The New York City Wine & Food Festival closed Sunday night with the first annual, sold-out send-off “Meatball Madness,” hosted by Giada De Laurentiis. De Laurentiis’ Chuck E. Cheese’s smile faded only when NYWFF godfather Lee Schrager announced onstage that he wants the meatballs and their handler to have a permanent spot at the event. Her acceptance to host next year recalled a wedding proposal broadcast at a ballpark: She said yes, but nothing’s signed, after all. No matter what she does, this year’s winner, Andrew Carmellini, and other Italian-American stars of the night told us they’d be back next year.
The judging panel of Gail Simmons, Frank Bruni, and Jeffrey Steingarten chose Locanda Verde’s pickle-draped lamb meatballs (on Karen Demasco’s modified brioche bun with caramelized onions and Parmesan) over some 30 entrants dishing out combos of beef, pork, veal, and tuna balls, resulting in garlic breath and bits of parsley wedged in tasters’ teeth. Downtown slider darling Joey Campanaro was less concerned with his loss to Carmellini than he was excited about the Empire State Building glowing red, white, and green for the night: “I think Lee Schrager had something to do with that,” he told us. The little owl recipe honors his grandma, Rosie Bova, and he’ll compete with the same set next year. “Meatballs signify home to me,” he added. For Butter chef Alex Guarnaschelli, “a meatball is a very whimsical thing. It’s Italian, but it’s also very American,” she explained.
Carmellini has moved meatballs away from their red-sauce roots to fine-dining versions like the duck and foie gras meatballs he introduced at A Voce some four years ago. Like the retired duck dish, the lamb meatballs he perfected with Locanda chef de cuisine Luke Ostrom will give way to a new recipe when he returns to defend his title next year. “We’ll have to switch it up, or that would be kind of lame. I’m already thinking about it,” Carmellini grinned. The smirk also stemmed from his prize of $5,000, which he plans to share with the ten-person crew that helped him bake buns and roll balls for the win. “Believe it or not, I didn’t do everything.”