Ngozzamoddi: The Sonnino family’s meat balls in celery & tomato sauce

Who are we?

Micaela Pavoncello- Sonnino

Born in 1976 in Rome, Micaela is an Art historian and tour guide specializing in tours of the Italian capital “through Jewish eyes” ( As the daughter of a Tripolitan mother who immigrated to ‘The land of the boot’ in her youth and a father born in Rome and whose family history dates back to the imperial days, Micaela grew up eating both gnocchi and Nokides. She now makes sure to give both food cultures a seat of honor in her kitchen, to keep the traditions alive as well as maintain the peace.

Angelo Sonnino

Born in 1981 in Rome, Angelo works as a real estate broker. He is a member of an old Jewish family that most likely arrived in Italy from Portugal. His parents had a bedding store in the ghetto and so Angelo spent his childhood playing football with his friends among Rome’s ancient ruins. Having grown up eating the great Italian cuisine’s delicacies, Angelo is very much a conservative and prefers to eat only what he already knows and loves. He is especially fond of Stracotto, a beef stew in tomato sauce. “Last Sukkot we stayed with my Tripolitan relatives, and at Angelo’s request I made sure to make a double serving of the Roman fish soup I took to the event just so he would have something to eat there,” says Micaela with a smile. “We even canceled our honeymoon in Japan for fear he would have nothing to eat”.

Their children:

Gabriel, 9 years old, is a 4th grader at the ‘Angelo Sacerdoti Jewish School’ in Rome and excels in football. His mother Micaela is very proud of him. “Gabriel is especially fond of Carciofi alla Giudia” she says with sparkling eyes. “The deep- fried artichoke dish is perhaps the most famous Jewish-Roman dish. This is a great honor for me.” Recently, Gabriel has also agreed to try even more dishes and he even tries to persuade his little brothers to do the same: “If you eat, I’ll give you 5 euros”, he tells them craftily.

Nathan, 7 years old, also attends the Jewish school. He is in the 2nd grade and, similarly to his brother, a football champion. Much like his father, Nathan is very picky regarding the food on his plate. He’s happy with a hamburger patty “with nothing on” and prefers his mother’s spaghetti without the tomato sauce. As this is not an option, he resigns to eating the noodles in the sauce as long as it is “smooth and without any chunks”.

Isaac, 5 years old, will join his brothers in school next year as a 1st grader. Isaac, who is also amazing at football, eats everything, his mother attests. “He is curious and ready to taste everything,” especially Tortino di Alici, an anchovy pastry made at his kindergarten by the local Jewish community’s nonnas. Another dish he never misses an opportunity to eat is Torselli, endive baked in olive oil. The curly, crisp leaves evoke his imagination and he already knows that he must chew on then carefully so as not to choke, God forbid.

Where was the photo taken?

The Sonnino family’s kitchen is the heart of their home. They have always kept kosher, and they are passing this tradition to their three boys. Ever since Micaela and Angelo got married back in 2009, they have been hosting the extended family’s holiday dinners in their home, in the Monteverde neighborhood of central Rome. This neighborhood is home to many Jewish families who moved there after the ghetto was evacuated. “Last Rosh Hashanah, each of the Nonnas brought a dish from her kitchen: my mother cooked Chraime, a North African spicy fish stew, and Angelo’s mother made, among other things, abbacchio al forno, lamb in the oven, which features on our table every holiday. To add an element of surprise, I actually made Tahdig, Persian rice”.

Our family kitchen

“My husband is slightly annoying in that he is only willing to eat only what I cook that same day,” Micaela laughs as she proudly presents her pantry laden with all kinds of goodies – especially pasta and olive oil, as befitting an Italian household. “When my husband wakes up in the morning, he immediately asks me “what are we having for lunch?” And as soon as he finishes eating lunch he immediately asks “what are we having for dinner?” I make Stracotto, a beef stew in tomato sauce, on a weekly basis but a few days ago I did not have time to cook and so I asked the nanny to prepare it for us without telling Angelo. I try to use oil sparingly, but when making this dish you should in fact add oil generously, just as the nanny did. Angelo, who did not know that I was not the one who cooked it this time, showered me with compliments and said that it was the most delicious Stracotto I have ever made… “

Our house recipe: Ngozzamoddimeat balls in celery & tomato sauce

“When I began cooking, many years ago, I prepared Ngozzamoddi for Shabbat” tells Micaela. “My father tasted the meatballs in celery & tomato sauce and exclaimed: ‘It’s just like Nona’s (grandma in Italian)!’. I was so proud and happy. Ever since then I serve this dish every week. I remember that Grandma used a piece of cloth that she would spread on her palms to shape the patties. ” Micaela explains that the dish origins are in Jewish-Roman cuisine. “In the past, when there was not enough money to buy meat, ground bones were used as a substitute, giving the dish its special taste and its name, which is similar to the word in Hebrew for ‘bones’.”

Ingredients (Serves 3-4)

For the meatballs:

300 grams/ 10.5 ounces ground chicken

300 grams/ 10.5 ounces ground veal

100 grams/ 3.5 ounces of bread (stale or old bread is ok)

1 egg

1 tsp Breadcrumbs

a pinch of cinnamon

Salt, to taste

ground black pepper, to taste

for the sauce:

½ cup of olive oil

2 celery stalks, peeled and cut to long thin strips

1 bottle (700ml) tomato passata or crushed whole tomatoes

  1. Prepare the meatballs: Soak the bread in water, then squeeze as much liquid out as possible.
  2. In a large bowl, place ground meats, bread, egg, breadcrumbs, cinnamon, salt and pepper and mix well. Form the meat into 6 meatballs and place on a baking sheet.
  3. Prepare the tomato sauce: place the olive oil, celery, and tomato sauce in a large pot and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and cook for about 20 minutes until the sauce is reduced.
  4. Carefully place your meatballs in the sauce, cover and cook for 30-40 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary.

(Edited by Ofer Vardi, photography by Micol Piazza Sed)