Polpette di pane, or meatless meatballs made with bread, are the ultimate cucina povera food. Made with just a few simple ingredients these "meatballs" are simmered in a simple marinara sauce and make the perfect snack or appetizer.
One of my favorite things to snack on was the tiny balls of eggy breadcrumbs my mom would make when she was done breading chicken cutlets and didn't want to waste the leftover breadcrumbs.
It wasn't until I was an adult that I realized that polpette di pane, or meatballs made from bread, were actually a real thing.
Polpette di pane were born out of the desire to have meatballs despite a lack of meat and are considered a cucina povera dish, or poor cooking.
Often referred to as "poor man's meatballs", polpette di pane are a wonderful appetizer or snack for anyone, but are great for those abstaining from meat whether during Lent, or those with a vegetarian diet.
How to make polpette di pane
Each number corresponds to the numbered written steps below.
First, make the sauce
- Slice 5 cloves of garlic and add them to a large pan along with ¼ cup of virgin olive oil and saute over medium heat for 2-3 minutes or until the garlic is golden and fragrant.
- Add a ¼ teaspoon of crushed red pepper flakes and saute for another 30 seconds.
- Add 2 28-ounce cans of crushed tomatoes (hand-crushed or blender-pulsed if using canned whole tomatoes) to the pan and bring to a simmer, stirring well.
- Once simmering, taste the sauce and adjust any salt and pepper to taste. Keep the sauce warm at a low simmer while moving on to prepare the meatballs. Note: before serving, hand-tear 4 basil leaves and add them to the sauce.
Next, make the meatless meatballs
- Mince ½ cup of flat-leaf Italian parsley, and grate 1 ½ cups of Pecorino Romano. Place 5-6 slices of day-old white or Italian bread in a food processor to make the breadcrumbs. Add 2 ½ cups of those breadcrumbs to a bowl and save the remaining breadcrumbs for use in another recipe. To the bowl, add the parsley and cheese and grate 2 cloves of garlic directly into the bowl.
- Beat together 4 large eggs, ½ cup of milk, 1 teaspoon of kosher salt, and a ½ teaspoon of black pepper, then add them to the breadcrumb mixture.
- Mix well so the milk and eggs rehydrate the breadcrumbs. If the mixture is too wet and will not form a meatball that holds its shape, add a bit more breadcrumbs and mix again. If it's too dry, add a touch more milk or another beaten egg.
- To form the balls, dip your hands into a bowl of water, then grab a golf ball size worth of the mix.
- Roll together and place the formed meatball on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet, repeating the process of dipping your hands in the water and forming the balls.
- Place the baking sheet into the freezer for 10-15 minutes so the balls can solidify and set up. After 10-15 minutes, remove from the freezer.
- Gently place the meatballs into the sauce and stir slowly so they don't touch.
- Cook the balls for 20 minutes in the sauce on a low simmer. Serve as an appetizer with a sprinkle of parsley and/or basil and more grated Pecorino Romano. Enjoy!
Top tips for polpette di pane
- Bread. Since there are so few ingredients, and bread is the main one, I do recommend pulsing your own day-old bread to make homemade breadcrumbs. That being said, you can definitely use storebought breadcrumbs but I think you'll have superior results with homemade.
- Shaping the meatballs. If you find the mixture is too dry and won't allow you to form a ball, simply add a touch more milk or another beaten egg. On the other hand, if the mixture is too wet, add more breadcrumbs and mix again. The objective is to shape them into round balls that will be able to hold their shape when simmered in the sauce.
- Sauce. We used a simple marinara sauce for this recipe, but you could change it up and use a spicy arrabbiata sauce.
More great meatless appetizers
Here are a few of our favorite appetizers that we think you'll also enjoy.
- Eggplant meatballs - meatless meatballs made with eggplant and simmered in marinara.
- Mozzarella en carrozza - mozzarella cheese and bread that's fried on the outside and melty on the inside.
- Mushroom meatballs - similar to polpette di pane, but with mushrooms.
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Quick marinara sauce
- 2 28-ounce cans plum tomatoes hand crushed or blender pulsed - see notes below
- ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
- 5 cloves garlic sliced
- ¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- salt and pepper to taste
- 4 large basil leaves hand torn
- 2 ½ cups homemade breadcrumbs can also use plain storebought
- 1 ½ cups Pecorino Romano grated
- ½ cup milk
- ½ cup parsley minced
- 4 large eggs
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon black pepper
- 2 cloves garlic grated
For the quick marinara
- Heat a large pan or pot to medium-low and add the extra virgin olive oil along with the garlic. Saute the garlic until golden and fragrant (about 2-3 minutes) then add the hot red pepper flakes.
- Add the tomatoes to the pot and stir well. Bring the sauce to a simmer.
- Once simmering taste test the sauce and adjust salt and pepper to taste. Before serving add the basil. Keep the sauce warm at a low simmer while moving on to preparing meatballs.
For the polpette di pane
- To make the breadcrumbs pulse 5-6 slices of day-old white or Italian bread in a food processor. Measure our 2 ½ cups of breadcrumbs and save the rest for another use.
- Beat the eggs, milk, salt, and pepper together.
- Place the breadcrumbs, parsley, cheese, and garlic into a large bowl and pour the egg mixture on top. Mix well so that the milk and eggs can rehydrate the breadcrumbs.
- If the mixture is too wet and will not form a meatball that holds its shape add a bit more breadcrumbs and mix again. If too dry add a touch more milk or another beaten egg.
- To form the meatballs dip your hands into a bowl of water then grab a golf ball size's worth of the mix. Roll together and place the formed meatball on a parchment paper lined baking sheet. Repeat the process of dipping hands in water and form all the meatballs.
- Place the baking sheet into the freezer for 10 minutes so that the meatballs can solidify a bit and set. After 10 minutes, gently place the meatballs into the sauce and stir slowly so that they don't touch. Cook for 20 minutes at a low simmer.
- Serve as an appetizer with a sprinkle of parsley and basil and more grated Pecorino Romano. Enjoy!
- If the meatballs are too dry, add another egg or a touch more milk. If too wet add more breadcrumbs and mix again. The goal is a round ball that mostly keeps its shape when placed in the sauce.
- Leftovers can be saved for up to 3 days in the fridge or 3 months in the freezer. Reheat on the stovetop until warmed through or in the microwave.