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Polpette di Melanzane ~ Eggplant Meatballs without Meat

Finished polpette di melanzane without meat in tomato sauce in oval dish with basil garnish.
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Polpette di Melanzane (Eggplant Meatballs without Meat) are a delicious, meatless alternative to your traditional meatball recipe. Moist and flavorful with the fresh, bright flavor of fresh basil, sharp Pecorino Romano cheese and garlic, these Polpette di Melanzane lack none of the heartiness and have all of the savoriness of its beef cousin.⁠ Your whole family will enjoy these tender “meatballs” that pair perfectly with your favorite pasta, vegetable side, crusty bread, or fork heading right into your mouth! Read on for more!

Finished polpette di melanzane without meat in tomato sauce in oval dish with basil garnish.

Eggplants have a deep, earthy flavor that makes them a great vegetarian substitute. I love how the vegetable is so versatile and is great grilled, roasted, pickled, fried, pureed in soups and dips or mashed, as it is here in this meatless “meatball” that delivers on both flavor and texture.

These eggplant polpette are perfect with a nice homemade tomato basil sugo recipe!

What Inspired This Recipe

These eggplant “meatballs” are a common sight across the most southern regions of Italy, especially Calabria, Abruzzo and Sicily. In years past, meat was scarce in most Italian homes resulting in many meatless dishes, like Abruzzo’s polpette di pane, a.k.a., cheese-egg balls, pasta with chickpeas, ribolitta bread and vegetable soup, and panzanella bread saladPolpette di Melanzane, eggplant balls, are a classic example of cucina povera, the “peasant cooking” of Italy’s southern regions and my ancestors. It was no doubt born from necessity, with serendipitously delicious results.

I learned how to make this dish from my Sicilian-American mom, hence “Sicilian” in the title. We often ate it when eggplant was abundant in the late summer months of August and September, but it really has become a year-round dish for me. Eggplant meatballs are made almost exactly like classic meatballs, but with roasted eggplant flesh substituted for traditional ground meat—a brilliant idea, given the meaty taste and texture of eggplant! In fried form, like I’ve presented here, they are akin to eggplant fritters and are perfectly crispy on the outside while soft and tasty on the inside.

Forkful of polpette di melanzane over oval dish with basil garnish and grated cheese.

Why You’ll Love This Recipe

  • Wide Appeal: Sicilian Eggplant Meatballs are loved by both carnivores and vegetarians alike! Because eggplant is so meaty, once these guys are immersed in a rich tomato sauce, it is actually a little heard to tell the difference between them and a regular meatball. (I’ve actually done this!)
  • Flexible Recipe: You can fry or bake these meatballs with equally great results! Also, if you form this mixture into a patty shape, you’ll also the best ever eggplant veggie burger out there!
  • Great for Meal Prep! I almost always double (at least) this recipe when I make it. This way, I have some eggplant meatballs immediately and then lots of meatballs for the future. Just place the meatballs in an airtight freezer bag or container once cooked and cooled (with or without sauce), and they will hold for up to three months in the freezer. It’s a great way to have homemade meatballs ready in a pinch!

Hearty and meaty, these Polpette di Melanzane will not disappoint! I hope that they will become one of your go-to vegetarian recipes!

Three different types of eggplant.
Sicilian Eggplant, Hybrid Meatball Eggplant, and American Globe Eggplant

Ingredients for Polpette di Melanzane

⁠To make these meatless meatballs, we’ll be using the following ingredients:

