Orecchiette with Meatballs: Recipe from Puglia.

Orecchiette with Meatballs: Recipe from Puglia.

This orecchiette with meatballs is based on a similar dish that I enjoyed during a recent trip to Salento, Puglia, in Southern Italy. Many consider this dish to be the authentic Italian version of pasta with meatballs!

orecchiette with meatballs

Orecchiette maritate con polpettine

Pasta with meatballs is one of those recipes that sparks much debate. Many consider it to be more an Italian-American dish and not something that’s eaten in Italy. To some degree this is true. Most Italians don’t eat spaghetti with meatballs as it’s made in the US.

orecchiette maritate with meatballs

That recipe was apparently ‘invented’ by Italian immigrants in New York in the early 20th century. However, the origins of pasta with meatballs is definitely Italian, particularly from Abruzzo and Puglia. One of the most well-known pasta dishes in Abruzzo is spaghetti alla chitarra with very small meatballs called ‘pallottine’ normally made from a mix of veal, pork and lamb.

ingredients for Italian orecchiette with meatballs

In Puglia, on the other hand, this orecchiette with meatballs is very traditional and many people think of this as the original Italian version of pasta with meatballs. The differences between Abruzzo meatballs and the ones in this recipe are the type of meat used and the size.

ground beef and pork, breadcrumbs, grated cheese and parsley in white bowl

There’s no lamb in this recipe from Puglia. The meatballs are also bigger. Whereas the pallottine in Abruzzo are seriously tiny (about the size of a cherry), the ones in this orecchiette recipe are about the size of a walnut! Still not as big as the Americans make theirs!

ground meat mixture with eggs and milk in white bowl

Italians do eat larger meatballs but not actually with pasta. Traditionally, they remove them from the sauce, which they serve with pasta as a first course ( primo). Then they eat their meatballs as a main course (secondo).

ready meatball mixture in white bowl

There are a number of typical 2 in 1 Italian pasta recipes which are popular on Sundays and holidays! A couple of examples here on The pasta project are orecchiette with beef rolls (braciole), also from Puglia, and Italian braised pork ribs with pasta from Emilia-Romagna.

meatballs on kitchen paper ready to be cooked

The pasta.

Whilst on holiday in Salento, Puglia, I noticed some restaurant pasta dishes made with ‘orecchiette maritate’. Actually, this was a term I hadn’t heard before. I was surprised to learn that it refers to a ‘marriage’ or mix of 2 types of pasta, orecchiette and what the people in Puglia call maccheroncini.

meatballs cooking in olive oil in skillet

In Puglia, the maccheroncini in orecchiette maritati are a type of casarecce or pasta ‘al ferreto’. A ferreto is a thin metal rod or wire used by housewives to make pasta. Small pieces of pasta are wrapped around the rod and then slid off. This type of pasta is sometimes called ferretti. Fusilli was originally a ferretti pasta as is fileja pasta from Calabria.

browned meatballs in white dish

The origin of the term ‘maritate’ comes from the fact that maccheroncini, also called maccarruni or minchiarieddi in the local dialect, represent the symbol of male sexuality. Whereas, orecchiette are the symbol of female sexuality. Maritate therefore means ‘married’ and this mix of pasta was traditionally served at wedding lunches as a symbol of a peaceful and fruitful marriage.

Pasta Benedetto Cavalieri.

I made this orecchiette with meatballs using orecchiette maritate that I bought back from Salento. It’s made by one of the most well-known pasta companies in Puglia, Benedetto Cavalieri. My hubby and I dropped in at this company one morning during our holiday and we were thrilled to meet and talk to the present owner, Benedetto and his son Andrea.

onions and small tomatoes cooking in olive oil

Benedetto Cavalieri have been making pasta in Maglie, Salento since 1918. However, even before they started making pasta, the Cavalieri family were durum wheat farmers and millers. The present owner is the founder’s grandson.

tomato passata added to onions and small tomatoes in large pot

They make their pasta with durum wheat grown in Puglia and Basilicata using a production process called ‘methodo delicato’. This ‘delicate’ method involves long kneading of the dough and slow pressing, drawing and drying at low temperatures.  

meatballs in tomato sauce in skillet

Benedetto Cavalieri have 2 lines of pasta production. Their relatively new organic whole grain pasta is available in 6 shapes (I have the fusilli and rigatoni which I am looking forward to trying very soon). Whilst, their traditional award winning artisan pasta is available in 32 shapes. It’s the pasta of choice for many gourmet chefs who value it’s wonderful grain flavour and chewiness.

orecchiette maritate added to meatballs and sauce

I love Benedetto Cavalieri’s orecchiette maritate. It was the perfect pasta choice for this orecchiette with meatballs recipe. Of course, you can also use just orecchiette.

