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"Who is for meat-free meatballs?" asks Rach, before quickly answering: "I am!" As satisfying as classic meatballs are, these dumplings/balls—made of ricotta and bread—are a crowd-pleasing vegetarian alternative. They're also a good example of cucina povera (poor peoples' kitchen), a budget-friendly twist on meatballs in Southern Italy. Rach cooks them in a simple tomato sauce and serves them alongside short-cut pasta tossed with the extra sauce. (Don't try to toss the dumplings with the pasta—they are too delicate; gently transfer them to a platter instead.) "Even if you're the biggest meat eater in the world," she says, "this is like comfort food central—seriously!"
For meatballs WITH meat, check out Rach's Baby Greek Meatballs and Rice Pilaf with Feta and Spinach and Juicy Meatballs.
For the dumplings, combine the ingredients in a bowl and roll into 2-inch balls.
Bring water to boil for pasta.
For the sauce, heat the olive oil in large wide skillet over medium-low heat and add the cherry tomatoes. Salt the tomatoes, cover and let the tomatoes break down a bit and slump. Add garlic, basil, red pepper (if using) and passata, bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer.
Add the ricotta dumplings, cover and let them simmer 5 minutes. Gently turn them and cook 8 to 10 minutes more, then transfer to a shallow serving dish.
While dumplings cook, salt the pasta water and undercook pasta by 1 minute from package directions. Reserve a little starchy cooking water (half a cup), toss the pasta with butter and cheese and the water, then marry the pasta with some of the remaining sauce in the skillet.
Serve the pasta topped with extra basil and pass extra cheese and sauce.