IN RIVA, 4116 Ridge Avenue, East Falls

Back when I worked at the Inquirer in the early 1990s, my co-worker Ray Parrillo occasionally brought to the office big bowls of meatballs made by his mother. We hungry slobs in the sports department gobbled them up like we hadn’t eaten in weeks. They were amazing and the secret of their beauty, as I recall, was that Ray’s mom laced them with pine nuts to give them a unique flavor.

They remain, to the day (and through this contest) the best meatballs I’ve ever had.

But I’ve now found ones that come close. They’re on the menu at In Riva as “Mommy’s Meatballs,” and while they’re not the work of Ray’s mother, they’re also wonderful in part because of the pine nuts.

Chef Arthur Cavaliere’s tribute to his own mother – who should be right proud of her son – starts with coarse-ground beef and pork (no veal, because the chef says, “It has no flavor.”) Add fresh bread soaked in milk, eggs, garlic, Pecorino, parsley and other spices. Cavaliere splashes in some Marsala wine and stirs in some pureed golden raisins to add an irresistible sweetness. This, we learned is a Southern Italian style vs. the traditional Northern Italian meatball.

They’re rolled every morning, but not cooked until a patron actually orders them.

“I don’t want them sitting around,” says Cavaliere. “I sear them and then pan roast them for each customer. I want them fresh as can be.”

They come to the table in a little cast iron pan, a plate of three big ones for $11. They are bathed in a sauce of chopped roasted tomatoes, parsley and sage. Then they’re topped with fried sage, bread crumbs toasted in prosciutto fat (!) and those irresistible pine nuts. Ahhh.

It’s an outstanding meatball, and an explosion of flavors.  And, as long as my friend Ray’s Mom doesn’t enter this contest, it’s got a chance to win Meatball Madness.

Score: 93/100

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