  • Eggplant: Eggplant is the “meat” in this “meatball” and with good reason–its rich, meaty and spongy texture holds up well and complements the other ingredients perfectly. Almost any variety of eggplant can be used successfully in this recipe. I prefer to use the large globe (a.k.a., American) eggplant here because it is the easiest from which to obtain all that eggplant pulp! When selecting eggplant, look for a slightly firm, but not hard, texture and choose an eggplant that feels heavy for its size.
  • Garlic, Pecorino Cheese and Fresh Basil: These all contribute to the delicious, distinct flavor of the eggplant meatballs! Parmigiano-Reggiano or parmesan cheese can be substituted for the pecorino, and about 1 Tbsp dried basil can be substituted for the fresh basil in a pinch if necessary. Use fresh garlic cloves.
  • Breadcrumbs: Bread crumbs act as a binder for the eggplant mix and also absorb the juices from the mixture as it cooks, keeping all that flavorful goodness inside. Since the eggplant pulp is such a wet mixture with lots of moisture, I actually prefer to use breadcrumbs in this recipe as opposed to cut-up pieces of day old bread like I used in my meat-based meatballs. But, you can definitely try this recipe with bread. You will likely need to use a bit more bread than the amount of breadcrumbs listed in the recipe.
  • Eggs: The role of eggs in this recipe is very important! They are there to bind the eggplant pulp, breadcrumbs and other ingredients together so that they do not fall apart or become too flimsy during the cooking process.
  • Oil: Use either a pure or virgin olive oil or a neutral oil with a high smoke point, such as avocado oil or a vegetable oil, for the pan-frying. You can certainly use extra-virgin olive oil for the frying, but it is not necessary.

A complete and detailed list of ingredients with amounts and instructions is included in the recipe below.⁠

Prepped ingredients for polpette di melanzane.

Check out one of my best “Insider Tips” for making the best meatballs here, as featured in Appetito’s online Italian Food and Drink Magazine.

How to Make Polpette di Melanzane

This recipe basically has two main parts: the cooking of the eggplant itself and then the mixing and final frying (or, roasting, if you prefer) of the formed eggplant meatballs. Here are the main steps:

  • Gather and prep all ingredients. Preheat oven to 350˚F and arrange a rack in the center of the oven.

  • Roast the eggplant: Using a sharp knife, make slits in each eggplant, then bake until eggplants are very tender and their skin is wrinkly. Remove roasted eggplant from oven and let it rest only until it is cool enough to handle.
Prepping eggplant for Sicilian eggplant meatballs.
Three whole eggplant after being roasted.
  • Then, cut off and discard its stem and slice eggplant in half. Use a large spoon to carefully scoop out and set aside all the cooked eggplant pulp. Discard eggplant skins. (It’s easier to scoop out the eggplant flesh and separate it from the skin while the eggplant is warm.)

  • Place the eggplant pulp in a colander or strainer and let it release its liquid. Use a large fork or spoon to press the eggplant and help this process along.
    • PRO-TIP: You can roast the eggplant and prep the pulp one to two days in advance and hold it in an airtight container in the refrigerator.
Scooping roasted eggplant pulp out of roasted eggplant with a spoon.
Eggplant pulp in colander over a bowl.
  • Transfer the strained eggplant pulp to a mixing bowl and add in the breadcrumbs, grated cheese, basil, eggs, garlic, salt, black and crushed red peppers. Mix until all ingredients are well-combined, breaking up any large pieces of eggplant pulp in the process.
    • PRO-TIP: Pan-fry a small amount of mixture and taste test to check seasonings and texture before portioning the whole batch. Adjust seasonings if necessary.
Prepping eggplant meatball mixture in glass bowl.
Prepped eggplant meatball mixture in glass bowl with basil in background.
  • Using a scoop or measuring cup, portion mixture into whatever size you like, and roll them into round balls.
    • PRO-TIP: Wet or oil your hands a little to make rolling easier.
Measuring eggplant mixture in a 1/4 measuring cup.
Prepped eggplant meatballs ready to fry.
  • Add enough oil to a large, non-stick skillet to cover the bottom of the pan by about ¼”. Heat the oil over medium heat until bubbles form around a wooden spoon inserted in the oil.
    • PRO-TIP: If the meatballs are placed in the pan before the oil is hot enough, they will absorb too much oil and become soggy.
  • Gently transfer the eggplant balls to the hot oil and brown on multiple sides. (The mixture is soft, so you’ll need to handle it carefully.) Then, transfer them to a paper towel-lined plate to absorb some oil and cool.
    • PRO-TIP: Double the recipe and freeze half for another time. The meatballs freeze beautifully, with or without sauce, for up to 3 months.
Frying Sicilian eggplant meatballs.
Frying Sicilian eggplant meatballs.
  • Serve the fried eggplant meatballs immediately plain or tossed with some heated tomato sauce and topped with some grated pecorino cheese. You can also add the meatballs to a pot of sauce and serve them with pasta. Buon Appetito!
    • PRO-TIP:Don’t leave the meatballs in heated sauce for too long. The longer they sit in the sauce, the more sauce they will absorb and softer they will become.
Finished fried polpette di melanzane.

