Lemon Meatballs | Purpetti i limuni | Polpette di carne al limone

Purpetti. I wanted to begin this article with the English word, but there isn’t one. I guess I could have said meatballs. I could have said patties. I could have said rissoles (god love the British for making good food sound bad). But none of those words really get at what a purpetta is.

I’ve avoided writing about purpetti honestly, because the topic is so broad it’s hard to know where to begin. It also involves writing a recipe I’ve made a thousand times, which are always the hardest to quantify. Perhaps counterintuitively, these kinds of recipes are also tricky to write because when a recipe is in your second nature, it can be hard to tease out all the tiny details and tips that make a recipe great. I’m sure I’ll leave something out, but here goes.

It bears saying that a purpetta isn’t always made with meat. Even though the Sicilian dictionary defines it as a “food made from chopped meat, seasoned in various ways, shaped into small balls and patties,” in Sicilian and in Italian, purpetta is rarely left to stand alone without a descriptor. Indeed, purpetti ri carni (in Italian: polpette di carne) or “meat purpetti” are called as such, not to be confused with other popular Sicilian not-meatballs: purpetti ri milinciana (eggplant), vrùoccolo (cauliflower), ricoitta (ricotta),  masculinu (fresh anchovies, and an excellent use for frozen ones), spata (swordfish), or even cicciriddi,newborn fish, which are only fished legally in the EU for a couple of brief months out of the year (but often available nonetheless – even meatballs have controversy).

Linguistically, this makes sense. The root word of purpetta, is purpa, derived from Latin pùlpa, meaning flesh, extending, just like in English, to the edible parts of fruits or vegetables (the flesh of the tomato, etc.).  All that said, today we will be addressing meatballs made of meat.

Meatballs are often referred to as a poor dish, being made largely of ground meat and old bread, but in reality they are (and have always been) mostly meat, the bread serving at least as much to make them into a succulent tidbit as to extend the amount of meat. “Poorer” meatballs, in my opinion, are reflected by the choice of meat, like mutton (old lamb), anchovies or wild (IE free) rabbit.

Speaking of, there is a rabbit hole to be gone down on the topic of meat, but I’m not going down it, because it doesn’t matter. If you use good ingredients, you will make good meatballs. Most of the beef in Sicily is like beef anywhere these days, and while cuts from local animals are a leaner than their cousins from abroad, ground beef is pretty much ground beef. I buy grass fed beef for ethical reasons, and the one I typically buy is about 85% lean. If you use leaner beef, be more generous with the bread and cheese, and consider soaking the bread in milk rather than water. The choice of cheese I’ve covered before. I use garlic in this recipe as I prefer it with lemon, but a spoonful or two of grated onion instead of garlic would be just as good.

This topic of bread is important as bread is a key element of the finished meatball’s texture. The leaner the meat you use, the more important this becomes. I use actual slices of bread soaked in water, generally a better vehicle for moisture than dry breadcrumbs although they can certainly do the job. Sicilian cooking legend Eleonora Consoli advises adding breadcrumbs to the meat mixture along with an entire glass of water! I collect odds and ends of old bread in a paper bag in the pantry: bits gone stale, ends of sandwich loaves, rolls forgotten behind the mixer on the counter. I don’t worry too much about what kind of bread. I have made meatballs with very Sicilian homemade semolina bread and the ends of wholegrain hippy sandwich loaves with little noticeable difference. When I lived in Germany rye bread would sometimes find its way into the bag. Fresh bread will certainly work too, with virtually no soaking time.

I’m sharing a grilling recipe because it’s grilling season and this recipe got a lot of interest on Instagram, but meatballs made from the recipe below can be cooked in nearly any way you can think of. To braise in tomato sauce or with sweet-and-sour onions I would replace the lemon zest with nutmeg or ground cloves. Here the meat mixture is seasoned with lemon zest and rolled or sandwiched in lemon leaves. The leaves char on the grill lending a woodsy aroma to the meat.

The more homestyle way to accomplish this is to just sandwich your meatballs between the leaves and grill them. If you have a lot of them to do, or if you prefer a more orderly grill, you can blanch the lemon leaves and roll them around meatballs like a small sausage, which you can skewer a few at a time. This is how you see them for sale in butcher shops, grill-ready. If you have access to a different type of citrus leaves, any will work. I have made them with lime and mandarin leaves with no perceptible difference in flavor. If you don’t have any citrus leaves, you can do this with bay leaves, preferably fresh ones, although this will impart a decidedly bay flavor.

These smells are evocative, leaving us hungrier as the moment of eating grows nearer. I’m lucky enough to have a space where we can sit and eat adjacent to the grill. In our fifth month of quarantine, my daydreams become simpler: a convivial appetizer with a simple wine while the smells of smokey citrus and roasting meat tiptoe across the table. I’m looking forward to that.

