At Meatball Madness, part of the Food Network's New York Wine & Food Festival, the name of the game was secret ingredients. There may have been only meatballs served at Thursday night's event, but with such a dish, there are no limitations. What's in a meatball, anyway? The name itself surely doesn't lend any clarification.
Ingredients ranged from truffles to oatmeal, with fennel, garlic, and parmesan being three of the most popular. The meatball at Carmine's was wonderfully gamey from a veal reduction, while Mezzetta's ball had a delicate sweetness from crumbled pistachio. Few chefs strayed from the straight and narrow path of tomato sauce, although Felidia's "naked" ravioli meatball got treatment from a foam canister, and Tarallucci e Vino's squab meatballs were decorated with dried spaghetti that curved off the plate like bent antennae.
At the Porterhouse New York table, chef Michael Lomonaco was hawking his wares like a vendor in a streetfair. "This is the meatball you want to try," he called out to passersby, waving his Sicilian meatballs with pine nuts and raisins. "Step right up, they don't bounce!"
I pushed my way through the crowd towards the pepperoni-inspired meatballs of Giada De Laurentiis from the Food Network.
"What's the weirdest thing you've ever put in a meatball?" I asked, fending off a photographer who seemed very keen on getting a shot of her biting into some Godiva truffles.
"The weirdest? I'd have to say chocolate chips. No—a sprinkle of crushed cookies!"
As the night wound to a close, Mia Dona was announced the winner of the popular vote. Chef Donatella Arpaia claimed her award like a true rock star—her meatballs were as spicy as the bright red suit and mini-skirt she was wearing. When asked about her recipe, she shouted out, "It's my mom's recipe. I'm not telling anyone!"
I had a glass of wine with the guys at Rocca delle Macie before braving the long subway home. "I don't really get it," said Antionio Penello, "I mean, I know meatballs. I'm Italian from Brooklyn."
"He's practically a meatball himself," his friend chimed in.
Penello continued, "We don't go out to eat meatballs. Nothing beats what our grandmas make. To make us actually buy a meatball? Well, that's something big."
Perhaps the beauty of a real good meatball is in its mystery. Ignorance is bliss, and meatballs are better eaten, not dissected.