More Delicious Eggplant Recipes

If you’re looking for more recipes with eggplant, check these out:

Frequently Asked Questions

Here are answers to some frequently asked questions about these Italian eggplant fritters: 

What type of eggplant should I use to make these eggplant meatballs?

Almost any variety of eggplant can be used successfully in this recipe. I prefer to use the large globe (a.k.a., American) eggplant here because it is the easiest from which to obtain all that eggplant pulp!

How do you select a good eggplant?

When selecting eggplant, look for a slightly firm, but not hard, texture and choose an eggplant that feels heavy for its size. If you’re able to puncture the eggplant skin, then it is too far gone.

Do I need to peel the eggplant?

Since we are roasting the eggplant whole and then scooping out the pulp, it is not necessary to peel the eggplant for this recipe. However, if you are wondering whether or not you should eat the skin, that is a personal choice. While eggplant skin is edible and nutrient-rich, I find it tough and sometimes bitter. I do not recommend including it in the eggplant meatball mixture because of these reasons. However, if you decide to do so, note that the taste may be a bit bitter and the texture will not be as smooth (unless you puree the skin in a food processor).

Is salting the eggplant necessary?

Unless you are using old eggplant that have been stored for too long, no, you do not need to salt the eggplant. I realize this may be a controversial reply, since so many people swear by salting eggplants to remove its bitterness. The reality is that, over the years, farmers have bred out much of eggplants’ signature bitterness, rendering salting unnecessary. Having said this, click here for great information about salting eggplants.

How can I roast these meatballs instead of frying them?

If you prefer to roast the meatballs, place them on a parchment-lined sheet pan about ½” apart from each other. Roast in a 375°F oven for approximately 30-35 minutes, or until firm and lightly browned on all sides.  Turn the sheet pan once during the cooking process to allow eggplant balls to brown more evenly. (Tip: If you’d like a browner meatball, lightly spray the tops of the meatballs with oil before placing them in the oven.)

Can I freeze eggplant meatballs?

For sure! Both fried and baked eggplant balls freeze very well, either with or without sauce. Place them in an airtight freezer container or bag for up to 3 months. The meatballs do not need to be completely thawed before reheating.

Finished polpette di melanzane without meat in tomato sauce in oval dish with basil garnish and grated cheese.

For more Sicilian-inspired dishes, check out Pasta with Cauliflower, Bucatini with Tuna Sauce, Calamari Stew with Potato and Peas and Roasted Vegetable Caponata (without Tomatoes).

Serving Suggestions and Storage

These Polpette di Melanzane are great as an appetizer in smaller portions or as part of your main meal. Here are a few of my favorites:

These meatballs would also make a great party hors d’oeuvre in a more miniature size.  In some regions in Italy, they are actually served in cones as street food!

To store, cool meatballs completely, then refrigerate them in an airtight container for up to 5 days or freeze them in an airtight freezer container or bag (with or without sauce) for up to 3 months. The meatballs do not need to be completely thawed before reheating.

Polpette di melanzane over ricotta with grated cheese and basil garnish.

Recipe Variations for Polpette di Melanzane

Here are a few great suggestions for twists and additions to this recipe:

  • Amp up the Sicilian flavors by adding either raisins and pine nuts or capers and olives to the mixture.
  • Stuff the Meatballs with Cheese! For something a bit richer and more decadent, try stuffing the meatballs with a bit of fresh mozzarella. Poke a hole in each ball, fill it with a small piece of cheese, close up the hole and continue with the recipe. Stuffed meatballs will take longer to cook than un-stuffed meatballs, fyi.
  • Add Heat: Either increase the amount of crushed red pepper flakes and/or add some Calabrian chili paste to the mix to increase the spice level.
  • Add Different Types of Garlic: In addition to the raw garlic, some roasted garlic or garlic confit would work beautifully in this recipe and would add a good amount of umami (savoriness)!
  • Roast Instead of Fry: If you prefer to roast the meatballs, place them on a parchment-lined sheet pan about ½” apart from each other. Roast them in a 375°F oven for approximately 30-35 minutes, or until firm and lightly browned on all sides.  Turn the sheet pan once during the cooking process to allow eggplant balls to brown more evenly. (Tip: If you’d like a browner meatball, lightly spray the tops of the meatballs with oil before roasting.)
Close-up of forkful of polpette di melanzane over oval dish with basil garnish and grated cheese.

