Rigatoni al Forno con le Polpettine

Baked Rigatoni with Tiny Meatballs

In The early years of my career in cooking, the statement that seemed most to startle students and interviewers was that spaghetti and meatballs is not an Italian dish. To be exact: the concept is undoubtedly Italian; it is the execution—the colossal meatballs, overloaded with herbs, saturated with oil, buried in tomato sauce—that appears solely on the western side of the Atlantic. The diminutive meatballs in this festive rigatoni pie, produced with a minimum of seasoning, show how it is really done. Although I have used pork in the recipe because I like the flavor, one could as easily use beef or lamb or, as they call it in Abruzzi, the butcher’s mixture: a combination of all three. Rigatoni is the shape to use when making any dish in which the pasta is cooked in two stages, first boiled alone, then baked with other ingredients. The shape’s thick walls stand up to prolonged cooking without turning mushy, and the capacious hollow within them is an ideal receptacle for the béchamel that is nearly invariably used in such preparations to bind the other ingredients.

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For the meatballs

  • ¼ cup milk
  • 1 slice good white bread trimmed of its crust
  • 1 pound ground pork
  • 1 teaspoon chopped garlic
  • 2 tablespoons chopped parsley
  • cup freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano (Parmesan)
  • 1 egg
  • Salt
  • Black pepper in a grinder
  1. 1 cup flour, spread on a plate
  2. Vegetable oil for frying

For the béchamel

  • 3 cups milk
  • 6 tablespoons butter
  • tablespoons flour
  • 1 pound rigatoni
  • cup freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano
  • Pinch salt
  1. teaspoon grated nutmeg
  2. 2 tablespoons butter
  3. ¼ cup milk


  1. Begin with the meatballs. Warm the milk in a small saucepan without letting it simmer. Turn off the heat and add the slice of white bread. Let it soak for a little while, then pick up the bread with your hand and squeeze it gently to force off excess milk. Put the bread in a mixing bowl.
  2. Add the pork, garlic, parsley, grated cheese, egg, salt, and a few grindings of pepper. Combine all the ingredients with a fork until they are evenly amalgamated.
  3. Pinch off 2 small lumps of meat, each about the size of a raspberry. Place them about 2 inches apart on the palm of one hand. Bring the other palm over them and, keeping both palms flat, roll the lumps into little balls, using a circular movement while applying slight but steady pressure. If you are good with your hands, try making 3 balls at a time, so that the process will go that much faster.
  4. When all the meatballs have been shaped, roll them in the flour, 15 to 20 at a time. Place the floured meatballs in a strainer and shake it smartly to dispose of excess flour.
  5. Put enough vegetable oil in a skillet to rise ¼ inch up the sides of the pan and turn on the heat to medium high. When the oil is hot, put as many meatballs in the skillet as will fit without overcrowding. Brown them until they form a nice crust all around. When one batch is done, transfer it with a slotted spoon to a platter covered with paper towels to drain and do the next batch until all are done.
  6. Prepare the béchamel as described in the recipe for Cannelloni with Asparagus and Ham, and add the nutmeg.
  7. Cook the rigatoni in a pot of abundant boiling salted water. Drain when just barely done but still quite firm. Combine immediately in a bowl with two-thirds of the béchamel, half the grated cheese, and all the meatballs.
  8. Turn on the oven to 400°.
  9. Thickly smear the bottom and sides of a 12-inch Springform pan with the butter. Put in the rigatoni, leveling them off with a spatula. Pour the milk over them, spread the rest of the béchamel on top, and sprinkle with the remaining grated cheese.
  10. Place in the uppermost level of the preheated oven. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes until a golden brown crust forms on top.
  11. Run a knife along the inside of the pan’s ring to loosen the rigatoni Remove the ring. Place the pasta, without removing it from the bottom of the pan, on a large round platter, allow to settle for about 5 minutes, bring to the table, and serve.