Papa Buono’s Polpette

It isn’t difficult to make them. The ingredients are easy to source and the recipe should be well within the grasp of any enthusiastic cook. But the zucchini ‘meat’balls served at Trattoria Visconti in Ambivere, a town of two thousand inhabitants that takes a fifteen-minute drive from Bergamo, are something else. They are special in part because of who makes them today, no less than seventy years after they were first invented; and they are special because of who ordered them, in this little restaurant run by the Caccia family. Along with the traditional casoncelli, the family assures us that these zucchini balls are easily the most popular dish that they do. And why are they so sought-after, you may very well be asking. Well, for one very specific reason: these are the polpette of Papa Buono. They have entered history as the favourite food of Angelo Roncalli, who in 1958 became known to the world as Pope John XXIII, the 261st pope since St Peter.

Born in the Bergamascan village of Sotto il Monte, Roncalli spent his pre-pontifical adulthood touring the world on various diplomatic missions for Pope Pius XII, from Paris to Venice, from Sofia to Istanbul. But – so the proprietors say – whenever he turned to Bergamo for a few days off, the first thing he wanted to do was eat the Visconti family’s zucchini balls. Indeed, a great-aunt of the current owners used to dash out from dinnertime service to bring them to him in the rectory of nearby Mapello. This was just after the War, in the late 1940s, early ‘50s. “We achieve greatness even in the smallest things”, Roncalli was fond of saying as he wiped his lips with the napkin. With his endorsement, those polpette soon became local celebrities, and an immovable fixture in the trattoria’s menu.

In 2016, Papa Buono’s polpette even found their way into a book called “An Appetite for Lombardy”, by the famous English writer Christine Smallwood. More than that: they are the dedicatees of the book’s first chapter, which tells their story and how it relates to the papal chair. Many photos and recipes are included.

Today, the polpette are made even more special by the ingredients that go into them at Trattoria Visconti, which sources its raw materials in large part from its own garden. The zucchini, indeed, not to mention the shallots, the parsley, the marjoram and the chives. As we’ve said, it doesn’t take a genius to prepare the polpette. You just shallow fry the shallots in olive oil, then throw in the coarsely grated zucchini. After quarter of an hour of cooking, you transfer the zucchini to a draining basin and let them shed their excess liquid. Then it’s time for the doughy part of the balls. Put the zucchini in a bowl and add breadcrumbs, grated Grana Padano cheese, eggs (two for every kilogram of zucchini), chopped chives and a few amaretti biscuits (eight, ideally). Once you’ve got the right consistency, you shape the polpette with your hands; then cover them in flour and fry them in boiling vegetable oil. They’re best eaten nice and hot, but they’re not half bad at room temperature too. If, by chance, you should find yourself at Trattoria Visconti, maybe drawn by curiosity to try these polpette, make sure you also visit the nearby Sotto il Monte, where Papa Buono himself was born. Probably without knowing it, he lent his indelible signature to this simple but glorious dish, as he himself described it.