Believe it or not, there were no "that's a spicy meatball!" jokes made at Damian's First Annual Meatball Invitational — even when judge Katharine Shilcutt broke out the Tums. (I'm not saying there was a lot of garlic there, but we can be pretty sure Houston's Italian kitchens are vampire-free.)
Maybe that's because the meatballs served up by the nearly 20 chefs were all seriously good.
While the sold-out crowd mingled in the Damian's dining room, flitting from ball to ball, the judges table was cordoned off upstairs, featuring a mix of local personalities including Houston sports icons Dan Pastorini and Larry Dierker, 29-95's Syd Kearney, Louisiana Foods' Jim Gossen, HoustonPBS's Ernie Manouse, Shilcutt and myself.
Making our way through 17 meatballs from 16 restaurants was a test of restraint and fortitude as much as our taste buds. The 11 Italian meatballs, delivered anonymously, ranged in inspiration from Sicily to Emilia-Romagna to Brooklyn, with more than a few dubbed an old family recipe.
My favorite version was also the judges' winner for Best Italian — a giant ball served by the new New York import Trattoria Il Mulino. A mouthwatering mix of beef, pork and veal with ricotta, tomato-basil sauce, parmesan and pecorino romano, it was just the right amount of cheese and just the right amount of spice on a meatball that was tender, juicy and flavorful. I liked the meatballs on my first trip to Trattoria, but this was really something special.
Among other Italian entries, I was a fan of the old-world Sicilian pork-and-beef meatball from Paulie's, which had a lot of flavor and an appropriately thick sauce, as well as the arancini (a ball of rice formed around tomato, meat and cheese, then fried) from Patrenella's and the small, tender, handmade beef-and-pork meatballs with a rich marsala sauce from Carrabba's.
When we moved into the non-Italian contenders, the flavors and ingredients got a lot more diverse, from smoky, corn-and-queso-blanco covered albondigas from Barbed Rose to my ultimate favorite, a bold and spicy Moroccan albondiga from Oporto, served with a tiny pita, some tzatziki sauce and just a touch of harissa. But it was the gong won, a Taiwanese meatball from Azuma of ground pork with soy paste, Asian chili sauce and green onions that earned the judges' nod for Best Non-Italian Meatball.
Downstairs the People's Choice was won by D'Amico's for their traditional Italian meatball.
One other meatball worth mentioning? Before the official contest, Damian's owner Frankie B. Mandola brought up an extra non-judged meatball platter to taste — you know, in case 17 weren't enough — flavored with judge Dan Pastorini's Texas-style rub. I thought it was really good.
It looks like the Meatball Invitational, which was sponsored by My Table magazine and Spec's Wines, Spirits & Finer Foods, will become a yearly thing. This year it benefited the Houston Food Bank and the Texas Italian-American Sports Foundation.
All I can say is sign me up for next year.