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Meatball Season In Bethnal Green

September 22, 2014
by the gentle author

Mr Mondo (also known as ‘Meatballs Dave’) has been spreading rumours that meatballs are back on the menu at E.Pellicci – London’s best-loved family-run cafe  – and now Nevio Pellicci has confirmed that his mother Maria will be making meatballs this Tuesday, so I feel it is my duty to reminder readers of one the East End’s perennial culinary delights that are now in season again.

Maria Pellicci – the Meatball Queen of Bethnal Green

With the arrival 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 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 an autumn 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 this Winter and the rest of the 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.

E.Pellicci, 332 Bethnal Green Rd, E2 0AG

You may like to read my other Pellicci stories

Maria Pellicci, Cook

Christmas Ravioli at E.Pellicci

Christmas Party at E.Pellicci

Pellicci’s Celebrity Album

Pellicci’s Collection

Colin O’Brien at E.Pellicci

Colin O’Brien’s Pellicci Portraits ( Part One)

Colin O’Brien’s Pellicci Portraits (Part Two)

Colin O’Brien’s Pellicci Portraits (Part Three)

Colin O’Brien’s Pellicci Portraits (Part Four)

11 Responses leave one →
  1. Roxy Beaujolais permalink
    September 22, 2014

    In all this awfulness of our 21st century, darling gentle author, you have described a small corner of heaven with your Meatball Express.

  2. September 22, 2014

    When I read reports like this I ask myself why I ever left London….Valerie

  3. September 22, 2014

    While having my breakfast I was reading this story – and became hungry after meatballs with spaghetti.. brilliant idea!

    Love & Peace

  4. September 22, 2014

    I am coming, specifically to eat your meatballs!
    I’m also a bit suspicious of meatballs, but absolutely love them.

    I’ve been to your cafe once before, because of this column, and can confirm to all other readers that it is a marvellous and very, very friendly cafe (not that the word of GA needs doubting 🙂

  5. David permalink
    September 22, 2014

    How long does the meatball season last, do you know? If we aren’t successful in keeping them on the menu, that is! I very much need to try these…

  6. Sarah C permalink
    September 22, 2014

    They look delicious.

  7. September 22, 2014


  8. September 22, 2014

    Thanks for the shout mister – I’ll be there for steaming meatballs and probably sharing a table with Jukebox Jimmy tomorrow

  9. Gary Arber permalink
    September 22, 2014

    There was an American song playing on the radio in the 1940’s titled “One meat ball” about a man who could only afford one meat ball as he had only 20 cents.
    Did this delicacy originate in America ?

  10. Victoria permalink
    September 24, 2014

    Sadly work demands meant that I missed out standing in line yesterday for these. I shall try my luck at the weekend, in case they are still on the menu.
    Gary – meatballs are certainly a stalwart in Italian communities in America and I had some excellent ones in a cafe in Boston once, but they do originate from Italy.

  11. jeannette permalink
    September 24, 2014

    love to the pellicis — and to you, now that you are one. <3

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