 cup olive oil
1 large carrot, diced
1 rib celery, diced
1 large sweet yellow onion, diced
Salt to taste
4 large (28-ounce) cans peeled San Marzano plum tomatoes
2 to 3 teaspoons dried leaf oregano (or to taste)
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper (or more if you prefer it spicy)
2 teaspoons chopped garlic
8 large leaves of fresh basil 

Instructions
In a large saucepot, heat the oil over medium-low heat. Add the carrots, celery and onions. Season with 1 teaspoon salt. Cook slowly until vegetables are soft. Add the tomatoes with their juice. Add the oregano, red pepper and garlic. Simmer slowly until tomato juices begin to thicken, about an hour. Skim away the bubbles that rise to the top while it cooks (this eliminates some of the acid). When the sauce has reached the desired thickness, remove from heat. Add the basil. Blend the sauce with an immersion blender until smooth. (Or puree in a food processor in batches). Season to taste with salt.

Makes about 12 cups

0115_LindaHarrellPortrait_JoelKimmel_oneuseonlyAbout Linda Harrell
Even though she’s a Long Island native with Irish heritage, Linda Harrell is no stranger to Italian food. After spending her teenage years in restaurants all over Baltimore’s Little Italy, Harrell cooked at Antica Posta, Meehan’s Public House, and Mangia 101 before she and business partner Steve Buero of 101 Restaurant Concepts opened Cibo e Beve in Sandy Springs in 2011. Last September, she hosted the Atlanta Meatball Festival.

Illustrations by Joel Kimmel

This article originally appeared in our January 2015 issue.

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