Fresh Tuna meatballs with Pasta: Recipe from Sicily.
These delicious Sicilian fresh tuna meatballs are flavoured with mint, pine nuts and lemon zest. They are fabulous served with potatoes or as an antipasto or snack without the tomato sauce. But, I like them best with pasta!
Polpette di tonno fresco con pasta.
Traditionally Sicilians eat these delicious fresh tuna meatballs as an antipasto without the sauce or as a main course with just bread or potatoes (I like them with mashed potatoes!). As with beef or pork meatballs, Italians are more likely to eat the sauce with pasta and the tuna meatballs separately. In fact, there are many traditional recipes which are divided into two courses in this way. For example orecchiette with braciole (beef rolls) or Italian braised pork ribs with pasta.
Having said that, I found a number of recipes for Sicilian fresh tuna meatballs with pasta on Italian food blogger and recipe sites. This made me happy because it meant I could add this recipe to the other fresh tuna pasta recipes here on The Pasta Project! This is a such a tasty way to serve fresh tuna. However, these tuna meatballs can also be made with canned tuna if you can’t find fresh!
A little fresh tuna meatballs history.
Because Atlantic bluefin tuna migrate past Sicily to reach their spawning grounds in the Eastern Mediterranean (Levantine sea) and the South Tyrrhenian sea, fresh tuna has been fished and eaten in Sicily for hundreds, if not thousands of years. In fact, there is a Neolithic cave painting of tuna on the Egadi Island of Levanzo.
The Egadi Islands are located off the North Western tip of Sicily. Favignana, the biggest of the islands, was home to the first tuna canning plant in Europe.
This plant was owned by the Florio family, who also bought all the Egadi islands in 1876. The Florio family’s tuna netting, processing and canning tuna business (the tonnara of Favignana) actually employed practically every resident on the island. I have read that the idea of Sicilian fresh tuna meatballs was born there! Apparently, the employees were allowed to take home the tuna scraps, which the wives used to make tuna meatballs!
La cucina povera.
Whether that story is true or not, Italians certainly have a talent for turning leftovers into delicious meals. This aspect of Italian cuisine was born out of necessity and poverty. However, despite the fact that we live in richer times, there are still many traditional recipes from ‘la cucina povera’ (the kitchen of the poor) that remain popular. One I posted recently is North Eastern Italian canederli dumplings made with stale bread.
Nowadays, Sicilian fresh tuna meatballs aren’t made with scraps or leftovers. In fact, they’re usually made with the best quality tuna, most often bluefin. But, they do remain a typical dish in Favignana and other parts of Sicily and Calabria where tuna fishing was an important industry.
Today, there’s still a tuna fishing industry in Sicily, of course, but because of a depletion in tuna populations and fishing restrictions , it’s not as big as it used to be.
Making these fresh tuna meatballs.
Apart from the fresh tuna this recipe has just a few other ingredients. The tomato sauce is a simple classic Italian tomato sauce made with fresh peeled tomatoes, passata (ready liquidized tomatoes) or polpa (ready chopped fresh tomatoes). The only other additions to the sauce are garlic and basil.
You can make these meatballs with swordfish instead!
The tuna meatballs are ground fresh tuna, finely chopped onion, breadcrumbs, egg, pine nuts, mint and lemon zest. I fried the fresh tuna meatballs in olive oil until they were slightly browned and then cooked them for a few minutes in the tomato sauce. Some Italians use grated pecorino instead of the breadcrumbs but I’m not really a fan of tuna with cheese. As a final note on this recipe, you can make these meatballs with swordfish instead or a mixture of swordfish and tuna.
For this Sicilian fresh tuna meatballs recipe I used a wonderful pasta tube called genovesone. I got this pasta from pasta makers pastificio dei campi when I visited their factory in Gragnano, Naples last month. Pastificio dei campi are one of the companies that produce pasta di Gragnano IGP. You can read more about pasta from Gragnano and pastificio dei campi on my post about my visit.
