Without question, this is the most special recipe on my blog. This was Nonna’s signature dish, the one I most wanted to learn to make. It was the highlight of our Easter dinners, and sometimes more often, if we were lucky. I’ve been waiting for soup weather to arrive so I could share it with you. I hope I can do justice to Nonna’s Chicken Meatball Soup — and her — as I write.
First, I need to mention that my family has always referred to this as “soup with the chicken balls.” I never thought it sounded strange. But, seeing it in writing made me realize the name’s an oxymoron. Besides, I can’t go around the Internet talking about chicken balls. So, “Nonna’s Chicken Meatball Soup” it is.
In case you’re thinking of typical, slightly firm meatballs, I must point out that these are different. They’re more like soft pillows of chicken and Italian cheeses, providing a burst of incredible flavor with each bite. They’re so delicate that they break easily, which means they’re perfect for babies and toddlers to eat with pastina in the delicious soup, cooled with an ice cube. (Mom would make this at least once a month for my kids when they were little — which means us grownups benefited too. What a luxury!)
I have so many memories of Nonna making this soup with Mom when I was growing up. They always made a huge batch, starting with an enormous pot filled with a whole chicken, water, carrots, celery, onion, tomatoes, herbs, peppercorns, and salt. As the soup simmered on the stove for hours, the comforting aroma would fill our house, creating anticipation for what we knew would be one of the best meals of the year.
When the chicken was cooked, Nonna would place it on a platter to remove the skin and bones. She’d then put the meat in a large bowl and begin shredding it with a fork and knife. Next, she’d add the Romano cheese, eggs, bread crumbs mixed with Parmesan and garlic, parsley, and seasonings. She’d mix everything together with her hands and taste it to see if it needed more cheese, etc.
Then, it was time to roll. Nonna and Mom would shape meatball after meatball and line them up on baking sheets. Just before dinner, they’d put some soup on to boil with water in a smaller pot, and gently place the meatballs inside to cook in batches — separately from the pasta that would be cooked in an adjacent pot of soup.
The soup and meatballs would be served in large bowls with small or medium pasta shells. We’d add spoonfuls of freshly grated Parmesan cheese at the table and wait to say grace before eating.
On Easter, Nonna would dip the palms from Palm Sunday in holy water and bless each of us with a couple of drops, her eyes filled with tears as she surveyed her grandchildren, daughters, and sons-in-law. This was her joy, to see her family together, enjoying the meal she’d so lovingly prepared.
After Nonna passed away, Mom continued to make this soup on Easter. This year, I finally learned to make Nonna’s Chicken Meatball Soup too. This time, it was Mom and I standing at the counter, rolling the meatballs, with the soup waiting on the stove. We talked about Nonna as we worked, and I could feel her presence, as I do now.
I know that Nonna would like her grandchildren, great grandchildren, and great-great grandchildren to have this recipe. Above all, I think she wants us to remember that the most important ingredient is love.
(Recipe Source: My Nonna, whom Mom says was a “tornado in the kitchen,” doing the work of three people with lightning speed)