Illustration by Dana Collins
THERE'S SOMETHING SO PLEASING ABOUT A MEATBALL. ROUNDNESS, for one. Self-containment. Wholeness. Children are naturally drawn to them. Meatballs are like sausages without their casings, hamburgers without their buns, meat loaf in bite-size form. They're a little-mentioned comfort food whose heyday was probably in the '50s and '60s. Spaghetti and meatballs at the dinner table. Swedish meatballs at cocktail parties. Meatball subs from the local deli.
The meatball, however, is susceptible to cooking flaws, which is why it may have lost popularity over the years. Packed too tightly, it will shed juice and wind up a hard little ball. Overdoing the binder — bread crumbs, cereal, rice and/or eggs — leads to a ball worthy only of bouncing. Meatballs are clearly a culinary balancing act. Those of us who have made them at home know how hard it is to get them to hold together and be tasty and tender and moist and — trickiest of all — anywhere near round.
A few contemporary practitioners, however, remind us of the meatball's many virtues. The city's best has to be Lee Hefter's veal meatball at Vert. This is a midsize ball (maybe 2 inches in diameter) that's fluffy and fine-grained, with that appealing, winey taste of good veal. Break into it with a fork, and tiny rivulets of juice start running. You can have these meatballs with a tomato ragu on linguine for lunch. At dinner, they appear halved on thin, chewy-crusted Roman-style wood-fired pizza.
My other favorite meatball can be found in San Gabriel at Vietnam House, under the subheading “7 Courses of Beef.” Listed as No. 6, it is not even called a meatball, but “baked ground beef.” Each order includes three large (3-inch), slightly lumpy meatballs, a plate of fresh vegetables, rice-paper wrappers, and greens — lettuce, cilantro, mint, shiso, basil. The balls themselves are ground beef mixed with glass noodles, slivers of crunchy wood-ear mushroom and green peas, then baked; they're soft, peppery, delicious on their own. But you traditionally wrap them in rice paper along with a bit of lettuce and herbs, cucumber, bean sprouts, pickled carrot and paper-thin slices of green banana — however you like. Once you have your little rice-paper package, you dip it in a sweet-and-sour fish sauce, or a pineapple sauce. This is really a taste and texture sensation: the peppery, crumbly meat, the astringent sauces, the crunch of fresh vegetables, the satisfying starchy bite of banana. Wow.
A completely different meatball, but paradigmatic in its own right, is IKEA's walnut-size pork-and-beef Swedish meatballs. You can eat them at the little café halfway through your shopping. Order them in various multiples of 5 (10, 15, 20!). The most popular serving is the Manager's Special: 15 meatballs with a pleasantly bland, beige “cream” gravy and lingonberry preserves, three plump, rosy-pink boiled new potatoes, a soup or salad and a soft drink. But here's the thing: You can also take bags of these meatballs home. Downstairs, past the checkout, in the little food area's freezer case, there are 2Þ- and 5-pound bags, plus the lingonberries and tubs of gravy. (Don't read the gravy's ingredients list if you want to enjoy the gravy itself.) For party food, and for feeding picky children, these 1-inch balls are as handy and easy as fish sticks, and at a recent meatball tasting in my home they were soundly, unanimously chosen over several other, more artisanal meatballs.
One of those defeated by the IKEA Swedish meatball remains another favorite of mine: the pork-beef-veal meatball made and sold at Mario's Italian Deli/Market in Glendale. Plump 2-inch balls seasoned with oregano, garlic and lots of pepper, these can be bought hot to go in a sturdy marinara, or frozen in two flavors: sweet and spicy. But I like them best in a submarine sandwich. Mario's soft-crumbed, crusty roll filled with the soft, hot meatballs and lots of sauce — talk about comfort food.
For Westsiders, an excellent equivalent meatball sub can be found at Bay Cities Italian Deli.