Getting in Touch With My Roots at Brooklyn's Meatball Slapdown

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[Photos: Joe DiStefano]

Even though the majority of my time and energy is spent seeking out obscure dumpling stalls, taquerias, and pupuserias in obscure corners of our fair city, every now and then I feel the need to reconnect with the red sauce Italian food of my youth. Friday night's Meatball Slapdown at The Meat Hook provided such an opportunity to do so while watching five of Brooklyn's top restaurants compete all to raise money for a good cause, Brooklyn Grange, a rooftop farm from the fine folks at Roberta's in Bushwick.

A hungry crowd of hipstervores and meatball enthusiasts packed into The Meat Hook's back room, as cooking pasta (or macaroni as we called it growing up) and bubbling tomato sauce perfumed the air. It felt like a cross between an Italian-American aromatherapy session, a cookoff, and a rave (thanks to music from Finger on the Pulse).

Judging the orbs of meaty goodness was an esteemed panel: Gina DePalma, SE contributor and Babbo's pastry chef; hamburger maker to the stars Pat LaFrieda; Jessica Amason of This Is Why You're Fat fame; Josh Ozersky; Valentina Angeloni, an Italian photographer; and "self-admitted meat whore" Eric Sherman from D'Artagnan.

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The first meatball in the lineup was Bamonte's. New York City's oldest Italian restaurant is practically around the corner from The Meat Hook. It also happens to be next door to where my father was born. The blend of veal, pork, beef, garlic, parsley, and Pecorino Romano was my second favorite of the evening. "It's a 110-year-old recipe from my great grandparents, traditional Neapolitan," Nicole Bamonte said as she ladled out two meatballs. The recipe might be Neapolitan, but this super old-school specimen was closest in taste to the ones my Sicilian father used to make.

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Next up was Tom Mylan and Brent Young of The Meat Hook. Their blend of pork, beef, lamb, parsley, bread crumbs, and Parmigiano-Regianno was pretty traditional, save for one ingredient—a chunk of house-cured guanciale in the center. The burst of fat ensured a juicy meatball, but made it taste a little like salami. Before the judging, Ozersky spoke of his "longstanding prejudice towards sponginess and overemulsification, also greasiness." So it came as no surprise that this was the meat maven's favorite.

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Angelo Romano, whose father hails from Piemonte, was the man behind Roberta's meatball: a mix of pork shoulder, dry aged beef, rendered guanciale, farm eggs from Lancaster, Pecorino Romano, parmesan, speck, and prosciutto. It was tasty, but overseasoned.

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"It's just a traditional Italian meatball in a ragu," said Roebling Tea Room's Dennis Spina. Sure it is, Dennis, but we never shaved black truffle over meatballs and gravy in our house. Too chunky and too fancy-pants for a meatball, yet delicious.

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"We just made some meatballs. We're gonna serve them, and see what happens," Frank Falcinelli, one of the Franks behind Frankie's Spuntino, said as his more hirsute partner, Frank Castronovo, anointed them with tomato sauce. "It's a straight blend, all beef. We're not gonna give away the recipe. Our cookbook is coming out in June, you can get the recipe then," Falcinelli said. "We pretty much have built our reputation on making f*cking meatballs," Castronovo said. The recipe comes from their friend, Tony Durazzo, who (like the Franks) hails from Red Hook, and resembles an Italian Tommy Chong.

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Frankie's meatballs were so good I couldn't stop eating them, and even went back for seconds. Luckily I had enough self-control to take the above shot—note the pignoli nut. Pignoli nuts and raisins are traditional ingredients in Southern Italian cuisine, but I've never had them in a meatball before. It's easy to see how the restaurant's reputation was built on these superb specimens.

Before the judging Ozersky weighed in on the meatgeist—"Meatballs are the function of scarcity, so by definition they're made by people that value and revere meat, that want to use as much of it as they can or as little as they can and make it as great as they can, with all their arts and all their love—and that happened here with every single meatball maker. Every one of these was an honor to eat. Everyone of them was a tribute to the precious flesh of edible animals."

While Ozersky's impassioned speech rang true, there can only be one winner. And that winner—by popular and judges vote—was Frankie's Spuntino.

"Now I know how Gretsky felt," Castronovo said as he held his trophy aloft. "I hope we raised a lot of money for the rooftop farm tonight," Castronovo said. You did, Frank, to the tune of $5,000.

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