Flattened meat balls made with ricotta, pine nuts and parsley are an essential item for any pasta night. Credit: Courtesy of Sandy Oliver

Simmered in tomato sauce instead of fried or baked, these meatballs, or really, patties, turned out tender while the sauce absorbed wonderful flavor from them, perfect to top pasta. Our friend Cris Lerose, who is an accomplished Italian cook, made these on his recent visit so dinner here ended up a little like eating out in my own home.

He used 2 pounds of ground beef, which created dinner for three, followed by lunch sandwiches for two and still more left for yet another lunch for two. The recipe is easily halved. In Italy, the pasta precedes the main course, so we did likewise: the sauce on spaghetti, followed by the meat patties with a green vegetable alongside, then salad. Apparently Italians think Americans are nuts for dumping meat balls on a bowl full of pasta and eating it all together. Oh, well, de gustibus and all that.

Ricotta cheese plus fresh bread crumbs soaked in milk guarantee the patties are tender, pine nuts are a pleasant surprise (and could be optional), thyme, parsley, onions and garlic make it flavorful. Some recipes call for parmigiana in the meat mixture; we sprinkled it on top of the pasta portion. Cris used a couple of slabs of crusty bread, crusts removed and torn apart then soaked in only enough milk to be absorbed.

Why patties instead of meat balls? Patties don’t need as much sauce to submerge them in, and since they are a little flatter, when you sear both sides, they cook through more quickly. You can do whatever you prefer, make them round or flatten them.

This recipe takes no more effort to assemble than your average meatloaf. In fact, Cris made six patties for the first meal, then formed the remainder into small loaves, baked, one of which we sliced fairly thinly to make marvelous grilled cheese and meatloaf sandwiches.

With leftovers like this, a cook can cruise for a couple days on previous glory.

Napolitano Meat Patties or Balls

Makes 6-8 servings.

Olive oil

1 medium onion, chopped

3 cloves of garlic minced

2 cups or 2 slices of soft artisanal bread, torn into pieces

2-3 tablespoons of milk

2 pounds of ground beef

¼ cup ricotta cheese

¼ cup pine nuts, lightly toasted, optional

2 large eggs

2-3 teaspoons dried thyme, or to taste

2 stalks of parsley leaves, finely chopped

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon ground pepper

3 cups of plain tomato sauce

Put just enough olive oil in a saute pan to cover the bottom. Add the onions and garlic and cook for two or three minutes until the onions soften.

In a large bowl, dribble the milk over the bread crumbs.

When the crumbs have absorbed the milk, add the beef, ricotta, pine nuts, eggs, thyme, parsley, salt and pepper, and mix thoroughly using your hands.

Pinch off a small piece and fry it to sample it for flavor. Add more salt or pepper, if needed.

Form one-third to one-half cupfuls of the mixture into balls which you then flatten slightly. (Alternatively form into loaves for baking.)

In about an eighth of an inch of olive oil, brown each side of the patties for three to five minutes. Drain.

Put them back into a skillet and add three cups of tomato sauce, bring to a simmer, and cook gently to avoid cooking them apart, for about an hour.

Serve with a little of the sauce on top, and a sprinkle of parmigiana, if desired.

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Sandy Oliver, Taste Buds

Sandy Oliver Sandy is a freelance food writer with the column Taste Buds appearing weekly since 2006 in the Bangor Daily News, and regular columns in Maine Boats, Homes, and Harbors magazine and The Working...