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Spaghetti and Meatballs : Italian after all?

Italian cuisine is one of America's favorite ones and, indeed, Italians constitute 6% of the US population. But, the forever question has been is "Is the Italian food eaten in the US really Italian?"

You can skip the history and go directly to the recipe for a lamb ragu at the bottom of the post.


In a recent post, Juls as she shared her family's recipe for a meatball pasta bake, mused about how the Italians consider "meatballs and pasta" as an American creation and not truly Italian.

And, yet again, she wondered about her own memory..

The reality is that this is rather common wonder. Most Italians simply cannot understand how, in their eyes, such "bastardized" Italian-American dishes could even be considered related to their cuisine. 

To tell the truth, though, I’ve eaten my share of pasta with meatballs since I was a child.
— Giulia,

Part of the research I was doing, for the better part of last year, was into food cultures and more importantly how people viewed their cuisines in context of itself or globally. 

For Italians, I distinctly understood the pride they carried in their cuisine. Unlike the French, it has no aristocratic past; being rather more based on farm or peasant origins. But they hold on to it as a nationalistic (regionally divided by united in the "Italian" of it) symbol of their culture in spite of where ever Italy as a country's economy may be considered in global eyes. 

The thing is, the more vehemently, the Italians in Italy distanced themselves from the way Italian food was served in the US, or, the way Americans ate in general, the more curious I got about this whole cultural history of it.

Does the infamous spaghetti-meatballs dish really have no Italian origins?

The truthful answer to that is that is "It's complicated".

One of the most important realizations for me was a lot of what I heard was from Northern and Central Italians while the majority of the Italians who were brought to or emigrated were from Southern Italy and Sicily. So, considering the still ongoing regionally cultural feud between the North and South Italy, it is not entirely surprising that there is confusion of origins of the Italian cuisine in the US.

Meanwhile, some digging up on the post war foods served in POW camps in the US, provided more substance to the origins of said "spaghetti meatballs". As it turns out, indeed the dish is an Italian creation, created "or enriched" with the ingredients available in the US to them - more meat for less price and pasta for a hearty meal, because well, prisoners don't get multi course meals.

Screen Shot 2018-02-20 at 3.48.00 PM.png

From The Enemy Among Us: POWs in Missouri During World War II

By David Fiedler

Screen Shot 2018-02-20 at 4.00.33 PM.png

Italian Prisoners of War in Pennsylvania: Allies on the Home Front, 1944–1945

By Flavio G. Conti, Alan R. Perry

The story goes that the Italians in the POW camps in the US were tired of the predominantly Northern European cuisine they were being served (because the majority of immigrants at the time were German, British, Irish or Dutch). So, they charmed the guards into getting their own kitchen to feed the Italian prisoners pasta they made. 

So, does that make it an Italian origin? Perhaps, but I suspect, I would have a hard time convincing the real Italians of it, even if I could bring back one of those original POW creators as evidence. :)

Meanwhile, in the US, necessity and availability allows us to adapt life and cuisine to suit lifestyles here. So, perhaps the dish was in the spirit of "American". Like we make ragu and serve it in a croissant because why not?! :) It tastes good and perfectly well balanced in flavors!


Lamb Ragu

* First published in the Winter 2016 Issue of NOURISHED Magazine



1-1/2 lb ground lamb

1 large onion, diced fine

half a head of garlic, minced

32 oz can of crushed tomatoes

1 cup beef or chicken stock

1/2 cup red wine (optional)

2 T of any dried herbs you have


In a heavy bottomed pan, preferably a dutch oven, heat a few tablespoons of oil.

Sauté the onion and garlic until fragrant.

Chunk the ground the lamb and brown on medium high heat.

When the meat starts browning, add the wine to deglaze. If you don’t have wine, just add 1/2 cup of stock to do the same.

Add the herbs and crushed tomatoes and bring to a boil.

Lower heat to simmer for 1-1/2 hours covered.

Remove the lid and cook for 30 or so minutes until sauce has thickened!


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