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  • Bute St Seafoodie

Polpette di Pesce al Sugo (Fish Balls in Tomato Sauce)

Updated: Apr 6, 2022

"Sicilians build things like they will live forever and eat like they will die tomorrow."

Plato (4th to 5th Century B.C.)

Sicilian or Roman? A bit of research rather suggests both regions of Italy may lay claim to the ownership of this dish and, truth be told, despite some effort and conversations with Italian friends, I don't think I've really got to the bottom of this. One thing for certain is that Sicilian recipes for fish balls made with swordfish abound.

Among those Italian friends are the ever-bellissima Manu, her pal Salvo and an Instagram "colleague", @mypinchofitaly, who has her own blog, My Pinch of Italy, and, who kindly took the time to share with me her knowledge of the cooking of a dish such as this. The result of my conversation with her and some experimentation led to the recipe I'm really pleased to present, which is somewhat based on those by Rachel Roddy for the Guardian and Il Cucchiaio d'Argento. However, unlike any recipe of its kind that I've come across, for the fish it uses whiting: humble, affordable underrated, in season right now and perfect for fishcake-type creations. Pollack is another great fish to use for a recipe such as this. Being as delicate in flavour as both fish are, I've chosen to keep the recipe as light and simple as possible, so no garlic in the mix, no flour, no parmesan, and only egg white (much as I hate seeing an egg yolk go unused) to bind. Many recipes I have encountered actually cook the fish before blitzing it but to me that surely leads to overcooked fish once the balls have then poached in the sauce.

Speaking of the sauce, it would be quite fitting to use fresh tomatoes, in the spirit of the sunshine of the Mediterranean, but our local fishermen are catching whiting (and pollack) at this time of year when local tomatoes are unseasonal, but a decent tomato sauce is eminently achievable with a tin of tomatoes. And, after all, canning a fresh fruit or vegetable for use in the off-season is the exact point of the exercise.

In the end what we arrive it is a dish of humble origin, using a humble native fish and the ubiquitous and humble tin of tomatoes. It can be served as a starter, an antipasti or a fish course. And although it would not traditionally be served with pasta you'd be forgiven for not resisting the temptation and serve it as a primi piatti or even a supper dish or main course!

In terms of the ingredient quantities for the polpette this recipes makes sufficient to serve 4 as a starter or antipasti dish. To serve as a fish course for 4 increase the quantity of fish to 300g, and to serve as a primi piatti or main course for 2 use 300-350g fish and serve with rice or pasta. Increase the remaining ingredients accordingly, making sure to keep the fish to bread ratio at 4 parts fish to 1 part bread.

The recipe for the sauce makes more than required for the options above, about twice as much as needed. But it is actually worth even making a double quantity of the sauce and freezing some in batches as it makes for a delicious, convenient and simple sauce for pasta, including dishes such as lasagne. At first sight it may seem counterintuitive to reduce the tomatoes right down and then reconstitute them later with water but there's an alchemy that takes place as the tomatoes dehydrate and fry in the oil that breaks down their structure and intensifies their richness and sweetness. Rehydrating them subsequently to achieve the desired consistency will clearly dilute the concentration of flavour but does not reverse the flavour-intensification process. A splash of Balsamic (it can be an inexpensive one) is optional but accentuates the sweet/sour nature of a well-concentrated tomato sauce. That said, any vinegar with some salt and sugar can achieve the same result when added accordingly.

Frying the polpette is optional. Dusting them in a little flour and frying until golden on the outside but barely cooked in the centre achieves a slightly fuller flavour and firmer texture but isn't necessary. If not fried, they just need a little longer poaching time in the tomato sauce.

It's worth noting that, with the sauce already made ahead (even stored in the freezer) and the polpette formed (and fried if choosing that option) ahead of time this is a very straightforward dish to make when serving to numbers. The majority of the work can even be done the day before.

Polpette di Pesce al Sugo (Fish Balls in Tomato Sauce)

Ingredients (Serves 2 or 4 depending on course, see recipe intro)

200g skinned whiting or pollack fillet

1 tsp grated lemon zest, ideally from an unwaxed lemon

1 tbsp chopped flat leaf parsley

50g fresh white breadcrumbs

1 egg white, whisked until frothy

2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil (only if frying, see recipe intro)

Basil or flat leaf parsley leaves, to garnish

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the tomato sauce:

2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

2 sprigs of basil

400g tin of tomatoes, chopped or whole

Balsamic vinegar (optional)

Sugar (optional)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper


  1. Get the tomato sauce made first. Heat the olive oil in a pan with the garlic and when the garlic softens and becomes fragrant (no colour) add the basil sprigs, stir a couple of times and then tip in the tomatoes and some seasoning. Reduce to a pulp stirring and mashing regularly, a process that may take 20 mins or so. Remove the basil sprigs then either put in blender or use a stick blender to blitz to a smooth sauce. This can be passed through a sieve for a silky smooth sauce if preferred. This will be of quite a thick consistency and should be diluted with a little water to the desired consistency when ready to use.

  2. In a blender, blitz the fish with the lemon zest and chopped parsley plus a little seasoning. Tip into a bowl, work in the breadcrumbs with your hands then massage in the whisked egg white as necessary to bind the mixture - the white of half a large egg is approximately right but it will depend on the breadcrumbs. Taste for seasoning. Roll into balls the size of walnuts and rest in the fridge for 20 mins or longer.

  3. If frying the polpette, heat the 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil in a frying pan and when hot, fry the polpette, turning regularly, until golden on the outside but barely cooked in the centre. These can be fridged for up to 1 day if not using immediately.

  4. When ready to cook, warm some of the tomato sauce in a sauté pan, deep frying pan or wide saucepan with a little water to achieve the consistency preferred. Something a little thicker than tinned tomato soup is perfect. When the sauce is hot put in the polpette, cover the pan and poach gently, turning occasionally for about 10 mins if they have been fried, or for 15-20mins if not.

  5. Serve garnished with your choice of herbs.


  1. "Italian fish polpette in a rich tomato sauce", Rachel Roddy (2017), The Guardian, accessed 11 March 2021

  2. "Polpette di pesce", Il Cucchiaio D'Argento, accessed 11 March 2021


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