This is a first for me: I’m going to start this column with a recipe, because it’s important that you get where I’m coming from, at least in regards to meatballs. I ate these once a week or so growing up, and this is the recipe I still follow when I make them at home. I can’t claim that they’re authentically Italian (I seriously doubt anyone on my family tree has ever even visited Italy) or that they’re the best in the world, but they’re the meatball that I hold every other meatball in comparison to. So, the main question I’m asking this month is, “Are these meatballs any better than the ones I personally make?” If they’re not, then they fail; if they are, then they pass. Without further adieu, here’s my dad’s recipe for meatballs:
BIG MIKE’S MEATBALLS
1 lb. ground beef
½ lb. ground veal
½ lb. ground pork (I like crumbled up Italian sausage)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup Parmesan cheese, shredded
2 tbsp. parsley, chopped
1 tsp. oregano (dried) Pinch of salt
Pinch of pepper
1½ cups French bread breadcrumbs (I’ve discovered that substituting half of the regular breadcrumbs with breadcrumbs made from Caesar croutons does something magical for these guys)
½ cup water (approx.)
Olive oil ( just enough to drizzle on top)
Preheat oven to 400°. Combine meat in a bowl with garlic, eggs, cheese, parsley, oregano, salt, and pepper. Add bread crumbs and water a little at a time to this meat mixture. Form into golf-ball-sized balls, drizzle with just a little bit of olive oil, and cook on baking sheet for 30 minutes.
Venezia (134 N. Carrollton Ave.)
Venezia is one of those old school New Orleans restaurants: it’s dark, it has some generic prints on the wall, and a fun mid-century neon sign out front. I bet this place looks pretty much the same as it did when it opened in 1957. Even if you’ve never been inside, you could probably guess what it looks like. And to that I say yay! That’s my favorite type of restaurant, y’all: an ideal place to start on my quest for the best meatball and red sauce in town. Venezia’s meatball is excellent; it’s hefty without being dry, and it is perfectly seasoned. None of the spices overwhelmed my delicate palate, yet it wasn’t bland. The sauce was a little thin but had a kick of something that I couldn’t quite place. I did a bit of research and it turns out that they use anchovy paste—delicious! I should note that my dining companion ordered the spaghetti and Italian sausage, and while the sausage was a touch too fennel- heavy for my taste, she loved it. My waiter gave me this tip, so I’m passing it along to you: order off menu and request a spaghetti combo where you get both meatballs and sausage. How exciting, right? Also, next time I go, I’m trying the Eggplant Vatican—how can I not get something with that name? PASS!
Wood (404 Andrew Higgins)
I try not to think too much about price when I’m going into these things, because I’m not generally a cheap person, and I understand that food costs money. I say all this because even I was a bit taken aback that Wood charges $10 for an appetizer that consists of two very small meatballs floating in literally a tablespoon of red sauce, especially since Wood is pretty reasonable otherwise. Still, I’m willing to pay $10 for two meatballs if said meatballs are off the chain amazing (or at least huge—see Vincent’s below). These were nothing special. They tasted like smushed up meat and not much else, and the red sauce they came with was remarkably bland and boring. Also, they need a better exhaust system because my hair and clothes reeked of smoke from the wood oven. Boring food and bad interior design. FAIL!
Mandina’s (3800 Canal St.)
Mandina’s started out as a grocery store in 1898, and expanded into a restaurant in 1932. And while this is total New Orleans food blasphemy, I had never been there before two weeks ago! I’ve always wondered if it was as good as the line perpetually wrapped around the building would indicate. Lucky for me, I went on a rainy night, and the storm kept the hordes at bay. I was seated immediately and admired the bright, cozy interior. I was fairly conflicted over whether to get the spaghetti or the poboy. And while the pasta ultimately won, let it be known that I plan on heading back for that poboy—and soon, because this meatball was delicious. Their menu gave me no clue as to the provenance of the meat contained herein. Was it beef? Pork? Veal? All of the above? Who knows. Still, this is great. The amount of garlic was perfect and these meatballs managed to avoid the overly-salty pitfall. The red sauce is thick and sweet. I have no complaints and can’t wait to go back for that poboy. PASS!
Mosca’s (4137 US-90, Avondale)
Mosca’s is another old school heavy hitter. They’ve been open since 1946 and have a notoriety that’s very appealing. Apparently, back in the day, Mosca’s was the hangout for the Marcello crime family, and was built in a relatively rural area for privacy. I like the bare-bones decor and there is something thrilling about having to drive to Avondale just to eat dinner (not to mention this is a great excuse to dress up like a ‘40s mob moll or gangster if you’re feeling kitschy). Unfortunately, Mosca’s is hit or miss. I’ve been there before and the food was amazing, and I’ve been there and been completely un-wowed. This visit was a let down; my meatballs were overly––and almost inedibly––salty, and the sauce was thin and strangely tinny. The garlic almost overwhelmed my palate and I found it hard to eat more than a few bites. But who am I kidding? I’ll be going back to Mosca’s, because the Oysters Mosca is so lovely and the history keeps me coming back. And if you haven’t been, well, you have to go just so you can say you went. NEUTRAL.
Bravo! (3413 Veterans Memorial Blvd., Metairie)
OK, if you’re at Lakeside Mall and you don’t feel like hitting up the food court, there are always better options than Bravo (hello China Rose!). But I’m an adventurous eater, and decided to give Bravo a try, for old time’s sake. Well, we all make mistakes. These meatballs were curiously dry and tasted way too much like fennel and salt. Does anyone enjoy eating a dry, meaty chunk of licorice? My guess is no. FAIL.
Vincent’s (7839 St. Charles Ave.)
Did you know Vincent’s isn’t an old school New Orleans gem? All these years, I was lumping them in my mind with all the old timers, and it turns out they’ve only been on St. Charles since 1997. I was literally shocked to find that out, because they do such a good job at replicating that mid- century, dark, generic vibe. I’m a long time fan of Vincent’s, but had never tried their meatball on French bread appetizer before. As it turns out, that’s a bit of a misnomer, since this dish is actually a large meatball (as in one singular) floating in a pool of marinara, surrounded by slices of toasted and buttered French bread. No complaints from me! I was wondering how they’d avoid serving soggy bread, but they easily solved that problem by not immersing the bread in the sauce. This is an excellent meatball; not too salty and not spongy. The flavors came together well with the sweet, thick sauce. Although, I’m forced to admit that the meatballs are not what I’m going to Vincent’s for; my heart belongs to the stuffed shrimp in pastry, which is always sublime. PASS!