The Meatball. A Meditation.

The Meatball. A Meditation.The meatball is hot.

The word “meatball” appeared in a front-page headline of the New York Times recently; it’s in the title of a Hollywood movie that opens this week, “Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs”; a first annual Meatball Madness competition will take place in October at the New York City Wine and Food Festival; a meatball restaurant called the Meatball Shop is soon to open on the Lower East Side; even Italians are having meatballs without spaghetti: In Lidia Bastianich’s new cookbook, the one meatball recipe is for “Meatballs in Broth” (Polpette in Umido). And suddenly all these fancy restaurants are touting their meatballs.

This was why we were sitting at the bar at Locanda Verde, eating an order of “lamb meatball sliders with caprino and cucumber” –two meatballs for $12, though they did come with tiny buns, (which is what, I learned, “slider” means.)

The Meatball. A Meditation.“If they have tiny buns, why aren’t they called hamburgers?” I asked.

“Because they’re meatballs,” Diane said.

We were on a meatball crawl. This was Mark’s idea — “it’s like a pub crawl” — but Diane picked the places. They were all fancy, the kind you read about in the food magazines.

“Aren’t there any good meatballs in regular places?” I asked.

“Just about every pizza joint can give you a meatball sub or platter,” Mark said.
“But the really interesting good-quality meatballs we’ve had just happened to be on the menus of fancy places.”

“I think you just have expensive tastes,” I said.

“No,” Mark said, “that’s just the way it is. If there was a gourmet fastfood meatball, we would have polpetterias alongside pizzerias. There is no reason why there aren’t; it just never caught on.”

Meatballs certainly seem to be catching on now, though some of the attention strikes me as manufactured, in part because of the new movie.

“Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs” has a somewhat misleading title. Meatballs actually play a lesser role than sardines, and hamburgers, and roast chicken, but the title would not have worked as well if it were “Cloudy With A Chance of Roast Chicken” and besides, the title is from a beloved 1978 children’s book written by Judi Barrett and illustrated by Ron Barrett (a vegetarian!) that has sold millions of copies. It is a simple story of 30 pages, most of them filled with illustrations: Grandpa tells a tall tale about a small town called Chewandswallow. “The only thing really different about Chewandswallow was its weather. It came three times a day, at breakfast, lunch and dinner…it never rained rain….It rained things like soup and juice.”

The animated film, with the voices of James Caan and Andy Samberg and Mr. T, jazzes up the plot, adding a technological explanation for the food-weather, a father-son subplot, a romance, scenes of Times Square and Paris, special effects; and changes the locale to a small island that is known only for its sardines. A young man who has always gotten in trouble for his inventions (spray-on shoes, rats that fly) devises a machine that makes the weather produce fully cooked meals. This is welcomed by the mayor as a possible boon to tourism. It quickly and rather spectacularly gets out of hand. Meatballs do figure prominently in a pivotal scene, but they are paired with spaghetti.

Still, it was the film that led to the front-page headline in The New York Times: Seeking The World’s Biggest Meatball? Try Mexico The article was about the Mexican effort to get many entries in the Guinness Book of World Records, but the meatball in question, 109 pounds prepared by the Ritz Carlton in Cancun, was a direct promotional event for the new movie. The new record easily bested the previously ” modest 72-pound, 9-ounce meatball,” the Times reporter wrote; “the giant mass of beef was served to onlookers.”

The Meatball. A Meditation.

The executive chef of the Ritz Carlton hotel in Cancun, Rainer Zingrebe, stands by his Guinness World record-breaking 109 pound (49.5 kg.) meat ball in Cancun, Mexico, Thursday, Aug. 4, 2009.

This brings up an ontological enigma, or anyway a question: Does a meatball retain its essential meatballness when it’s so big? At 109 pounds, it could just as easily be a hamburger…or a cooked cow.
A far more credible meatball entry in the Guinness book was set several months earlier, when the town of Serres, Greece served up some 688 pounds of regular-sized meatballs, thousands of them, all of them buffalo meat, cooked up with 110 pounds of onions.

