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They modelled their restaurants on small, out-of-the-way trattorias in Italy where the meals are hearty, the prices reasonable and the proprietors have big personalities.

“We are both French, but we both have had an incredible passion for Italy since we were very young,” explains Victor Lugger, who started the Big Mamma Group of restaurants with business partner Tigrane Seydoux in 2015. “Our goal from the beginning was to recreate places that are full of the spontaneous warmth and generosity that Italian eateries are famous for.”

The duo have hit on a winning formula. To date, they have 10 restaurants (eight in Paris, two in London) and a staff of 850 (all of whom are Italian and passionate about serving traditional dishes with adventurous twists).

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“This book is an ode to the crazy young team we have [the average age is 24] who turn every dish, dessert and cocktail into an incredible journey,” says Lugger of their new cookbook, Big Mamma Cucina Popolare. It includes 130 recipes inspired by its chefs who contributed dishes such as Snoop Dogg Pasta, Egg Sheeran and Eat Me Baba One More Time, silly names that reinforce the company motto to embrace food – and life – joyfully.

“Since Day 1 we’ve had a lot of fun creating our restaurants,” says Lugger, who lives in Paris. “We have the chance to offer people the best part of their day, and we really believe this comes from every little detail, such as having a laugh while reading the menu. We believe that if the quality is there, then a dish can have any name, even the most ridiculous one."

Polpette Dello Chef – Meatballs With Aubergine (Eggplant) and Polenta

Ingredients (Serves 4)

For the polenta
  • Salt and pepper
  • 3⅔ cups polenta (regular medium or coarse cornmeal)
  • 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 6 tbsp butter
For the meatballs
  • Slice of farmhouse (country-style) bread, crust removed, torn into pieces
  • Scant ½ cup milk
  • 1 lb minced (ground) beef
  • 1 lb 9 oz sausage meat
  • 1 tsp fine salt
  • 2 pinches of black pepper
  • 2 parsley sprigs, finely chopped
  • Generous ½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1 egg yolk, beaten
  • 1¾ cups plain (all-purpose) flour
  • 4¼ cups sunflower oil
  • 2 aubergines (eggplants), cut into 2-cm/¾-inch dice
  • 8 basil leaves, to garnish
  • 4¼ cups passata (tomato puree)
  • Salt and pepper

Prepare the polenta (cornmeal porridge): 4¼ cups of water into a pan, add salt and pepper and bring to the boil. Pour in the polenta and cook for 20 minutes to 40 minutes, depending on the package directions, stirring regularly with a whisk. If the polenta is getting too dry toward the end of cooking, add a little more water. When the polenta is creamy, remove it from the heat. Stir in the Parmesan and butter and leave to stand for 5 minutes. Mix with a whisk and set aside.

Make the meatballs. In a bowl, soak the bread in the milk for 5 minutes. Meanwhile, in a large bowl, combine the minced (ground) beef, sausage meat, salt, pepper, parsley, Parmesan and egg yolk. Add the bread. Using your hands, form the mixture into balls 2 inches in diameter. Set aside.

In a deep fryer or large heavy-based pan, heat the sunflower oil to 325 F, or until small bubbles form on the surface. Spread the flour out in a dish and roll the diced aubergines (eggplants) in it. Fry them in the hot oil for 3 minutes, then remove and drain on paper towels. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.

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Roll each meatball in the flour. Fry the meatballs in the same hot oil for 5 minutes, then remove and drain on paper towels. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.

Fry the basil leaves in the same hot oil for 1 minute. Drain and set aside.

In a pan, heat the tomato sauce, meatballs and half of the diced aubergines for 5 minutes, over a low heat.

Serve the polenta in dishes, adding some meatballs and tomato sauce. Top with the remaining diced aubergines and the basil leaves.

Adapted from Big Mamma Cucina Popolare by Big Mamma (Phaidon, $59.95, Jan. 6, 2020)

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