Meet porchetta meatballs. They’re seasoned with fennel seed, orange zest, garlic, rosemary, and parmesan, then broiled on a sheet pan until golden and crispy—so basically all of the flavors of porchetta in a fraction of the time. They are delicious served any which way, but here I nestle them up with pasta, Marcella Hazan's Tomato Sauce, and lots of cheese and bake them until the cheese is melty and the pasta is a little browned. Marcella sauce is absolutely perfect as is, but for this dish, I like to swap the onion with fennel to reinforce the fennel flavor in the meatballs. The whole dish can be assembled in advance, popped in the oven when you’re ready, and brought straight to the table for an unforgettable meal.
2 pounds ground pork
1 1/2 cups whole-milk ricotta
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons finely grated orange zest (from 1 large or 2 small oranges)
2 teaspoons fennel seed, lightly crushed or chopped
1 tablespoon finely chopped rosemary
1/2 cup finely chopped parsley
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
2 teaspoons kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for greasing pan
2 28-ounce cans whole tomatoes
8 tablespoons butter
1 medium fennel bulb, trimmed and sliced lengthwise into six to eight pieces
Kosher salt, to taste
1 pound pasta, such as penne or medium shells
1 1/2 cups whole-milk ricotta
1 1/2 cups cubed or shredded mozzarella
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese, for serving
Step 1In a large bowl, combine pork, ricotta, garlic, orange zest, fennel seed, rosemary, parsley, Parmesan, salt, and a few grinds of black pepper. Mix together with your hands until well combined.
Step 2Line a large sheet pan with foil and, using your hands, rub olive oil over the entire surface.
Step 3Heat broiler and place top oven rack below heat source.\r\n
Step 4Shape pork mixture into small meatballs, about 2 tablespoons each or 1 1/2-inches wide, and place them on the foil-lined sheet pan. It’s fine if they’re close together or touching. Drizzle the meatballs with 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Broil meatballs about 8 to 10 minutes, flipping them once, until they’re browned on both sides and cooked through. Remove from oven; cover with foil to keep warm.
Step 5Put whole tomatoes in a saucepan (tip: use kitchen shears to cut the tomatoes into small pieces once they’re in the pan) and add the butter, fennel, and a few pinches of salt, and cook uncovered at a very slow, steady simmer for about 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until it is thickened to your liking, stirring from time and time.
Step 6Taste and correct for salt. Before using, either remove the fennel and save for another use, or remove, finely chop it, and return it to the sauce.\r\n
Step 7Meanwhile, heat oven to 400° F. Cook pasta until al dente (according to package directions) in a large pot of salted water. Drain (do not rinse) and add the pasta to the sauce, mixing well to combine. Gently fold in meatballs and mozzarella.
Step 8Transfer pasta and meatballs to a baking dish; distribute in an even layer. Add spoonfuls of the ricotta evenly over the pasta, pressing the mounds down into the sauce a bit. Bake for about 25 minutes, until the cheese is bubbly and the pasta is lightly browned on top.