The Meatball. A Meditation.

The town of Serres, Greece served up just over 688 lbs. of meatballs, made from buffalo meat, cooked with with 110 lbs of onions, on May 24, 2009.

With so many meatballs in the news, it made sense to me to try a second recipe from “Lidia Cooks From The Heart of Italy.” The meatball recipe was from Umbria, “the heart of Italy,” and had a lot of ingredients for a meatball that were not meat — eggs, golden raisins, pine nuts, bread crumbs, cheese, flour if you fried them, and the “zest of 1 medium orange.” I had no idea there were so many things in a meatball.
The Meatball. A Meditation.

Unlike my previous, overly extended hunt for ingredients, this time, I only needed to go to three stores, the supermarket, Ottamanelli’s for the meat, and Faicco’s for the cheese.

The Meatball. A Meditation.Cooking came more easily to me than for the first recipe; I don’t know if this recipe was simpler or I was simply more adept (or had already bought, for example, the parchment and the kosher salt). I mixed the veal and beef (the recipe called for pork, but I can’t knowingly eat pork, much less cook it), poured all the other stuff on top, folded and tossed and squeezed (as instructed) and made it all into 1-inch balls (“the size of a large grape”), fried some, poached others, then heated up the chicken broth and stuck the meatballs in them. I grated some of the Parmigiano-Reggiano and put it in a bowl “for sprinkling over the top” of the soup.

This time I decided to try them out on somebody else, my mother.

She ate the soup in silence. “I would have used less zest,” my mother said finally.

I tried it. My meatballs tasted like orange peel!

(Later, I went back to the recipe and read what I had skipped over before — “about 2 teaspoons” of zest was needed; I hadn’t measured it).

“You should try Grandma’s recipe for meatballs,” my mother was suddenly saying.

“Grandma’s? I thought you said she hated to cook.”

“She had one recipe she liked, and it was delicious. It was meatballs with fricassee. Let’s see what Mimi has to say about it.”


“Mimi Sheraton.”

My family, secret foodies, at least when it came to meatballs?

I put aside my own cooking career for the moment to see how the pros did it, agreeing to the meatball crawl with Mark and Diane. In five hours, we went to five places. Oddly, the meatballs looked much different than the restaurants in which they were served, which all seemed to have red awnings, dark brown wood furnishings and doors open wide to reveal an interior where everything seemed to gleam and glow.

The Meatball. A Meditation.At Locanda Verde in Tribeca, whose chef, Andrew Carmellini, Diane has admired since he presided over A Voce, she pronounced the lamb meatball slider “soft and very flavorful”, and told a story about her grandmother that revealed how meatballs differ from hamburgers (or at least how she thinks they do.) “My grandmother didn’t get the concept of a hamburger. They were really just flat meatballs. She’d put together three meats — pork, veal and beef — with parsley and garlic.”

The Meatball. A Meditation.Our next stop was Perilla in the Village, best-known as the restaurant opened by Harold Dieterle, the winner of Top Chef. The meatball appetizer here was spicy duck meatballs with mint cavatelli, water spinach and quail egg. There were four meat balls for $13, a lower per-meatball rate. When the meatballs arrived at the bar, the bartender told us to mix in the egg. She was even willing to share some of the ingredients — chili and pecorino. To my taste buds, these meatballs turned out to be the best of the evening. Diane thought them a tie with the ones at Locanda Verde.

The Meatball. A Meditation.We agreed that the polpettine fritte (fried little meatballs) at Bellavitae, though the best deal — nine of them for $8 — were the worst-tasting of the evening, dry bread-balls. Diane, who has been to the restaurant before and found the food good, thought that it was just that she did not care for this type of meatball. I suspect she was being generous.

The Meatball. A Meditation.Bar Stuzzichini on the East Side had a couple of meatball selections on the menu, beef meatballs in tomato sauce, four for $7, and then an entree of veal meatballs. Diane insisted we should only have the appetizer. We were going to eat the meatball entree a block away at Craftbar.

