Ancient Roman Pasta with Spiced Meatballs

Ancient Roman Pasta with Spiced Meatballs

By Tim Hazell


Satirist, poet and playwright Juvenal (AD 60-131) was an astute observer with little patience for the whims and extravagance of the jaded Roman elite. The poet was an eccentric in an affluent society, craving simplicity in the midst of opulence. Rome’s cultural benefits included festivals, circuses and spectacles in the Forum. There were baths, libraries, foods of every description, actors and musicians. However, conditions in the thoroughfares and side-streets were precarious, especially after dark. 


When his fortunes had improved, Juvenal acquired a country home. His predilections for free-range chicken, young lamb, new-laid eggs and fresh vegetables paralleled our modern health-food movement. Roman food had a sharp and piquant flavor, refreshingly aromatic, redolent of herbs, olive oil and wine. Honey was used for sweetening. “Garum,” a combination of brine boiled with dry fish such as anchovies, replaced salt. Substitute Oriental fish sauce (available at Bonanza). 


Here is a Roman recipe for pasta with spiced meatballs, “Minutal Terentinum,” attributed to the gourmet Apicius (25 BC – AD 37), a contemporary of Juvenal. 


Pasta with Spiced Meatballs

For the Pasta (Tractae):


Ingredients for 16 tractae

300 grams white flour

Warm water

Pinch of sea salt

(Substitute lasagna noodles)



Knead the flour with warm water until it reaches a smooth consistency. Divide the dough into 16 pieces and roll into little circular sheets. Let them dry overnight. 


Meatballs (Isicia):



400 grams pork tenderloin, minced

1 tsp. ground caraway seeds

1 tsp. dried sage

1 tsp. ground black pepper

2 cloves garlic minced

1 tbsp. onion minced

1/2 lb. white grapes (for caroenum)

1 tbsp. Oriental fish sauce

Extra virgin olive oil



To prepare the caroenum: de-stem and pound the grapes to obtain the juice. Filter with a sieve and boil down until reduced by one-third. Let cool. Mince the tenderloin in a food processor. Combine the caraway seeds, sage, black pepper, minced garlic and onion. Mix with the meat, a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, fish sauce and reduced grape juice. Shape into 12 – 14 small meatballs.


To prepare the dish (Minutal Terentinum):

Serves 2



8 tractae (dried pasta circles or lasagna noodles)

Meatballs (Isicia)

1 leek, rinced

4 cups water

2 tbsp. olive oil

1 tbsp. Oriental fish sauce

1 tsp. black pepper

1/2 cup celery leaves, finely chopped

1 tbsp. fresh oregano, minced, or 2 tsp. dried

1 cup white wine

1 tsp. sugar



Mince the leeks and add to a deep saucepan with the water, olive oil and fish sauce. Bring to a boil, adding the meatballs. Boil for about ten minutes, until tender. Reduce the heat, maintaining the liquid at a simmer. In the meantime, prepare the sauce: combine the black pepper, celery leaves, oregano, white wine and sugar. Add the sauce to the meatballs and broth. Bring to a boil, break the pasta circles into coarse pieces and cook for a further ten minutes with the meatballs and broth until al dente. Line a serving dish with the pasta pieces. Top with the meatballs. Serve with a sprinkling of black pepper.