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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.