Maria Pellicci, the Meatball Queen of Bethnal Green
With the arrival of the first chills of Autumn in Spitalfields, my mind turns to thoughts of steaming meatballs. So I hot-footed it up the road to Bethnal Green and the kitchen of Maria Pellicci, cook and beloved matriarch at E. Pellicci, the legendary cafe that has been run by her family since 1900. Although I find it hard to believe, Maria told me that meatballs are not always on the menu here because people do not ask for them. Yet she graciously assented to my request, and even granted me the honour of permitting my presence in her kitchen to witness the sacred ritual of the making of the first meatballs of the season.
For many years, meatballs and spaghetti comprised reliable sustenance that could deliver consolation on the grimmest Winter day. If I found myself in a cafe and meatballs were on the menu, I had no reason to think further because I knew what I was having for lunch. But then a fear came upon me that drove away my delight in meatballs, I began to doubt what I was eating and grew suspicious of the origins of the ingredients. It was the loss of an innocent pleasure. Thus began the meatball famine which lasted ten years, that ended this week when Maria Pellicci made meatballs specially for me with fresh meat she bought from the butcher in the Roman Rd. Maria has worked daily in her kitchen in Bethnal Green from six until six since 1961, preparing all the dishes on the menu at E.Pellicci freshly as a matter of principle. More than this, reflecting Maria’s proud Italian ancestry, I can confirm that for Maria Pellicci the quality of her food is unquestionably a matter of honour.
Maria mixed beef and pork together with eggs, parsley, onion and other herbs, seasoned it with salt and pepper, letting it marinate from morning until afternoon. Then, as we chatted, her hazel eyes sparkling with pleasure, she deployed a relaxed skill borne of half a century’s experience, taking bite-sized pieces from the mixture and rolling them into perfectly formed ruby red balls, before tossing them playfully onto a steel baking tray. I watched as Maria’s graceful hands took on independent life, swiftly rolling the meatballs between her flattened palms and demonstrating a superlative dexterity that would make her the virtuoso at any card table. In no time at all, she conjured one hundred and fifty evenly-sized meatballs that would satisfy thirty lucky diners the following morning.
I was at the snug corner table beside the serving hatch in Pellicci’s immaculately cosy cafe next day at the stroke of twelve. After ten years of waiting, the moment was at hand, as Anna Pellicci, Maria’s daughter proudly delivered the steaming dish, while Salvatore, Maria’s nephew, brought the Parmesan and freshly ground pepper. The wilderness years were at an end, because I had spaghetti and meatballs in front of me, the dish of the season. Maria made the tomato sauce that morning with garlic, parsley and basil, and it was pleasantly tangy and light without being at all glutinous. As a consequence, the sauce did not overwhelm the subtle herb-inflected flavour of the meatballs that crumbled and then melted in my mouth, the perfect complement to the deliciously gelatinous spaghetti. Sinking my teeth into the first meatballs of the twenty-first century, I could only wonder how I lived through the last decade without them.
Outside a cold wind was blowing, so I took courage from ingesting a syrup pudding with custard, just to finish off the spaghetti and meatballs nicely, and restore substance to my attenuated soul. The special quality of E. Pellicci is that it is a family restaurant, and that is the atmosphere that presides. When I confided to Anna that my last living relative had died, she told me at once that I was part of their family now. Everyone is welcomed on first name terms at Pellicci’s in an environment of emotional generosity and mutual respect, a rare haven where you can enjoy honest cooking at prices everyone afford.
I call upon my readers to help me keep meatballs on the menu at E. Pellicci now, because we need them to help us get through the Winter, the government cuts, the Olympic games, and the entire twenty-first century that is to come. Let us send a collective message to the Pelliccis, that we love their meatballs with spaghetti, because when we have a cook like Maria Pellicci, the meatball queen of Bethnal Green, we cannot forgo the privilege of her genius.
Maria Pellicci has been making meatballs in Bethnal Green for half a century.
Anna Pellicci with the first meatballs of the season in Bethnal Green.
The coveted corner table, next to the serving hatch at E. Pellicci.