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Food decorates my refrigerator like international artwork. Tucked on the top shelf is the crock of Maui strawberry jam I discovered at a roadside stand in Hawaii. Next to it sits the hermetically sealed cup of Meiji yogurt that wandered from the breakfast buffet at Tokyo's Imperial Hotel into my purse, then all the way back to America. There's the limited-edition tin of Thorn Caspian Star caviar I was given at a tasting of the tiny fish eggs in Las Vegas. I've got a bottle of gorgeous Planeta Chardonnay, purchased on a tour of the Sicilian winery, and a bottle of curiously charactered Pinot Grigio, picked up in a Cuban equivalent of Circle K.
All bring memories of a very good year, a time of rich travel, eating, drinking and friends. I choose not to open them, but to admire them and think fondly of how they first tasted. They're souvenirs, really, but much more interesting than an airport snow globe or postcard.
I've pushed them aside today, to make room for the newest addition to my collection. This new piece isn't as exotic -- maybe a Norman Rockwell among Rembrandts -- but it is just as exquisite.
2055 N. Alma School Road
Chandler, AZ 85224
480-722-1777. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 8 p.m.
A solitary meatball, the size of a tennis ball, ensconced on a blue china plate patterned with flowers. It's got a little sauce still clinging to it, the thick tomato paste pressed against its coverlet of saran wrap. It is beauty, crafted in the medium of hamburger.
This art, though, is destined to be eaten. It is too wonderful, and too perishable, to simply sit on a shelf. And unlike its exotic roommates, this one is easily replaced, found just a short drive away at La Famiglia restaurant in Chandler. I carried it home, packed with its twin in a silver aluminum pan capped with a plastic lid, clear except for the opaque mist of steam escaping from the meat.
When I first got home, there were two of them. The first one I ate as soon as I got to my kitchen, devouring it quickly yet respectfully, cutting it with a knife and fork, patting my lips with a cloth napkin and sipping a delicate Cabernet Sauvignon. The texture was masterful, spongy and moist, yet so firm it held its form when sliced. The seasonings were sultry, lightly herbed and strongly beefy under a robust, zingy marinara, which I mopped with tufts of soft Italian bread.
This other one, though, has been put away to undergo a test: A fresh meatball can be marvelous, but one that's had a little time to sit and think about its destiny, to wallow in its garlic-laced juices and deepen, that can be magic.
Waiting is hard; I keep peeking into the icebox. I'm thinking of the first time I experienced La Famiglia's magic, with the plump meatballs plopped in a fluffy sesame-seed hero roll, slathered with marinara and provolone, then passed through a hot pizza oven just long enough to crisp the roll's edges and melt the cheese. And besides, I'm not even hungry; for breakfast this morning I snacked on leftovers from another La Famiglia staple I'd had the night before: an Italian cold cut combo, stuffed with deli-cut ham, salami, pepperoni, provolone, veggies and a light slick of pungent, house-made Italian dressing. Right now I need a meatball like I need a larger dress size.
But forget art appreciation. Forget the threat of spandex pants. Forget waiting. I'm going back in. My remaining meatball comes out from its cold coffin, hums a few seconds in the microwave, and survives its test. After at least five minutes of aging, it is, remarkably, even better.
The secret to the meatballs -- to everything at the nine-month-old La Famiglia, actually -- is the touch that only a true Italian New Yorker can bring, explains the restaurant's owner, Stuart Koziol. For more than 25 years, his in-laws, Joe and Bonnie Jiallo, owned a New York pizzeria where Koziol, his brother-in-law and both men's wives worked.
Then the clan up and moved to the Valley of the Sun, opening a catering business (Cranberry Hills in Phoenix) and then La Famiglia, wedged between Fry's and Wal-Mart. The restaurant recipes are Koziol's, but you will often find Joe manning the order counter, greeting the steady stream of regulars strolling in.
"Hey, Joe," a man calls out.
"You hungry?" he replies in his lyrical accent. "I make you happy."
And he does. At least 80 percent of his customers are transplanted New Yorkers, Koziol claims. One fellow, John, is so enamored that he takes lunch and dinner there every day. Employed at a nearby country club, John calls ahead to request his regular table -- one of the two high-top bar-style tables among the cafe's perhaps dozen seats -- and his favorite meal, veal Parmesan (it's not on the menu, offered instead as chicken or eggplant, but just ask).
I lived in Manhattan during college, so I think I qualify as a transplant. And I know for sure I count as a regular, stopping in as often as I do for a happy voyage through the lengthy menu. There's no dish here I don't love. The heart of La Famiglia doesn't seem to realize it's beating not in a first-class restaurant, but inside a tiny storefront shop where the most interesting decorative distraction involves trying to read the daily specials backward through a sunlit window.