I was working at the Harvest Restaurant in Harvard Square in the late seventies when Peter Vezan, one of the managers, steered me to a little trattoria in Boston’s North End. It wasn’t much more than a hole in the wall, but it boasted some of the best down-home Italian food in the city. My favorite dish on the menu was an escarole soup with meatballs. It was very old hat to Italian-Americans—the equivalent of matzo ball soup to American Jews—but it was new and delicious to me and very comforting.
I can’t tell you if the place still exists. I don’t even remember its name or the name of the street it was on. For that matter, I lost touch with Peter Vezan, that underground gourmet, when he moved to France 20 years ago. But I never forgot that soup. I re-created it for a column that used to run in Gourmet called “In Short Order.” Which featured recipes you could whip up in 45 minutes or less. The meatballs in the restaurant’s original recipe were made of veal but I suspected that it might be hard for home cooks throughout America to get their hands on ground veal, so I changed it to ground beef. Ground turkey would work nicely, too.
1/2 pound lean ground beef, veal, or turkey
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh parsley
1/3 cup fresh bread crumbs
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 large egg, lightly beaten
Freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
8 cups packed chopped escarole
1 quart chicken stock, preferably homemade
Additional kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Serves 4 to 6
Combine the ground beef, half the cheese, the parsley, bread crumbs, salt, egg, and black pepper in a large bowl. Use damp hands to form into 24 walnut-size balls.
Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large, heavy soup pot or kettle over medium heat. Add the meatballs and cook, turning often, until firm to the touch and well browned on all sides, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a large plate or platter.
Add the remaining 2 tablespoons oil and the onion to the pot. Cook, stirring often, until the onion is softened, about 5 minutes. Stir in the garlic and cook for 1 minute longer. Add the escarole, cover, and reduce the heat to medium-low. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the escarole is wilted, 4 to 5 minutes. Pour in the stock, return the meatballs to the pot, increase the heat to medium-high, and simmer for 3 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Ladle into warmed bowls and sprinkle with the remaining cheese just before serving.