Genovesone are the larger version of a smaller pasta tube called genovesine. The latter is a popular shape with Neapolitan pasta makers. It is cut like penne but has a smooth surface and similar diameter to ziti. Genevesone are bigger but also cut like penne. Of course you can use other types of pasta for this recipe. Pasta tubes like paccheri, penne, short ziti or mezze maniche are great. But, I have seen recipes with long pasta such as spaghetti too.
Whichever pasta you choose I’m sure you’ll enjoy this Sicilian dish. If you make extra fresh tuna meatballs you can use this as a cook once eat twice recipe. Serve them with pasta one day and potatoes the next! Yum!
If you make this pasta recipe, I’d love to hear how it turns out and if you liked it. Please leave a comment here on the blog or on The Pasta Project Facebook page.
Looking forward to hearing from you!
Other Sicilian pasta and pasta recipes on The Pasta Project
- 12 Sicilian pasta recipes for your table.
- Anelletti Pasta Eggplant Boats.
- Anelli or Anelletti pasta rings.
- Baked Anelletti (Timballo); Recipe from Sicily
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Sicilian Fresh Tuna Meatballs with Pasta
For the tuna meatballs
- 400 g fresh tuna
- 1 onion (medium size or half a large one) peeled and finely chopped.
- 1 egg
- 3-4 tbsp breadcrumbs or grated pecorino
- 3-4 fresh mint leaves
- 1 tbsp pine nuts chopped
- extra virgin olive oil for frying
- salt to taste
- ground black pepper to taste
- 2 tsp lemon zest (use an organic lemon)
- all purpose flour to coat tuna meatballs
For tomato sauce
- 500 ml tomato passata or chopped tomatoes (17floz) or 1.5 kg peeled sauce tomatoes (3.5 lbs)
- fresh basil leaves
- 2 garlic cloves peeled
- salt to taste
- ground black pepper to taste
- 1-2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 400 g pasta tubes (14oz) or spaghetti. I used genovesone from pastificio dei campi
- salt for cooking water.
Make the fresh tuna meatballs
- Peel and finely chop the onion. Wash and chop the mint leaves. Grate the lemon zest. Chop the pine nuts.
Cut the tuna first into slices (if it's one piece) and then into strips. Cut the strips into small pieces and then either mince in a food processor or chop with a knife like chopping parsley.
Once you have cut all the tuna into small pieces, place it in a bowl and knead it a little with the back of a spoon so as to crush it a little more. (This isn't necessary if you used a food processor) Add a little salt to the tuna, plus the chopped onion, chopped pine nuts, mint and the lemon zest.
Mix everything and then add the egg and breadcrumbs (or grated pecorino). Mix again.
Best using your hands. Take a tablespoonful of tuna and work it with your hands into a round ball. Repeat until you have used up all the meatball mixture. The size isn't so important but try to make them all more or less the same for even cooking.
Once all the meatballs are ready, take a frying pan and pour in enough olive oil to cover the bottom and start to heat the oil. Put the flour on a plate, roll the tuna meatballs in the flour and then fry them in the pan with the oil. Turn them so they brown on all sides. They don't need to be cooked through just browned. In this way, the surface of the meatballs will seal and your meatballs will remain soft while cooking in the sauce. When the meatballs are all browned transfer them to drain on some kitchen paper.
Cook the pasta
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.
Make the tomato sauce
While the water is boiling and the pasta is cooking make the sauce. Put a tbsp. of olive oil in a skillet or frying pan, add the two peeled cloves of garlic. Once they start to soften add the peeled tomatoes or passata/polpa.
Dilute the tomato sauce with a cup of pasta cooking water, add the basil leaves and cook for about 5 minutes. (fresh peeled tomatoes make take longer to break down. passata or polpa are ready faster).
At this point, add the tuna meatballs and cook them in the sauce for another 10 minutes, turning them halfway through cooking.
Drain the pasta. Return it to the pan or put it in a warmed bowl. Mix it well with some of the tomato sauce. You want to coat the pasta with sauce. Then plate the pasta and add 2-3 fresh tuna meatballs and more sauce. Serve immediately.