Calabrian Ricotta Balls in Tomato Sauce with Pasta.
This fabulous vegetarian version of pasta with ‘meatballs’ is based on a traditional recipe from Calabria in Southern Italy. These Calabrian ricotta balls in tomato sauce are delicious with pasta or without! You can also make extra and fry or bake them!
Polpette di ricotta al sugo.
Ricotta balls in tomato sauce is originally a Calabrian recipe that originated among the region’s poorer farming and peasant population, in particular in the mountainous Sila area. Like so many of Italy’s traditional recipes, this is a combination of simple staple ingredients. However, in the past this was also a dish made on special occasions, such as carnival, by people for whom meat was a luxury.
What are polpette?
In Italian, the word polpette is used to mean balls of minced ingredients whether they are made of meat, vegetables or cheese. So ‘polpette di ricotta’ basically means ricotta balls. Meatballs are usually just referred to as ‘polpette’. Apparently, meat based meatballs as we know them were introduced to Europe by the Arabs. Think koftas! However, unlike in US, spaghetti with meatballs isn’t a typical Italian dish.
Many Italians eat meatballs without the pasta. Although they use the sauce as a pasta condiment. For example, my hubby’s family have the tomato sauce with pasta first and then follow with the meatballs, which they take out of the sauce! Even where they are eaten with pasta, Italian meatballs are much smaller than those found elsewhere. Check out this recipe for orecchiette with meatballs a traditional dish from Puglia.
These Calabrian ricotta balls in tomato sauce are also eaten without pasta, often as a main course. In addition, you can bake or fry them and serve them as an appetizer or snack.
So what is ricotta?
Ricotta is an Italian whey cheese, meaning it’s made from the whey produced after making other types of cheese. Simply put, when you make cheese, you separate milk into two substances, curds and whey! Most cheeses are made using the curds. Ricotta is made using the whey. In Italy, it can be the whey from cow, goat, sheep or water buffalo milk. It’s practically a staple here, especially in the South. The word ricotta means recooked. In fact, this fresh cheese is made by heating the whey after letting it ferment for up to 24 hours.
Italians use ricotta in many ways; in desserts and cakes and on pizza. There are also lots of pasta recipes that include it. My favourite way to eat this fresh cheese is actually on its own or with honey on bread for breakfast, especially if it’s very fresh and homemade. However, these Calabrian ricotta balls in tomato sauce is my second favourite way to use ricotta.
Making Calabrian ricotta balls with pasta.
As I mentioned before this is a simple recipe made with staple ingredients, well Italian staples! The ricotta for these polpette is usually cow’s milk ricotta or sheep ricotta. Other ingredients are eggs, parsley, garlic, breadcrumbs and grated parmigiano and pecorino. You can just use one of those grated cheeses if you don’t have both. (vegetarians will need to use a hard cheese that doesn’t contain animal rennet). The tomato sauce is a simple one with fresh tomatoes and/or passata and garlic.
I served a short flat pasta called mafaldine with these Calabrian ricotta balls. Do you know this pasta? Mafaldine, also known as mafalde or reginette (meaning little queens) is a wide flat pasta ribbon, similar to pappardelle but with scalloped or ruffled edges. You can find it in both a long and short version. Mafaldine pasta is actually named after Princess Mafalda of Savoy, the second daughter of King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy. Her story is sadly a tragic one! You can read about her in my mafaldine post.
Italian recipes for these ricotta balls with pasta mostly call for spaghetti or short pasta like fusilli. I think the mafaldine were fantastic and other short flat pasta would go well too, for example orecchiette. Also, I came across a number of baked pasta versions which I really want to try. In that case, short pasta like fusilli or rigatoni would be best. Plus a layer of sliced mozzarella on top!
Whichever way you decide to serve these Calabrian ricotta balls, I’m sure you’ll love them as much as I do! This dish is a great option for meatless Mondays and vegetarians!
If you do try this Calabrian ricotta balls with pasta recipe, I’d love to hear what you think. Please write a comment here on the blog or post a comment on the Pasta Project Facebook page.
Your feedback means a lot to me!
Other pasta with ricotta recipes
- Sicilian pasta with ricotta 2 ways
- Italian ricotta and mushroom lasagne al forno
- Ricotta and basil filled paccheri
- Tuscan ricotta gnudi with truffles
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Calabrian Ricotta Balls in Tomato Sauce with Pasta
For the ricotta balls
- 500 g ricotta (1lb) cow or sheep milk ricotta
- 150 g breadcrumbs (5-6oz) or 4 thick slices of stale bread
- 30 g Parmigiano Reggiano (1oz) for vegetarians use hard cheese without animal rennet
- 30 g Pecorino cheese (1oz) or use 60g (2oz) of only one cheese if you don't have both
- 2 eggs beaten
- 1-2 garlic cloves peeled and finely chopped
- 1 handful fresh parsley finely chopped
For tomato sauce
- 600 g tomato passata (1.3lbs) or half cherry tomatoes and half passata. Cut the cherry tomatoes into halves or quarters
- 2 garlic cloves peeled
- salt for pasta and to taste
- freshly ground black pepper. to taste
- 400 g short mafaldine/mafalde pasta (14oz) or fusilli, penne, paccheri
Make the ricotta balls
- If using stale bread slices remove the crusts and blend in a food processor to make breadcrumbs. Drain the ricotta well and then put it in a bowl and mash with a fork. Add the grated cheese and the breadcrumbs. Mix well. Add the eggs, garlic and chopped parsley mix again until you have a soft homogeneous dough. If it seems dry add a little milk. If it seems too wet, add more breadcrumbs. Form the dough into balls. The size depends on preference. Ours were about the size of a golf ball.
Make the tomato sauce
- Cook the garlic cloves in olive oil until they start to soften. Add the halved cherry tomatoes. Turn down the heat and simmer until they are soft too. Add the passata and continue simmering for 10 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Cook the pasta
- While the sauce is simmering put a pot of water on to boil for the pasta. Add salt once it starts to boil and bring to the boil again. Cook the pasta al dente according to the instructions on the packet. When the pasta is ready drain it and put it back into the pot. Add some tomato sauce to the pasta and mix well.
Finish the dish
- While the pasta is cooking add the ricotta balls to the tomato sauce. After 5 minutes turn them gently and continue for another 5-10 minutes. Plate the cooked pasta that you have mixed with some tomato sauce. Put 2-3 ricotta balls onto the pasta with some more tomato sauce.
- Serve immediately with more grated cheese if required.
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