Polpettone v. Meatloaf

Polpettone from Naples stuffed and rolled with ham and cheese and served with roasted peppers and baby arugula

Polpettone from Naples stuffed and rolled with ham and cheese and served with roasted peppers and baby arugula

Meatloaf is an iconic American comfort food which, admittedly, I have never eaten. My Sicilian mother simply did not do meatloaf and whenever I dined at my “American” friends’ homes, their moms inevitably prepared (their version of) “Italian” food for me. Please forgive me if I come off sounding unappreciative, but I would have much preferred an excellent meatloaf than mediocre Italian food that could never compete with my mother’s (I know how bad I sound…sorry). Even in college, when I went home with roommates whose families lived nearby for a home-cooked meal, lasagna was ALWAYS served to me. With the best intentions, my friends’ mothers kindly said, “I thought I’d make you a dish to remind you of your mother’s cooking.” What was I supposed to say in response? “This is NOTHING like my mother’s food!! Why couldn’t you just make me meatloaf???” Of course not, so I politely thanked them, told them their food was delicious and ate it as best I could.

It wasn’t until I avidly began cooking and studying Italian cuisine that I discovered polpettone, the Italian version of meatloaf. The Florentines have their interpretation with carrots, onions, celery, prosciutto and cheese, but I particularly love this Neapolitan version inspired by the great cookbook author, gastronome and fellow Italian food purist, Giuliano Bugialli. Let me know how it compares to meatloaf. 😉

Polpettone di Carne

Adapted by Majella Home Cooking from Foods of Naples and Campania by Giuliano Bugialli

Serves 4-6

  • 2 slices white bread, crusts removed, roughly torn into one-inch pieces
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 20 sprigs Italian parsley, leaves only
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 1 1/2 pounds ground beef (I used 90% lean ground sirloin)
  • 4 tbsp. freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
  • 1 teaspoon of salt and several grindings of freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 6 ounces fresh mozzarella, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
  • 1/4 pound boiled ham (or mortadella), sliced about 1/4-inch thick, then cut into thin strips
  • About 2 tbsp. flour
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 egg white, lighten beaten

Soak the bread in the milk in bowl for 30 minutes. Transfer the soaked bread with all the milk to a small saucepan, and set the pan over low heat. Cook the bread, breaking it up in the milk and mixing constantly with a wooden spoon until a very smooth paste forms, about 10 minutes. Let it rest until cold, about 30 minutes. (Making a paste from the bread, instead of adding the bread when it is just soaked, makes the meat loaf lighter.)

Finely chop the parsley and garlic in a food processor. Add the meat, parsley mixture, Parmigiano, and bread paste in a large bowl and mix very well. Season with salt and pepper and add the eggs. Mix again to be sure all the ingredients are well combined.

Transfer the mixture to a piece of parchment paper. Shape it into a rectangle about ¾-inch thick. Distribute the mozzarella cubes over the mixture and scatter the ham on top.

Distribute the ham and cheese evenly

Distribute the ham and cheese evenly over the meat mixture

Holding the parchment paper on the narrow side, use it to roll the meat around the cheese and ham stuffing into the shape of a salami. Makes sure to seal the ends of the meatloaf with the meat to prevent the cheese from oozing out during cooking. Lay the parchment paper flat again, and sprinkle the flour all over it. Roll the loaf in the flour to coat it evenly.

Rolling the polpettone with parchment paper

Rolling the polpettone with parchment paper

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Spread the butter in a glass or ceramic baking dish (ovenproof), then pour in the oil. Carefully transfer the meat loaf to the baking dish. Then, with a brush, coat the meat loaf with the egg white. Bake for 30-35 minutes in the center rack of the oven, basting occasionally with the pan juices

Polpettoni (2 of them!) ready for the oven

Polpettoni (2 of them!) ready for the oven

Remove the dish from the oven. Transfer the meat loaf to a cutting board, and let it rest for at least 15 minutes. Cut it into 1-inch thick slices. Buon appetito!

Serving suggestion: This is a rich dish and is well-served by a light, acidic side dish to cut the fattiness. I served it with an insalatina of baby arugula and roasted peppers (I roasted 10 red and yellow bell peppers and marinated them for a few hours (or overnight if possible) with ½ cup red wine vinegar, 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, 1 tablespoon of sugar, 1 teaspoon of salt and several grindings of black pepper) and drizzled it with freshly squeezed lemon and olive oil and a sprinkling of sea salt.

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