Making orecchiette with meatballs.

Although this orecchiette with meatballs recipe requires a few cooking and prep steps, it’s pretty easy to make. Most time consuming is making the meatballs as they need to be quite small! My hubby and I made them together. In total, we managed to make 40 meatballs. That’s about 10 per person which is a generous portion. Aim for meatballs that are a mouthful size!

orecchiette with meatballs

The meatballs are fried and then cooked in a tomato sauce made from onion and either fresh tomatoes and passata or you can use just passata (Italian canned tomato puree). Total cooking time is only 30-45 minutes if you cook the pasta whilst the meatballs are simmering in the sauce.

The meatballs and sauce freeze well. So, since it was just my hubby and I, froze half and got 2 delicious meals out of this orecchiette with meatballs recipe!

orecchiette with meatballs recipe from Puglia

If you do try this Italian pasta with meatballs 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.

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Buon Appetito!

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pasta with meatballs recipe from Puglia
5 from 25 votes
orecchiette with meatballs recipe from Puglia
Orecchiette with Meatballs: Recipe from Puglia
Prep Time
30 mins
Cook Time
30 mins

The original Italian recipe for pasta with meatballs. This orecchiette with meatballs is a traditional dish on Sundays and holidays in Southern Italy.

Course: Main Course
Cuisine: Italian, Puglia, Southern Italian
Keyword: authentic Italian pasta recipe, Italian recipe, meatballs, orecchiette, pasta
Servings: 4
Author: Jacqueline De Bono
  • 400 g orecchiette (14oz) I used orecchiette maritate by Benedetto Cavalieri
For meatballs
  • 200 g ground veal or beef (7oz)
  • 200 g ground pork (7oz)
  • 1-2 eggs 1 large 2 small
  • 50 g pecorino (2oz) grated
  • 100 g breadcrumbs (4oz) soaked in a little milk
  • 1 glass milk
  • 1 handful fresh parsley chopped
  • salt to taste
  • olive oil as required
For tomato sauce
  • 250 g cherry tomatoes (9oz) or datterini (cut in halves)
  • 320 g tomato passata or polpa (11oz) I used polpa by Mutti
  • 1 onion peeled and finely chopped
  • 3-4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil.
  • salt for pasta and to taste
  • pecorino or ricotta salata grated (as required)
  • peperoncino flakes (red chilli pepper) optional
  1. Peel and finely chop the onion. Wash and half the cherry tomatoes. Wash and chop the parsley. Soak the breadcrumbs in a little milk.

  2. Brown the peeled and chopped onion in a little olive oil until it softens, add the chopped small tomatoes. Once the tomatoes also start to soften add the tomato passata or polpa and salt, cook for about 20 minutes. Add pepper to taste.

  3. While the sauce is simmering make the meatballs. Put the ground meat, the breadcrumbs soaked in milk, the pecorino cheese, the chopped parsley and a little salt in a bowl and mix and knead together well. Add the eggs and milk and mix and knead everything together well.

  4. Make the meat mixture into very small meatballs. You can use a small spoon to measure out the quantity of meat for each meatball or roll a generous handful of the meat mixture into a sausage shape and cut of the required amount and roll between your hands. Once the meatballs are ready,  brown them in hot oil and drain them on kitchen paper to remove the excess oil.

  5. Add the meatballs to the sauce and cook for 10-15 minutes over a medium heat. Meanwhile, put a pot of water on to boil for the pasta. Once it boils, add salt 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 add to the sauce. Mix everything together well and serve sprinkled with more pecorino or ricotta salata and some peperocino flakes if required.

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orecchiette maritate with meatballs

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  • Avatar
    Ramona’s Cuisine
    October 28, 2019 7:16 pm

    Oh my goodness, what a delightful recipe – I made it with beef the day before yesterday and went down a real treat – kids have asked me to make it again tonight and I actually cannot wait to have it again myself – absolutely delicious recipe. Thank you so much for sharing this mouthwatering recipe – my kids said thank you Jacqui!! xx

  • Avatar
    October 28, 2019 11:04 am

    Such an epic dish. My kids will devour this the minute I put it in front of them. Looking to trying it.

