I have constant cravings for comfort food. I once drove 60 miles for a Nathan’s hot dog. But the one delicious, warm, compelling nosh that sends me over the top is that most American of familiar and traditional bites: an Italian-inspired meatball. Of course, talk to a dozen people and you’ll get a dozen descriptions of the “perfect meatball” – different combinations of meat or spice, firm, loose – it’s endless. So, let me pick some of the places where I’ve especially enjoyed the stalwart meatball in the Philadelphia suburbs. – Jay Lloyd
Want South Philly without going to South Philly? Head for Giacomo’s on Norristown’s east side. It’s been around as long as I can remember, and Giacomo always stops by the table. This place, with its familiar neighborhood and courthouse crowd, has that old world feeling, and the kitchen cranks out daily surprises. Still, meatballs are the quest. Here, they’re medium texture with a hint of oregano and bathed in a rich red “gravy.” You pick your pasta. On rare occasions, Giacomo offers a liquor-soaked Italian rum cake to top off the meal. Call ahead to see when the cake might be available.
You’ll get a feeling as warm as the meatballs after descending the stairs into this basement retreat where bare brick walls frame the bar. Now, about those meatballs: Not quite tennis ball size but certainly on steroids, these homemade spheres are aggressively seasoned and packed just on the softer side of firm. They are a signature dish here in the heart of the Phoenixville restaurant district and swim in a robust marinara sauce. Spaghetti is the favorite pasta in which to nest a Pepperoncini meatball.
A lively piano bar, an intimate nook and a family-friendly dining room is the setting for dinner at Osteria in Evansburg, just east of Collegeville. Peek into the bar and you’ll see live musicians entertaining a happy hour crowd that’s diving into heaping plates of pasta and meatballs. I don’t know how you can find a better meatball than Osteria’s. Tender and soft, it holds together just well enough to be halved with a fork, and each well-herbed half can be lifted intact for a palate wake-up call. The meatballs and pasta here are topped with a garlic-infused marinara, or you can pick a more subtle mixture of tomato, garlic and basil. Just be warned: You’ll be taking home enough for two more meals.
D’Ignazio’s has been a family-run institution in Media for over 60 years; I’ve been going there for 40 of them. The Towne House is frequently packed at lunchtime with the lively hordes that run the machinery of county government and the justice system. A favorite here is the venerable meatball. It bears a striking similarity to its ancestors created by Italian grandmothers in the 1940s and 50s. Hand rolled, mildly seasoned and on the firmer side, a D’Ignazio meatball is washed in the equally familiar marinara sauce.
When in the King of Prussia area and stricken with a meatball craving, set a course to Peppers, right off Route 202. This is another place where they expect you to eat a pound of pasta. There are actually some regulars here who will exercise a fork all night and leave a once overflowing plate clean as a whistle. The meatballs, of course, are the centerpiece. They are moderately seasoned and herbed, and the combination of meats is well sauced with a rich marinara or meat sauce. Peppers leans toward a linguini or angel hair pasta. This is a good spot for lunch and dinner, or you can eat at the bar and watch a game.
Tip: My wife always claimed she could tell where I had lunch by the color of the sauce drippings on my tie. So, when eating meatballs and wearing a tie, toss the tie over your shoulder…or just give in and wear a bib.