Drinking: It’s summer. We’re grilling, maybe even eating outside. Simplicity is key. Pink wine of course is a go-to for this kind of dining and dish and Sicily makes some excellent ones. I’m quite partial to the Planeta Rosé Sicilia DOC (available everywhere), a blend of Nero D’Avola and Syrah (which grows beautifully in Sicily in their Menfi property). If you’re in Europe, Mofete from Palmento Costanzo on the north side of Mt. Etna is a beautiful expression of Nerello in pink. In the US, the Etna Rosati I’ve seen available are all from top producers but pricey for a weeknight glass ($20-$30). That said, if you’re curious they are not out of reach. From lightest to deepest color and intensity, Pietradolce, Tenuta delle Terre Nere and Benanti all make spectacular wines. Of course it goes (almost) without saying that any good, simple Catarratto or Nero D’Avola will always serve you well with a dish like meatballs.

What do you look for in a good meatball? What do you drink with them? Please comment and enjoy the recipe!

Lemon meatballs | Purpetti a limuni | polette di carne al limone

Sicilian beef meatballs seasoned with lemon zest and grilled between lemon leaves.
Course Main Course, Secondo
Cuisine Sicilian
Prep Time 45 minutes
Cook Time 10 minutes
Total Time 55 minutes
Servings 4 people


  • About 40 Large lemon leaves
  • 100 g (or more) stale bread broken into chunks
  • 500 g ground beef (see introduction) about a pound
  • to taste Sea salt
  • to taste Freshly ground black pepper
  • 60-70 g grated caciocavallo stagionato or other grating cheese you (see introduction) about 2/3 cup
  • 2 heaping tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 egg
  • The grated zest of 1 lemon
  • 1 garlic clove grated, pressed in a garlic press or minced
  • Lemon wedges to serve


Prepare the lemon leaves

  1. If you’re going to sandwich the meatballs between the leaves for grilling, simply wash and dry the leaves and set them aside.
  2. If you’re going to roll and skewer the meatballs, you will only need about 20. Bring a large pot of water to the boil, drop the lemon leaves in and cook until they are pliable but still intact. Lay them out on a towel to dry. If using bamboo skewers, soak eight of them in water while you continue with the recipe.

Make the meatball mixture

  1. If your bread has a lot of thick crust, use more than 100g
  2. Put the bread in a bowl and cover with tepid water from the tap. If the bread floats above the surface, put a saucer on top to keep it submerged. Allow it to soak until it is completely sodden. This could take anywhere from 30 seconds to 30 minutes depending on the type and age of the bread.
  3. Put the meat in a bowl and season with salt (not less than a teaspoon) and pepper.
  4. Squeeze the bread as dry and discard any tough crusts that don’t fall apart. Add the bread to the meat. Add the cheese, parsley, egg, lemon zest and garlic. I use a microplane to grate the zest from the lemon right into the bowl with the meat, and then the same microplane to grate the garlic on top.
  5. Mix the meat with the other ingredients until thoroughly combined. You can do this with a fork or spatula or your hands, but DO NOT SQUEEZE THE MEAT or it will retain less texture and moisture, resulting in a less succulent meatball. Just use your hands like a spatula. I personally find the fastest and most thorough way to mix meatballs is with a hand-mixer like you’d make a cake with (in Italiano: le fruste elettriche).
  6. Set the mixture aside in a cool place or the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes.

Shape the meatballs

  1. Take a bit of the meat mixture the size of a large walnut (about 35-40g, I use an ice cream scoop to get them the same size) and roll it into an oval shape.
  2. If sandwiching the meatballs between two lemon leaves, flatten the oval onto a lemon leaf in such a way as it won’t slide off. This usually means pressing it into the shiny “top” of the leaf, but it doesn’t matter so long as it sits nicely. Arrange these on a platter and put the remaining leaves in a bowl.
  3. If making skewers, press the oval down onto one edge of the lemon leaf and roll it up tightly like a little green sausage. The recipe serves four and will make about 20 little sausages, so line up 5 or so at a time and put two skewers through each (using two skewers will make them easier to turn on the grill).

Cook the meatballs

  1. Light a wood or charcoal fire and allow it to burn to grayed red embers. Be sure to use enough of whatever fuel to be able to spread it out to sufficient width to cook all the meatballs at the same time, and to preheat the grill. If using a gas grill, preheat for ten minutes.
  2. If using the “sandwich” version, place the meatballs on the grill with the lemon-leaf facing down. Top each with a second lemon leaf, gently pressing it to adhere to the meat. Grill for four or five minutes depending on the heat (the bottom leaf should be charred and the side of the meat crusting). Turn them carefully and cook through, an additional three to four minutes.
  3. If using the skewers, grill them three or four minutes per side, turning carefully.
  4. Arrange the cooked meatballs with their leaves on a platter and set lemon wedges here and there among them. The leaves continue to perfume the meat and the air, but I don’t eat them. Serve immediately.

Recipe Notes

NB it’s very common to find grilled or fried meatballs stuffed with a hunk of melty cheese like scamorza or mozzarella. I prefer them without but it’s a common variation.

2 thoughts on “Lemon Meatballs | Purpetti i limuni | Polpette di carne al limone

  1. Patricia

    This was brilliant for a specially hot day. I couldn’t find the lemon leaves so I used bay leaves as you suggested. Your recipe was extremely easy to follow and the dish was super tasty. Thanks!

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