Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO), for drizzling, plus 2 tablespoons
1/4 pound pancetta, finely diced
1 1/2 pounds ground pork
Salt and pepper
1/2 cup plain breadcrumbs (a couple of handfuls)
1/3 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese, plus some to pass at the table
1/4 cup whole milk
2 eggs, lightly beaten
Freshly grated nutmeg (about 1/4 teaspoon)
A couple of pinches of ground cloves
1 1/2 teaspoons fennel seeds (1/2 palmful)
4 large cloves garlic, finely chopped or grated, divided
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2/3 cup dry red wine (eyeball it)
1 can Italian crushed tomatoes or puree (28 ounces)
1 cup chicken stock
1 pound rigatoni or penne or whole wheat or whole grain rigatoni or penne
2 tablespoons butter, cut into small pieces (optional)
1 cup fresh ricotta cheese or sheep’s milk ricotta cheese
2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves, finely chopped
Pre-heat the oven to 400˚F.
Place a large pot of water on the stove and bring it to a boil for the pasta.
Heat a large skillet or Dutch oven over medium-high heat with a drizzle of EVOO. When hot, add the pancetta and crisp for 3 minutes. Remove, turn down the heat to low and cool the pancetta.
Place the meat in a large mixing bowl and season with a little salt and lots of pepper. Combine the breadcrumbs, cheese and milk in a small bowl and moisten the breadcrumbs by combining well with the milk. Add more breadcrumbs and cheese if the mixture feels too wet. You want it barely dampened in consistency.
Add the breadcrumb mixture to the meat along with pancetta, egg, nutmeg, cloves, fennel and two cloves of the finely chopped or grated garlic. Mix very well to combine. Drizzle a little EVOO over the combined mixture just before you begin to roll the balls. Form medium size balls about 2 inches wide and place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
Raise the heat on the pan you cooked the pancetta in to medium and add 2 additional tablespoons of EVOO, a couple turns of the pan. Add the onion, season with salt and pepper and cook for 8 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the remaining two cloves of garlic and the crushed red pepper flakes, stir for 2 minutes more, then add the tomato paste and stir for 1 minute, until fragrant. Add the wine and reduce for a couple of minutes; stir in the tomatoes and bring the sauce to a bubble, then reduce the heat to simmer.
Place the meatballs in the oven and roast for 12 minutes, or until golden and cooked through.
Salt the pasta water and cook the pasta to al dente. Just before draining the pasta, add some starchy cooking water to a serving bowl. Add the pasta to the serving bowl and toss with butter, if using, and half of the sauce.
Add the meatballs to remaining sauce and toss to coat. Serve the meatballs with the pasta in shallow bowls, topped with a scoop of ricotta garnished with chopped fresh thyme for mixing-in.
Serve with a celery, arugula and flat leaf parsley salad dressed with lemon juice and EVOO, salt and pepper or another green salad of choice.