If you like this recipe, check out Easy Turkey Meatballs with Pesto, Stuffed Italian Peppers, Pesto alla Siciliana, and Fried Italian Peppers.

Kitchen Tools & Cookware Needed

To make Sicilian Eggplant Meatballs, you will need the following:

Finished polpette di melanzane without meat in tomato sauce in oval dish with basil garnish.

More Great Recipes to Try

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Finished polpette di melanzane without meat in tomato sauce in oval dish with basil garnish.

Polpette di Melanzane ~ Eggplant Meatballs without Meat

Michele
Polpette di Melanzane (Eggplant Meatballs without Meat) are a delicious, meatless alternative to your traditional meatball recipe. Moist and flavorful with the fresh, bright flavor of fresh basil, sharp Pecorino Romano cheese and garlic, these Polpette di Melanzane lack none of the heartiness and have all of the savoriness of its beef cousin.⁠ Your whole family will enjoy these tender “meatballs” that pair perfectly with your favorite pasta, vegetable side, crusty bread, or fork heading right into your mouth!
4.47 from 13 votes
Prep Time 10 minutes
Cook Time 1 hour 30 minutes
Total Time 1 hour 40 minutes
Course Side Dish
Cuisine Italian
Servings 8 servings

Ingredients
  

  • 4 pounds eggplant (about 3 large eggplants)
  • cups plain breadcrumbs
  • 1 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese
  • ½ cup chopped fresh basil, lightly packed
  • 4 large eggs, beaten
  • 1 Tbsp minced garlic
  • tsp salt
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • ½ tsp crushed red pepper
  • Olive or other oil as needed for frying
  • Tomato sauce, either homemade or store-bought (optional)

Instructions
 

  • Prep and gather all ingredients according to specifications above. Arrange a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 350°F.
  • Roast the eggplant: Using the tip of a sharp knife, make 4 to 5 slits in each eggplant, then place eggplants on a wire rack, set atop a sheet pan. (You can also bake them directly on a parchment-lined sheet pan.) Place sheet pan on middle oven rack and bake until eggplants are very tender and their skin is wrinkly. The larger the eggplants, the longer this will take. It could take anywhere from 45 to 100 minutes or so. (See Note below for an alternative method.) Turn the eggplants over about halfway through the cooking process. Test if eggplant is done by inserting a knife through its thickest part; it should not meet with any resistance in its center.
    4 pounds eggplant
  • Remove eggplant from oven and let it rest only until it is cool enough to handle. Then, cut off and discard its stem and slice eggplant in half. Use a large spoon to carefully scoop out and set aside all the cooked eggplant pulp. Discard eggplant skins. (Note that it is easier to scoop out the eggplant flesh and separate it from the skin while the eggplant is warm.)
  • Place the eggplant pulp in a colander or strainer and let it release its liquid. Use a large fork or spoon to press the eggplant and help this process along. You should yield about 1¾ pounds eggplant pulp. You can roast the eggplant and prep the pulp one to two days in advance and hold it in an airtight container in the refrigerator.
  • Transfer the strained eggplant pulp to a bowl and add in the breadcrumbs, grated cheese, basil, eggs, garlic, salt, black and crushed red peppers. Using a spoon or your hands, mix until all ingredients are well-combined, breaking up any large pieces of eggplant flesh in the process. Let this mixture sit about 10 minutes before proceeding.
    1½ cups plain breadcrumbs, 1 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese, ½ cup chopped fresh basil,, 4 large eggs,, 1 Tbsp minced garlic, 1½ tsp salt, 1 tsp black pepper, ½ tsp crushed red pepper
  • Pan-fry a small amount of the eggplant mixture and taste test to check seasonings and texture before portioning the whole batch. Adjust seasonings if necessary. If the mixture is too wet, add additional breadcrumbs one tablespoon at a time until it holds together. You can also add one more egg if you feel that the mixture needs additional binder to be held together.
  • Using a portion scoop or measuring cup, portion mixture into approximately 3-ounce portions, about ¼ cup each (or whatever size you like) and roll them into round balls. (Tip: Wet or oil your hands a little to make rolling easier.)
  • Add enough oil to a large, non-stick skillet to cover the bottom of the pan by about ¼”. Heat the oil over medium heat until bubbles form around a wooden spoon inserted in the oil. If the meatballs are placed in the pan before the oil is hot enough, they will absorb too much oil and become soggy.
    Olive or other oil as needed for frying
  • Gently transfer the eggplant balls to the hot oil and brown on multiple sides. (The mixture is soft, so you'll need to handle it carefully.) Then, transfer them to a paper towel-lined plate to absorb some oil and cool. You will likely need to add additional oil to the pan during the frying process.
  • Serve the meatballs immediately plain or tossed with some heated tomato sauce and topped with some grated pecorino cheese. You can also add the meatballs to a pot of sauce and serve them with pasta. Buon Appetito!
    Tomato sauce,

