Polpette are little flavoursome Italian meatballs, normally served as a snack or appetiser rather than with the perhaps more familiar bowl of spaghetti. The trick to a soft and tender meatball is to soak the breadcrumbs in milk before you add the rest of the ingredients.
Note: you may wish to begin this recipe the day before you want to eat, to allow the flavours to develop.
Place the breadcrumbs in a large bowl and pour over the milk. Leave to soak until the milk is completely absorbed, about 10 minutes. Add the mince, Parmesan, egg, lemon zest, garlic, parsley and a generous seasoning of salt and pepper. Mix together with your hands until thoroughly combined. Wash your hands and shake dry. Using damp hands, roll the mixture into little walnut-sized balls and lay on a baking tray; you should get about 35. At this point you can cover with cling film and leave to rest in the fridge for up to 24 hours; this isn’t essential but it does allow plenty of time for the flavours to develop.
To make the sauce, add the onion and half the olive oil to a saucepan and set over a medium-low heat. Fry the onion for 15 minutes until starting to soften, then stir through the garlic and fry for a further minute. Pour in the tomatoes, add the sugar and season to taste with salt and pepper. Simmer steadily, stirring from time to time, until the sauce is rich and thick, about 25–30 minutes. Stir through the remaining olive oil.
While the sauce is simmering, cook the meatballs. Take your largest frying pan, add the olive oil and set over a medium-high heat. Once the oil is hot, add the meatballs in a single layer. They need to have a little space around them so you can turn them easily, and you may need to cook them in 2 batches. The meatballs need about 20 minutes of gentle frying, so they’re cooked through to the centre and develop a lovely golden crust all over. Turn them regularly – I’m more dextrous with 2 forks, but use tongs if you prefer – but don’t turn them too soon or they’ll stick to the pan; allow a golden crust to form before attempting it.
To serve, spoon a puddle of sauce into a dish and top with the meatballs.