It’s time to get serious because today… We’re talking about meatballs. And what better place to discuss these Italian delicacies than at our very own Vivo Italian Kitchen? This location at Universal CityWalk at Universal Orlando Resort includes two drool-worthy menu items that feature meatballs — “Bucatini with Meatballs” and a primi — first course — “Meatballs.”
As is the case with most great food, these meatballs have a rich and very personal story behind it. Gianluca Sciagata — affectionately referred to as Chef Luca by his staff and other Universal Orlando Team Members and guests — integrated his own personal family meatball recipe into Vivo’s menu. Now, the Sciagata Meatball is served to hundreds of Universal Orlando Resort guests every day.
I recently caught up with Chef Luca to talk about this special dish. Here’s what he had to say:
Alanna: Chef Luca, tell me about the Sciagata Meatball. How did it originate and is it a staple at your family meals?
Chef Luca: The Sciagata family is from the village of Villadossola, in the Piemonte Region of northern Italy, famous for the Fassona cattle beef. Because we grew up with this beef readily available to us, the meatball recipe has been in my family long before anyone can account. In Italy, though, we never referred to this dish as “meatballs” — we called them polpette and we’d eat it during “le feste,” times of celebration.
I remember the whole famiglia gathering in my nonna’s cucina to prepare the meal, and everyone had a job to do: zia Maria, my aunt, would be making agnolotti, a type of beef ravioli that pairs wonderfully with the meatballs; my mamma would be tending to the sauce; and my nonna, my sorella [sister] Mara, and I would prepare the polpette. All of the ingredients came from my zio Carlo’s farm and my mamma’s garden. Mara would beat the eggs in a bowl, Nonna would chop the parsley and the onions and mix them with ground beef, and I would soak the bread in milk to make sure it was well-saturated. Then Mara would add the eggs and Nonna would season the mixture with salt and pepper. I remember my Nonna watching me very closely as I scooped up a piece of milk-soaked bread and gently squeezed some of the milk through my fingers. “Ancora un po’, Gianluca” — a little more, she would say to me, until it was the perfect texture.
Alanna: When you teach this recipe to new chefs, do you explain its history?
Chef Luca: I often talk to my team about the history of the Vivo meatball. It is a classic dish and always needs to be prepared the same way every time. We have conversations about the history of most of our dishes served at Vivo. When I introduce a new item to the culinary team, I generally explain why it is especially personal to me or the history behind the dish.
Alanna: Did you have to make any changes to the recipe to fit in with everyday menu items?
Chef Luca: Polpettes in Italy are served much smaller than in America, generally about two and a half ounces compared to the four-ounce size that we serve at Vivo. And it has been made the same way in my family for generations — that is, until I came to America and met my wife — while buying an Italian espresso, of course. Soon after we got married, she became pregnant with my son Alessandro and had a lot of morning sickness. And while she loved my polpette (she called them meatballs), she couldn’t tolerate the smell of fresh garlic and rosemary, two important ingredients in the original recipe. So, instead of using fresh garlic, I started roasting it to tame down the strong taste and the aroma for her. To this day, I continue to use the roasted garlic in my meatballs at Vivo. Since she was eating for two, she also requested that I make them bigger for her, so I did.
Alanna: How do you feel about sharing your family recipe and its story with hundreds of Universal’s guests every day?
Chef Luca: Not many of the guests know the story of how the Vivo meatball came to be, but those that I have told get a good laugh over it. Our guests respond very positively on social media, and quite often they will stop by to share their appreciation to the team. We love getting a quick hello and a thank you from them. Happy and satisfied guests are our goal! We also enjoy the daily quality checks from our CityWalk Executive Chef Marcos Colón. I never imagined as a young boy, in my Nonna’s cucina, that I would be preparing polpette for hundreds of guests daily. It’s a humbling experience for me and an honor.
Alanna: Thank you for that amazing story, Chef Luca! One last question, as I’m sure all our guests want to know: how can we make these at home?
Chef Luca: Here’s the recipe for the Sciagata Meatballs and the Sciagata Tomato Sauce:
The Sciagata Meatball
Portion: makes 8-10 meatballs
- 2 lbs 80/20 ground beef
- 2 eggs
- 2 oz roasted garlic
- 3 oz grated parmesan
- 2 slices white bread without the crust
- 2 cups whole milk
- ½ oz parsley
- 2 oz panko breadcrumbs
- ¼ cup onions, finely chopped
- 4 leaves fresh basil, finely chopped
- ½ teaspoon dry oregano
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon black pepper
1. Soak the white bread in milk for about 5 minutes.
2. Combine the remaining ingredients in a bowl.
3. Squeeze out some of the milk from the white bread. If it’s still too wet, ancora un po’ — it can’t be too wet and still needs to have a little crumble to it.
3. Mix the bread with the other ingredients and let it rest for 10 minutes.
4. Roll mixture into balls, about 4 oz each. Place evenly on a baking sheet.
5. Bake for 8 minutes at 450 degrees.
6. Remove from the oven, and finish cooking in the Sciagata Tomato Sauce on a stove top.
CHEF’S TIP: Coat your hands in cold water to help roll the meatballs.
Sciagata Tomato Sauce:
- 1 28 oz can of San Marzano tomatoes
- 1 medium white onion, chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, chopped
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 8 leaves fresh basil, finely sliced
- 1 teaspoon of salt
- ½ teaspoon of black pepper
1. In a pot, add olive oil to medium heat.
2. Add the chopped garlic and chopped onion.
3. Let it set until it reaches a golden color, stirring occasionally.
4. Add the San Marzano tomatoes, basil, salt, and pepper.
5. Cover and let simmer for about 20 to 30 minutes.
Have you tried the Sciagata Meatballs at Vivo? What did you think? Let us know in the comments below.