  • Avatar
    Amy Dong
    October 28, 2019 6:41 am

    Orecchiette is such a fun pasta shape to cook with and serve. Love how you made this into a simple, manageable meal the whole family can enjoy!

  • Avatar
    October 28, 2019 6:40 am

    Orecchiette pasta is such a great pasta to make! But I’ve never thought about pairing it with meatballs. Such a creative way to enjoy ‘spaghetti + meatballs’! Looks great!

  • Avatar
    October 28, 2019 2:44 am

    Your Orecchiette with Meatballs is on our dinner rotation for this week. This sounds so flavorful I can’t wait to try it. I always love your post, you always provide so much information .

  • Avatar
    October 27, 2019 4:40 pm

    Oh my gosh the combination of meats was what made this meatball recipe super tasty! And I love the simplicity of the tomato sauce as well. Will definitely make again.

  • Avatar
    October 27, 2019 11:39 am

    This dish sounds delicious! My family is huge meatball fans, I’m going to add this to next week’s meal plan.

  • Avatar
    Anne Lawton
    October 26, 2019 11:58 pm

    This pasta dish sounds so amazing! I cannot wait to make this for dinner.

  • Avatar
    October 26, 2019 6:41 am

    Love this orecchiette pasta! Such a unique pasta and a perfect weeknight meal!

  • Avatar
    Delia Martini
    October 25, 2019 9:04 pm

    I’m from an Italian family and we eat meatballs with Pasta. I couldn’t live without either. I add a little oregano to mine. Well done on your pasta adventure!

  • Avatar
    October 25, 2019 6:13 pm

    Pasta dishes are the best. These meatballs look amazing too.

  • Avatar
    Cindy Gordon
    October 25, 2019 3:27 pm

    I love that this is made with simple ingredients. Made it for my in-laws and they loved it!

  • Avatar
    October 25, 2019 3:03 pm

    I cannot wait to try this – authentic pasta makes me swoon! And I have never had Orecchiette.

  • Avatar
    Stine Mari
    October 25, 2019 3:00 pm

    We don’t eat much meatballs with spaghetti in Norway either, it’s usually minced beef in a tomato sauce (we call it bolognese but it’s not). However, I love the look of this recipe and the meatball size is in my opinion perfect!

  • Avatar
    October 25, 2019 3:00 pm

    Obsessed with Orecchiette after visiting Puglia last year. This looks divine.

  • Avatar
    Helen of Fuss Free Flavours
    October 25, 2019 2:07 pm

    Meatballs with spaghetti may not be totally authentic, but it is a very tasty and satisfying meal. So good to have on a cold day, and easy to make for any day of the week.

  • Avatar
    Shashi at SavorySpin
    October 25, 2019 11:34 am

    Not gonna lie I could eat those meatballs all by themselves and lick the pan clean! yum!

  • Avatar
    October 25, 2019 4:16 am

    I’m culture shocked that Italy doesn’t serve their pasta with meatballs, ha! Good fun fact there. 🙂 Loving this recipe and SO glad you added the meatballs!

  • Avatar
    Kelly Anthony
    October 24, 2019 8:08 pm

    I find the history of spaghetti and meatballs so interesting. I also found it fascinating that the size of the meatballs varies.

  • Avatar
    October 24, 2019 4:54 pm

    I tried Orecchiette for the first time a few weeks ago and I loved it; I had it with a delicious pistachio pesto.

  • Avatar
    October 24, 2019 3:27 pm

    Your history on this past dish was fascinating to read. Thanks for such thorough research. I love knowing the background of dishes, especially when they’re from a different cuisine.

  • Avatar
    October 23, 2019 9:15 pm

    My kids would go crazy for this dish! These pastas are indeed a marriage made in heaven! And who doesn’t love a good meatball! I can’t wait to try this. Salento is such a pretty part of Italy. And one less traveled. I have had the pleasure of going one time.

  • Avatar
    October 23, 2019 6:11 pm

    I didn’t know that spaghetti & meatballs is more of an American invention. But either way, it’s aways a winner, and this dish looks so good!

  • Avatar
    Tamara Andersen
    October 23, 2019 6:08 pm

    My mouth is watering after reading your post… and seeing all the beautiful photos! I don’t splurge on pasta often, but this orecchiette dish is so tempting. Italy is definitely on our bucket list!

  • Avatar
    Jere Cassidy
    October 23, 2019 3:35 am

    I so need to go to Italy just to eat pasta. I love meatballs so this dish sounds perfectly delicious.

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