Notes

  • This recipe makes about 16 eggplant meatballs that are portioned with a ¼ measuring cup (about 3-ounce uncooked weight each).
  • I prefer to roast the eggplant whole until soft, then scoop out the pulp because it is the easiest and least messy way to do so. But, there are other ways that you can achieve the same result, such as peeling, cubing and roasting large pieces of eggplant, or blanching large pieces of peeled eggplant in boiling water. Whichever you decide to do, be sure that you have strained and “pulpy” eggplant as the starting point for the eggplant meatball mixture.
  • If you are sensitive to eggplant seeds, remove those as best as possible after cooking the eggplant. They don’t bother most people, but some (older) eggplants have more (and larger) seeds than others, and they often do not break down. The round and smaller eggplant varieties have fewer seeds.
  • Use either a pure or virgin olive oil or a neutral oil with a high smoke point, such as avocado oil, for the pan-frying. You can certainly use extra-virgin olive oil for the frying, but it is not necessary.
  • If you prefer to bake the meatballs, do the following: Arrange the eggplant balls on a parchment-lined sheet pan about ½” apart from each other. Roast in a 375°F oven for approximately 30-35 minutes, or until firm and lightly browned on all sides.  Turn the sheet pan once during the cooking process to allow eggplant balls to brown more evenly. (Tip: If you’d like a browner meatball, lightly spray the tops of the raw meatballs with oil before placing the sheet pan in the oven.)
  • Don’t leave the meatballs in heated sauce for too long. The longer they sit in the sauce, the more sauce they will absorb and softer they will become.
  • To store, cool meatballs completely, then refrigerate them in an airtight container for up to 5 days or freeze them in an airtight freezer container or bag (with or without sauce) for up to 3 months. The meatballs do not need to be completely thawed before reheating.
 
Recipe by Mangia With Michele. Please visit my site for more great cooking inspiration!
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8 thoughts on “Polpette di Melanzane ~ Eggplant Meatballs without Meat

  1. 5 stars
    These eggplant meatballs were easy and delicious! I must reveal that I LOVE eggplant, so trying this recipe was a must. I was not disappointed and need to make them again soon❤️

    1. So happy that you loved this Eggplant Meatball recipe, Barbara! Thanks for your comment. 🙂

  2. 5 stars
    Delicious!! Only slight change…used plain panko (that’s what I had on hand) and 3 xtra large eggs.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Susan! And so perfect that you adjusted the recipe to your ingredients and taste.

  3. 5 stars
    Another great easy recipe. I did follow instructions for baking. I sprinkled a little breadcrumbs on top before using the cooking spray and they came out perfectly crispy on top. Also topped with dollop of Pesto. Really good recipe.

    1. So happy that you tried and loved the recipe, Lori! The pesto addition and baking option sound great! 🙂

  4. 5 stars
    This is a great recipe! Very clear instructions and so delicious!

    1. Thanks so much for the feedback, Gina! So happy that you enjoyed the recipe.

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