Could a painting hanging on the wall of the North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA) hold the key to a culinary mystery? One of the most popular comfort foods in the world is spaghetti and meatballs. If you read food blogs, you may have heard that this dish did not originate on Italian soil. Many celebrity chefs, Italian-American chefs, and food writers claim that it was invented by Italian immigrants in the United States. These sources say the immigrants tried to re-create dishes from home and, finding an abundance of ground beef here, made gargantuan meatballs to top their pasta.
But I believe spaghetti and meatballs were served together on the same plate in Italy long before the Italians set foot here in the late 1800s. Why? Because immigrants like my grandparents and great-grandparents brought their family recipes with them. Unfortunately, this sort of evidence is dismissed as merely anecdotal. As a lawyer as well as a food writer, I take all evidence into account.
So, what has this to do with the NCMA? I present as Exhibit A: Alessandro Magnasco’s The Supper of Pulcinella and Colombina (circa 1725–30) on view in West Building’s European Galleries.
I’m also a long-time visitor to the NCMA, and I have wandered the galleries many times over the years. One day, I noticed something in Magnasco’s painting. Sitting in the center of it is the gluttonous Pulcinella, a stock character from the commedia dell’arte, a theatrical genre that dates to 16th-century Italy. Pulcinella is contemplating his next bite, a piece of pasta held in his left hand—no fork and spoon for him! At his right hand is an overflowing bowl of spaghetti, remarkably similar in size (and shape!) to his belly. The spaghetti itself is not unusual, as Pulcinella is known for his love of pasta—but then I also noticed some distinct round shapes—meatballs?—in that bowl, too. I brought my discovery to the attention of NCMA Curator of European Art David Steel and found that he, too, had been fascinated by the contents of Pulcinella’s bowl.
“I had wondered for years about just exactly what is Pulcinella having for dinner,” Steel mused. “He was a prodigious, but hardly picky eater, so the possibilities were numerous: eels? tripe? squid? But thanks to Google, these days it’s easy to find lots of artworks—paintings, sculptures, prints—depicting Pulcinella (and often his many children and friends as well) devouring mass quantities of what is clearly spaghetti.” But “as to the meatball question, I think I’ll need to chew on that awhile longer.”
But … but wait! Keep chewing while I present Exhibit B: corroborating evidence in literature. In a play dated 1774–75 by the Neapolitan playwright Francesco Cerlone in the commedia dell’arte tradition, Pulcinella says (my translation):
“I dream (the power of love!) I dream of a big plate of maccheroni with meatballs on top. I stretch my hand, I grab the maccheroni and meatballs, I adjust and wrap them, I am about to put them in my mouth and . . . I wake up with my heart pounding and I start crying like a baby.”
The play is written in the Neapolitan dialect, which differs from typical Italian. This distinction is important to note because spaghetti and meatballs are both Neapolitan foods. In the Italian language, “meatballs” translate to “polpette,” while in Neapolitan, they are “porpette.” In a different Cerlone play, Pulcinella again mentions eating macaroni with meatballs.
Come to the Museum and judge for yourself whether Pulcinella is eating spaghetti and meatballs. The painting is on view in the European Galleries of the West Building. If that doesn’t convince you, maybe this recipe for spaghetti and meatballs from my Neapolitan-born grandma will!