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Published October 22, 2013, 12:12 PM

Gio's meatballs: Kid-friendly creation stirs memories of church’s authentic Italian dinner

This Sunday, Tony, Gio and I will be driving out to St. Elizabeth’s Catholic Church in Dilworth for one of our all-time favorite food events – their semi-annual Authentic Italian Spaghetti Dinner, or what Tony likes to call, “the best spaghetti and meatballs on the planet.”

By: Sarah and Tony Nasello, INFORUM

This Sunday, Tony, Gio and I will be driving out to St. Elizabeth’s Catholic Church in Dilworth for one of our all-time favorite food events – their semi-annual Authentic Italian Spaghetti Dinner, or what Tony likes to call, “the best spaghetti and meatballs on the planet.”

My family has been enjoying this dinner for as long as I can remember, and I’ll never forget Tony’s reaction the first time we brought him, nearly 20 years ago. When we told him that we were going to Dilworth to enjoy an authentic Italian feast, he was skeptical, to say the least.

“Where did you say this is? In a church basement?” he asked, the doubt just dripping from his words. We knew he wasn’t buying any of our stories about the rich Italian heritage of Dilworth, but we let him join us anyway, and he hasn’t missed a dinner since.

There are many factors contributing to the success of this spaghetti dinner, which began in 1912 and has been hosted at St. Elizabeth’s since 1939. There is a timelessness to this event that gives us comfort and pays homage to the incredible dedication by the parishioners who work tirelessly to ensure that the experience is consistent from year to year.

If you’ve ever been, you know exactly what to expect: large slices of white bread with real butter; a seemingly simple salad of lettuce, orange chunks, green onion and peppers, which we have never been able to replicate; a steaming plate heaped high with spaghetti and two large meatballs; and of course, the little carton of vanilla ice cream, served with a wafer cookie on top.

The food is excellent every time, but the real secret lies in the people who make this event happen. While the faces may have changed over the years, the atmosphere is always friendly, warm and welcoming. There is a shared passion among these people, who seem to understand that this event is about so much more than food.

For us, this dinner embraces everything that is good about being Italian: food, family, tradition, friendship, faith. But you don’t have to be Italian, or Catholic, to enjoy this dinner. You just have to be hungry.

In our corner of the world, there aren’t too many boys with the name Giovanni, and we love being able to share this local Italian tradition with our son. Like every good Italian, Giovanni is passionate about his heritage, and has an inherent love for food and cooking that can only come from his cultural DNA.

Last winter, when we just couldn’t wait until the end of April to have spaghetti and meatballs, Gio and I decided to create our own from scratch. While St. Elizabeth’s was our inspiration, we deliberately did not attempt to replicate this signature feast, as we wanted to keep that experience special and unique.

With a goal to make our dish as kid-friendly as possible, we kept our recipe simple, using very few ingredients so that Gio could do most of the work himself. Meatballs are a great dish to prepare with children, allowing them to really get their hands into the job, first in making the meatball mixture, and then in forming the meatballs.

We had so much fun together, and we were thrilled with our meatballs, which turned out moist and delicious. This will go down as one of our favorite culinary experiences – right up there with St. Elizabeth’s Authentic Italian Spaghetti Dinner.

Home with the Lost Italian is a weekly column written by Sarah Nasello featuring recipes by her husband, Tony Nasello. The couple owns Sarello’s restaurant in Moorhead and lives in Fargo with their 8-year-old son, Giovanni. Readers can reach them at dine@sarellos.com. All previous recipes can be found at http://thelostitalian.areavoices.com

Gio’s Meatballs

Ingredients:

1 lb. ground beef

¼ cup milk

1 cup Italian-seasoned breadcrumbs

1 cup parmesan cheese

2 eggs, beaten

2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped

2-3 cloves garlic, minced

2 teaspoons kosher salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil

3 to 4 cups tomato sauce (see tip below)

Directions:

In a large bowl, mix the breadcrumbs and milk together. Add the ground beef, cheese, eggs, parsley and garlic and mix together, using your hands. Season with salt and pepper and mix again until all ingredients are incorporated.

Shape the meatballs to size desired (we recommend approx. 1-inch in diameter, which makes about 30 meatballs). In a sauté pan, heat olive oil over medium heat and cook the meatballs until they are browned on each side; they will finish cooking in the sauce. Freeze for later use or cook in tomato sauce for at least 20 minutes, turning once or twice. Serve hot.

To Store Cooked Meatballs: Transfer meatballs and sauce to an airtight container and refrigerate for up to 4 days, or freeze for 2 months.

To Store Browned Meatballs: Place the browned meatballs on a cookie sheet and freeze until hard to the touch, so that they will freeze individually and not clump together. Transfer to a plastic freezer bag or container, label with the date and freeze for up to 3 months.

Tony’s Tip:

For the sauce, we make our Easy Tomato Sauce recipe, but we add a half-cup of small-diced yellow onion. If you do this, begin the recipe by sautéing the onions for about 2 to 3 minutes before adding the garlic and crushed red pepper.

Easy tomato sauce

Serves 4 to 6

Ingredients

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

2 to 3 large garlic cloves, minced

Pinch of crushed red pepper (optional)

28 oz. can whole peeled tomatoes, pureed

Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

In a medium sauce pot, heat olive oil over medium-low heat and sauté garlic for about three to five minutes, stirring often and being careful not to brown the garlic. Add the crushed red peppers and sauté for another minute. Add the tomatoes and cook for about 15 minutes over low-medium heat, then reduce the heat to low and cook for another 15-20 minutes. Cover the pot but leave a little room to allow steam to escape. When the sauce coats the back of a spoon, it’s ready to serve. Use immediately or refrigerate for up to five days.

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