Fried tuna polpette, a favourite pantry meal

Whenever I make polpette, I have this image in my head of tiny Nonna Lina, Marco’s grandmother, standing by the stove, frying, creating an enormous pyramid of these polpette, only to have people pop in and out of the kitchen, stealing the one on the top, too hot to even hold let alone stick in your mouth. “Polpette” is also the name for meatballs but it can really refer to any roundish fried thing, regardless of whether or not they have meat in them. These particular polpette are more like croquettes, where mashed potato gives them body and you can add whatever protein you like — tuna is my favourite storecupboard staple.

Usually this is an excellent vehicle for recycling leftover meat, roast meat in particular, but also ham, perhaps with odd ends of cheese. This polpette recipe is itself a variation of the “polpette di lesso” from my latest cookbook, Tortellini at Midnight, which is a classic Tuscan recipe. It used to be common to make meat broth (in my in law’s home brodo was a daily preparation!) and the boiled meat leftover was aplenty so it was refashioned in different ways, namely these fried treats and also in a hearty onion stew that Florentines call Francesina.

I’ve been putting this version with a tin of tuna, in the regular rotation of meals lately, the whole family loves them (which you may have been following has been a battle for a while) and it’s been a very handy pantry meal to have on hand — potatoes, a tin of tuna (mackerel is also great), breadcrumbs, a garlic clove and you’re more than halfway there. I bind the mixture with an egg and a handful of parmesan cheese too. It doesn’t need much else but if you have it, parsley or some other fresh herbs like oregano or thyme, is nice in here. My girls like it with a squeeze of lemon and mayonnaise to dip them in, but they are also delicious as they are or with a dollop of zingy salsa verde.

Other variations: Vegetarians can easily do these polpette without the tuna (you’ll only need 1 egg), but you should also try this version with cannellini beans too, it’s absolutely delicious and is inspired by historian and well-connected British expat Janet Ross’ century old cookbook, Leaves from our Tuscan Kitchen (1899). If you don’t know it yet, it is a wonderful book of vegetable recipes. She lived in Poggio Gherardo which is a beautiful villa (now a monastery), part of the skyline of my neighbourhood of Settignano.

And when you have leftover polpette (incredibly, it happens), they happen to be delicious cold and are ideal to put in a lunch box or take on a picnic, but Tuscans often prepare them “rifatte”, which is where they are warmed in a tomato sauce — and it is perhaps even more delicious. With each reinvention, they just seem to get better.

Polpette di tonno
Fried tuna polpette

This makes about 20, which you could serve as part of an antipasto or aperitivo for a gathering or as a meal, with salad, for 4.

2 medium potatoes
250 grams tinned tuna
salt and pepper
1-2 eggs, beaten
40 grams of parmesan, finely grated
1 clove of garlic, finely chopped
handful of flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
80 grams breadcrumbs
vegetable oil for frying

Peel and roughly chop the potatoes. Place in a saucepan of cold water and bring the the boil over medium heat. Cook until fork-tender, then drain and mash with a generous pinch of salt. Set aside to cool (refrigerate if not using right away).

Drain the tuna and place in a bowl along with the mashed potato, egg (I use 1-2 depending on the consistency of the mixture or what I have on hand), parmesan and herbs and combine well, adding a pinch of salt taken with three fingers and some freshly ground pepper. Taking about 2 tablespoons of mixture at a time, form cylinders and place on a plate until you have used all the mixture.

Place the breadcrumbs in a shallow dish and roll each polpetta to coat completely. Set aside. Pour enough vegetable oil in a wide pan (cast iron is ideal for frying, if you have it) to about 3cm and heat over medium-high heat. To test when oil is ready, a cube of bread should turn golden brown in about 15 seconds – less and it is too hot, more and it’s not hot enough – adjust heat accordingly. Fry the meatballs in a single layer for about 3 minutes on each side or until deep brown. Drain on paper towels and salt while still hot. Serve immediately.


Sign up here for news and information on the latest workshops, classes and events


  1. marcella says:

    Hi Emiko, just one question – tuna is weighed drained or not?

  2. Phoebe says:

    Hi Emiko,

    I’m enjoying your recipes so much right now – we are in Melbourne entering a hard lockdown so they are keeping me joyful as I try to get through the week with homeschooling and another little one! I’d love to make these with the kids – you mention they are good to dip in mayonnaise, do you make your own or use a good store bought one?

    Many thanks,

Leave A Comment