If you saw Page Six last Thursday, you know that there may be a vast meatball conspiracy upon us. A quick recap of the item: Restaurateur Pino Luongo yields to no one in his devotion to the study and the making of meatballs, and along with Coco Pazzo chef Mark Strausman, he is feverishly scribbling a manuscript entitled Two Meatballs in the Italian Kitchen. Yet Luongo was ignominiously left out of an article by the Lee brothers in the Times’s Dining Section entitled “The Expanding Meatball Universe,” which traced the not-so-recent popularity of the things to the giant beef-veal-and-pork orbs made by Ápizz chef-owner John LaFemina (author of A Man and His Meatballs). Luongo smelled a rotten polpetta.
That rotten polpetta was Maria Guarnaschelli, the editor of the Lee brothers’ new cookbook (which somehow does not contain the word “meatball” in its title), and the original editor of Luongo’s Two Meatballs, until a falling out of an undisclosed (but presumably meaty) nature.
As far as conspiracy theories go, this isn’t exactly the Protocols of the Elders of Zion or even the Apollo Moon-Landing Hoax, but as big fans of Pino Luongo’s chicken-meatball panino (available on the lower “market” level of his Rockefeller Center restaurant, Tuscan Square), the Underground Gourmet took this opportunity to spread the word about this terrific pressed-polpetta sandwich served on ciabatta with fresh mozzarella and tomato sauce, and also to let the opinions of this slighted meatball maven finally be heard.
Q: Do you really think that Guarnaschelli and the Lee brothers are out to secretly and sinisterly control the dissemination of meatball information?
A: Well, let me put it this way: Having worked with Maria Guarnaschelli, I know that she shares with her authors all the information; so I find it kind of hard to believe that these two guys didn’t know about the Two Meatballs cookbook. And besides that, why would anyone need two guys from the South to find out about meatballs in New York City in the first place?
Q: How long have you been a meatball fanatic/conspiracy theorist?
A: I grew up eating polpette; my mother used to make them with mushrooms or serve them with polenta, and they would become one major meal served in the middle of the table, and everybody would go for it.
Q: What’s the secret to a good meatball?
A: Bread that’s soaked well in milk, and the key is that you have to have a certain amount of fat in the meat, so even when you use veal, it doesn’t dry out. My favorite technique is never to cook the meatballs raw into a tomato sauce: I like to first sear them to seal in the juices. But one thing I always love to add to it that’s not very American — it’s very Italian, very Southern Italian — is lemon or orange zest, because it gives it a little acid that is nice to taste. I also love the wild-boar and roasted-apple meatballs we make at Centolire in the winter.
Q: What’s the worst thing about American meatballs?
A: I’m not a big fan of large meatballs in spaghetti. To me, my eyes hurt when I see a dish like that. I sometimes see meatballs that are the size of a baseball; I don’t know … I like them smaller than a golf ball.
Q: This post is called Sandwich of the Week; can you tell us about Tuscan Square’s chicken-meatball panino?
A: It’s chicken, ricotta, just a little olive oil, a tiny bit of nutmeg, salt, pepper. The ricotta keeps it moist, and then we just blend them together for a while to give some air to the mixture. We serve them with a tomato sauce made with a little olive oil and butter spread on both sides of the bread.
Q: Any parting thoughts about meatballs?
A: There are so many different variations of meatballs; basically everything can turn into a meatball.
—Rob Patronite and Robin Raisfeld
Tuscan Square Market, 16 W. 51st St., nr. Fifth Ave., lower level; 212-977-7777