Photo by Mr. Usaji/FlickrCC
Just south of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn sits a picturesque, butcher shop called The Meat Hook. On a cold Friday night in January, a few hundred people crammed in for the First Annual Brooklyn Grange Meatball Slapdown.
Though The Meat Hook opened only two months ago, it has become a hive for the nascent artisanal butcher scene, a place offering meaty favorites like pâté and headcheese alongside less orthodox offerings like bacon spareribs and cheeseburger-flavored sausages. The colorful crowd, mostly locals in thrift store chic, with more than a few Maggie Gyllenhaal lookalikes in sequined skirts and sneakers, also included many Italian-Americans from Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights, and even a festively dressed Sikh in a plaid turban and paisley sportcoat. Everyone swayed to loud music pumped out by a DJ, also in skinny jeans and ironic glasses, and generous pourers tended the open bar.
Meatballs, meant to stretch meat for a crowd, are a beautiful "tribute to the precious flesh of edible animals."
Five restaurants entered the competition, ranging from Bamonte's, an Italian mainstay that has served meatballs for over a century, to the Roebling Tea Room, which has never listed a meatball on its menu, but which happens to have an Italian-American chef. Once the cooks began dishing out samples, the crowd bum-rushed the aluminum foil trays of meatballs, elbowing toward the front to fill their paper bowls.
The chefs admitted that the competition's organizers had offered little direction. Some had prepared a few hundred tiny meatballs, but the three men responsible for the Frankies Spuntino version stood behind enormous trays of 500 or so fist-sized balls. The disparities in size and quantity incited some of the more rowdy tasters to chant "size matters."
Other than a few disenfranchised vegetarians who huddled in the corner and filled up on pasta and garlic bread, the crowd appeared pleased with the meatballs. Kevin Whelan, a Bushwick resident, declared the soft, fluffy Frankies rendition the best-tasting, his scruffy red beard flecked with tomato sauce.
Bamonte's, the elder statesmen, presented dense, nugget-like balls tasting mostly of beef and needing more salt. The butchers at The Meat Hook combined "the best meat in New York" with a hint of cheese and the kick of crushed red pepper to create a contender they could be proud of. The Roebling Tea Room, whose meatballs were unmemorable, upped the ante by topping each sample with a generous shaving of black truffle. All in all, the room contained some serious meatball muscle.
My own favorite, the Roberta's meatball—a flavorful, mid-sized entrant—tasted faintly sweet thanks to basil, parmesan, and fennel sausage. But the Italian-American contingent felt a duty to judge according to faithful adherence to tradition. Cathy Littlefield (née Cammarotta), one such Italian-American from Bay Ridge, said she felt "more qualified than most of the judges, since I actually know authentic Italian food."
Valentina Angeloni, the only Italy-born judge, said she was excited to adjudicate a competition about that "famous American dish, spaghetti and meatballs." (She said with some authority that only Italian-Americans make meatballs, which are derived from typical Italian sauces laced with small bits of meat, rather than huge meaty hunks.)
After tallying the ballots, an announcer declared that both the crowd and the judges had found the soft, fluffy Frankies Spuntino meatball—a mixture of meat, bread, cheese, pine nuts, and parsley—to be the best in Brooklyn. Frank Castronovo, Frank Falcinelli, and Tony D'Orazzo claimed their large, high-school-sports-style trophy. Their acceptance speech echoed the words of writer Josh Ozersky: meatballs, meant to stretch meat for a crowd, are a beautiful "tribute to the precious flesh of edible animals."
Suzanne Ackerman, a meatball diehard, had travelled from Boston to attend the Slapdown. As she mopped up sauce with garlic bread, she looked longingly at the crowd and said, "Meatballs are better in New York. Most things are."
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