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Cooks vie for 'best meatball' in Little Italy fundraiser

Ten chefs vie for best meatball in Little Italy

To prepare his meatballs for Little Italy's best meatball competition on Sunday, Thomas Volini snuck frozen pork and ground sirloin under his jacket past airport security en route to Baltimore.

Volini, 71, lives in Chicago but was visiting his daughter Marcella in Baltimore. He said he trusted his home butcher for the contest.

He wore a large white chef's hat to the competition at the Little Italy Lodge.

"I'm expecting to win," he said.

His entry, No. 2 of 10 hopefuls, was made from pork and sirloin ground very fine, with a mix of spices and vegetables. The meatballs were added to sauce afterward, not cooked in sauce.

"I can't tell you about the spices," he said. "I go back to Chicago, there'd be trouble."

Organizer Joseph Gardella said proceeds from the first best meatball competition and eating contest would benefit the Rev. Oreste Pandola Adult Learning Center, which offers classes in Italian language, food and culture for adults and children.

Gardella, who owns the Joe Benny's restaurant on High Street, sold 200 tickets for the event.

"We wanted to do something fun," Gardella said. "The meatball is a very simple thing, but it means a lot to people. It has its own story. We wanted to get everyone to get together and be able to showcase not only their meatball, but really it's kind of a pride thing. It's part of that person."

For those who grow up with Italian heritage, Gardella said, "the meatball is always a part of the dinner table. Everyone, not just Italians, knows about a meatball. It's like the cornerstone of Italian cooking."

Karen Fowler is Jewish. She said she's more familiar with cooking matzo balls than meatballs. She had never cooked a meatball before. But she saw a flyer for the contest and decided to enter.

"I had a great time doing it and it made the biggest mess in my kitchen I've ever had," said Fowler, 64. "I live across the street from Joe Benny's and I thought it would be a lot of fun."

Fowler used three kinds of meat, cheese, egg and breadcrumbs in her meatballs. And "a ton" of garlic.

She brought her family with her, including her son Seth, whom she entered into the meatball eating contest. Contestants had to eat 50 meatballs in the least amount of time to win.

Franklin Morgan, who works at Joe Benny's, also entered the meatball eating contest. He said he had never eaten competitively before.

"I want the glory," Morgan said. "I'm a little competitive, even for something like this. I think I'm going to win, for sure."

He heard rumors that an experienced competitive eater nicknamed "The Fury" had also entered, but promised to "take him down."

Vy and Beau Brooks of Baltimore came to evaluate the entries for best meatball.

"I like texture, how moist is it going to be," said Beau Brooks, 35.

"Not too dense," added Vy Brooks, 32. "I love the sauce too, the sauce is pretty important."

With a few more to try, the couple were leaning toward entries 2 and 5, made by Volini and Fowler.

Gina Natoli's favorite was No. 9.

"You can tell it has beef and pork, and it's very moist, and I can taste the cheese in it," said Natoli, 50. "Some had just beef, and beef is tough. When you have the mix, it holds the moisture."

In the end, Margaret Miller — the chef behind No. 9 — won the best meatball competition, according to Gardella.

Phil "The Fury" Fiore won the meatball eating contest.

cwells@baltsun.com

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