The word polpetta comes from polpa, meaning lean meat, with the addition of the diminutive suffix -etta.
Polpette can be made with meat or fish and are fried or stewed. My mother makes them with the boiled meat leftover from making broth. She fries them and the result is brown nuggets that are almost creamy inside and crispy outside. The next day she stews them in tomato sauce: what they lose in outer crispness, they gain in flavor with the aromatic tomato sauce.
I have never eaten spaghetti with meatballs and had never heard of them until I moved to California. Adding meatballs to pasta is a southern tradition and I grew up in central Italy. I have tasted, however, meatballs in the timpano, a pasta dish from Calabria, whose lengthy preparation is shown in the (highly recommended) movie "Big Night" (1996).
[This post is dedicated to Christine.]
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