If you’re trying to trace the branches in the family tree between polpette and kottbullar (aka Italian and Swedish meatballs), there’s no better place to start than with the meat of the matter: The blend. With both, the guidelines for the meat mixture are a little fuzzy and a lot personal. Like, my grandma’s recipe versus your grandma’s recipe, this has been in our family for generations and is the only true authentic (God that word makes me nervous) meatball, kind of personal. Ground beef, pork, and veal are the main players in both styles. Swedish blends are most commonly dominated by a 50-50-ish pork and beef combo (though veal and even venison are sometimes included), while Italian versions, especially those you find in the States, typically dance around with a proprietary ratio of the Big Three.
As in life, size matters when it comes to distinguishing Swedish and Italian meatballs. The former are generally shaped to be much smaller in size—think, golfball-sized, or like a hearty teaspoon. You want to be able to easily pick one up with with a toothpick and not have it feel like a deadlift exercise. Italian meatballs are generally larger in size (except, perhaps, if they’re being served as a component in a soup), and Italian-American meatballs, if you care to make the distinction, are even larger. I know, “color me surprised,” said no one. Apparently the stateside renditions originated by Italian immigrants in New York started off more modestly sized, as you’ll still find them in Italy, but since have ballooned up like Violet Beauregard in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Think somewhere in the range of a tennis ball or average-sized fist.
Seasoning is another good way to draw a line in the sand between these two iconic meatball styles. While both varieties include ingredients such as grated onion and panade (milk-soaked bread) or bread crumbs, Swedish meatballs traditionally use spices like allspice, nutmeg, white pepper, and sometimes ground ginger as flavoring. Italian meatballs classically call for grated Parmesan or Pecorino, as well as garlic and and chopped parsley; sometimes fennel seed and dried oregano are also added to up the ante.
Of course, sauce is a big part of the flavoring component that sets the two a part. Italian meatballs are famously served in a bright, tangy, often chunky tomato sauce (marinara to the layman) whereas Swedish meatballs are cooked in a rich, roux-based, creamy gravy made with beef or bone broth and sour cream.
While different, both types of meatball are fairly versatile in terms of presentation and serving style. If you’re a fan of the 60s-era cocktail party, you’ll remember that Swedish meatballs make a great pass-around appetizer, served simply on a toothpick. Of course, as a main dish, they’re more typically served over German-style egg noodles or with potatoes and a side of lingonberry jam. Italian meatballs come in a wider variety of outfits, so to speak. Though in Italy they are often served simply, on their own and garnished with fresh grated cheese and sprinkled with herbs, in the U.S. you’ll find them in a nest of spaghetti—duh—but also baked into a pasta casserole, over creamy polenta, sliced on pizza, stuffed into sandwiches, and even swimming in soups.
Alright enough talk, the only real way to tell the difference between meatballs and Swedish meatballs is to taste!