Most people love a big plate of spaghetti and meatballs — but how did the dish come to be so popular? Believe it or not, the classic combo is an American invention, but the evolution of the concept did start in Italy.
The meatballs we usually marry with our marinara sauce are eaten separately in Italy. Meat was super expensive there in the late 1800s, so it was rarely eaten. But when 4 million Italians came to America in the late 19th century, meatballs started to morph. Food got a whole lot cheaper which allowed people to make meatballs in bulk. Historically, they were make with equal parts meat and breadcrumbs.
The marinara sauce originated in Naples, but Italian immigrants didn’t have easy access to fresh tomatoes so they started opting for canned ones.
Spaghetti and meatballs probably first made its appearance in the late 1800s in New York or New Jersey. One theory as to why the two foods were first paired together was that Italian restaurants were getting increased requests for starch with their meat (based on the “meat and potatoes” persuasion). So, they decided to combine the meat with pasta. Others think the dish formed because of Italian immigrants’ hankering for food from their homeland and pasta being one of the only foods that were also available in Italy.
Chef Boyardee (who was a real person) also popularized the dish with his spaghetti and sauce, which he eventually started selling in cans. This helped make it into the hyper popularized dish it is today.