“It has that traditional meatball flavor, a bit hard,” she said of Stuzzichini’s appetizer.

Most striking to me was that the menu offered three different spaghetti dishes — spaghetti with shrimp, even spaghetti with mullet roe — but not spaghetti with meatballs.

By the time we got to Craftbar, I was feeling a bit too full of meatballs…and feeling like a meatball for going along with this, especially when, to my shock, Mark ordered the hanger steak.

“We’re on a meatball crawl,” I cried.

“I’ll taste the meatballs that you order,” he replied.

“This was your idea!”

“I didn’t say it was a good one,” he said.

The Meatball. A Meditation.So Diane and I split the veal ricotta meatballs, three for $21, “but they’re huge,” Diane said, and they’re kind of the Ur-meatballs to Diane. They’ve been around for years and years, and Craftbar is owned by Tom Colicchio, the top judge at Top Chef. As she explained all this, I wondered what it would be like never to have to eat another meatball.

At the end of the evening, while walking down Broadway and trying to walk off the meatballs, I remarked that I found it surprising that none of these restaurants offered their meatballs with spaghetti. Diane acted baffled, saying something like “Why do you say that? Spaghetti doesn’t go with meatballs.”

“What are you talking about? Spaghetti and meatballs are traditional. What is served in your father’s restaurant?”

“He serves spaghetti,” she replied, creating a column in front of her with her hands. “And he serves meatballs,” she continued, moving the column up and over to her right; two separate columns, two separate meals.

“Have I entered a parallel universe? I could ask the first person who comes along and they’ll say spaghetti goes with meatballs.” I had had some wine with all those meatballs, so I indeed asked the first person who came along.

“Excuse me, sir, we’re having a debate, what do meatballs usually go with?”

The man looked at me quizzically. “Salad?”

I asked the second person who came along.

“Spaghetti,” the kid answered, and put his Ipod earplugs back in. I looked triumphantly at Diane.

“Ask it the other way around next time,” Diane said.

We met a man in front of Barnes and Noble and after the preliminaries, I asked him what usually went with spaghetti.

Without a moment’s hesitation, he answered, while his fingers moved to his lips as if he were kissing them, “Pomodoro, basil and parmesan.”


The Meatball In Art

One Meatball – Josh White

A little man walked up and down,
He found an eating place in town,
He read the menu through and through,
To see what fifteen cents could do.

One meatball, one meatball,
He could afford but one meatball.

He told the waiter near at hand,
The simple dinner he had planned.
The guests were startled, one and all,
To hear that waiter loudly call, “What,

“One meatball, one meatball?
Hey, this here gent wants one meatball.”

The little man felt ill at ease,
Said, “Some bread, sir, if you please.”
The waiter hollered down the hall,
“You gets no bread with one meatball.

“One meatball, one meatball,
Well, you gets no bread with one meatball.”

The little man felt very bad,
One meatball was all he had,
And in his dreams he hears that call,
“You gets no bread with one meatball.

“One meatball, one meatball,
Well, you gets no bread with one meatball.”


On Top of Spaghetti
On top of spaghetti,
All covered with cheese,
I lost my poor meatball,
When somebody sneezed.

It rolled off the table,
And on to the floor,
And then my poor meatball,
Rolled out of the door.

It rolled in the garden,
And under a bush,
And then my poor meatball,
Was nothing but mush.

The mush was as tasty
As tasty could be,
And then the next summer,
It grew into a tree.

The tree was all covered,
All covered with moss,
And on it grew meatballs,
And tomato sauce.

So if you eat spaghetti,
All covered with cheese,
Hold on to your meatball,
Whenever you sneeze.

The Meatball. A Meditation.

Jonathan Mandell, who tweets as New York Theater, is a native New Yorker and third-generation journalist with diverse experience on newspapers, magazines and websites.He has written for a wide varie more


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