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Meatball Wizard

Even with its pizza by the slice, La Famiglia serves Italian food with real, macho, Back East style.
Erik Guzowski

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.

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.

Even if the menu is fashioned of plastic stick-on letters posted on the wall, there's fancy fare listed next to the standard spaghetti and meatballs. The extravagance is impressive and all priced under 10 bucks: the hefty shrimp, veal or eggplant heroes; the penne ala Vodka with its pink sauce zipped by a shot of spirits; the potently garlicky shrimp scampi; and the divine eggplant Fiordilino (a complex, creamy blend of eggplant, ham and ricotta in tomato sauce over pasta).

A place this casual could easily be staffed by indifferent teenagers, but instead I'm treated to Josephine Koziol, who pauses at tables to find out particulars of her patrons' everyday lives. One customer is overwhelmed by the choices, staring at the board until Josephine steps up to the counter and asks what he's interested in. He wants it all, he replies, wondering what's best.

"I'm a white-sauce woman," Josephine tells him. "Nothing is better than my white sauce. Except, people really like our manicotti, our penne primavera, our lasagna -- well, everything."

Eventually, the customer is sold on the white sauce, ordering fettuccine Alfredo with an added topping of grilled chicken breast. Josephine is right; the white sauce is wonderfully thick, silky, classic. I wonder how it would taste over a meatball.

Other customers have no difficulty deciding what to pile on their plates. These must be the Big Apple transplants Koziol was telling me about. They're here for the real, macho, Back East dishes like pizza by the slice -- the pieces are properly mammoth, ready to roll up and cram into your mouth. The variety changes daily, but it's a fine thing if you find the stuffed pizza special, a beautiful beast of two layers of dough gorged with sausage, pepperoni, ricotta, mozzarella and (!) meatballs. A slice (or two) paired with an ice-cold bottle of Boylan Bottleworks brand root beer or Manhattan Special espresso coffee soda, and we've got a feast for about $5.

Other pizzas go gourmet, easily feeding four with the 14-inch and a small city with the 18-inch. The crust is Rubenesque, plump with toppings such as baked ricotta ziti, bruschetta (Sicilian crust piled with diced tomatoes, onions, garlic, basil and olive oil) and honey-Dijon chicken. The Four Seasons combines ham, mushrooms, artichoke hearts and Kalamata olives. More leftovers; more refrigerator art.

There's always room on my icebox shelf, too, for La Famiglia's fantastic specialty spinach roll, essentially a golden-edged pastry wrapped like a sarong around a generous portion of sharp-flavored spinach, mozzarella and ricotta melted down almost to a gooey cream cheese. I can dedicate an entire evening to this dish, dipping chunks of dough in marinara, lying immobile on my couch in front of the TV, trying to justify my excess by pairing the roll with a healthy salad (there's probably no use in pointing out that I chose the antipasto, the vegetables buried under an avalanche of provolone, salami, pepperoni, Parmesan and Italian dressing).

If I'm dining out at the restaurant, I can pretend to be a bit classier, selecting an elegant chicken francese, the blissfully moist breast lightly breaded and adorned with sparkling lemon sauce perked with lemon slices and mushrooms, all over tender ziti. And it's only a trace of pride that stops me from invading the kitchen to lick the pan in which veal scaloppine was prepared; I want to get every bit of crackling and sauce from the pounded, thin cutlets. The meat is delightfully mellow, barely breaded and tossed with chunk tomato, the fruit sautéed to buttery juice over al dente spaghetti.

Likely no one would stop me, either. It feels like family at La Famiglia. At the counter, Joe acts like he's less concerned with me paying than he is with knowing whether I'm happy with my meal. Whoever answers the phone simply accepts my to-go order and my name -- no third degree for my phone number. And wonder of wonders, everyone working in the restaurant knows what's on the menu and can describe it to perfection.  

The only odd thing is that the desserts are not made on site. The traditional New York-style cheesecake comes from Shamrock Foods. But Koziol isn't apologizing. "That's the last thing we have time for," he says. "And Shamrock makes a really good cheesecake." Which is true.

I love opening the door to my refrigerator, gazing at my pretty foods and remembering how much joy they've brought me. And now, though the dishes may be a rotating display, takeout from La Famiglia has become part of my permanent collection. Me and meatball: It's a memory I hold dear.

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La Famiglia Pizza & Pasta

1859 W. Guadalupe Road
Mesa, AZ 85202

480-722-1777

www.lafamigliapizzanpasta.net


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