No, this is not an epic battle of prairie oysters! (That's a whole 'nother blog.) Growing up, my parents were friends with an Italian family who would hold potlucks for every holiday meal. Long, folding tables would be stuffed with lasagna, rollatini, eggplant parmigiana and homemade veal meatballs coated in thick, gooey mozzarella.
For this week's Battle of the Dishes, I checked out two local chains to see if their meatballs would live up to those delicious memories.
In One Corner: Meatballz
3395 W. Chandler Blvd. in Chandler
This local chain, which also has branches in Peoria, Scottsdale and Paradise Valley, is billed as a fast-casual Italian deli -- though the digs at their new Chandler location make it look more like an upscale cafe than a fast-food joint. Perhaps that's because they kept the bones of the space's former occupant, Nouveau Bistro, intact.
The restaurant looks exactly the same -- partially visible kitchen, comfy red booths, huge stone bar -- though Meatballz lacks Nouveau's quirky artwork and blue hanging lights. It's so upscale looking for a casual joint that everyone who came in while I was there looked confused about seating. The poor guy behind the register had to keep instructing guests to order at the counter. (Perhaps a large, hanging "Order Here" sign is in order?)
Meatballz offers low-carb and regular versions of their famous meatballs. My dining companion and I figured we'd give the low-carb version a shot, since that normally means more meat and less fillers. Three large meatballs arrived steaming hot in a white ceramic dish set atop a prettier painted square platter.
"Hey, where's the cheese?" lamented my dining companion. "The online photo showed tons of melted mozzarella on top. That's the best part!!"
He was right; these looked delicious, but nothing like the photos we'd seen. I bit into a ball and was surprised to find a nice, albeit thin, layer of salty mozzarella hidden beneath the top layer of sauce. The meatball itself was velvety smooth, as if the pork and beef were finely ground before being rolled into balls.
The meatball definitely had a good balance of texture -- just enough to be interesting without being tough and chunky like my homemade ones. The spice blend was mild, and the accompanying bread fluffy and light. Bonus points for the sauce, which was rich and thick like the homemade sauce I remember from childhood. It had a strong natural presence, tasting closer to spiced tomato paste than the watered down, sugar-infused sauce you find on supermarket shelves. Overall, Meatballz makes one tasty meatball.
In the Other Corner: Picazzo's Organic Italian Kitchen
440 W. Warner Rd. Suite 101 in Tempe
|Some of these things are not like the others...|
The Sedona-founded Picazzo's chain seems like it's been in the Valley forever. The Tempe branch is funky and modern, with colorful murals on the walls and a separate bar section in the back (where I was neatly tucked during my visit). Even at barely 5 p.m. on a weeknight, the place was packed. Later in the meal when I received the check, I found out why: half-off appetizers during happy hour. Woo-hoo! If I'd have known that...
Picazzo's recently changed their name to highlight their move to organic, healthful ingredients. In the spirit of fairness, we thought the best comparison to Meatballz's low-carb balls would be Picazzo's gluten-free version. The restaurant chain offers a whole gluten-free menu, which is pretty astounding for a pasta place (Celiacs rejoice!).
The balls arrived in an oval casserole dish, accompanied by a side of triangular bread slices on a sunny yellow platter. But there was a little bit of trickery going on. When I was a kid, my mom would try to disguise vegetables by covering them in cheese and pretending they were something I actually liked. Same thing here. From the menu, I knew there were artichokes in this dish. I didn't realize most of them would be hidden under the layer of thick, bubbly cheese.
What resulted was basically like a game titled "Guess What's in This Bite?" My first nibble turned out to be a pungent vinegary artichoke, which actually combined nicely with the thin tomato sauce and heavy cheese. I'm not a huge artichoke fan, but these were delicious.
On the second try, I bit into a ball. Picazzo's gluten-free meatballs are more along the lines of my mom's: chunkier ground meat, with a too-light dusting of garlic and herbs.
The meatballs could've used a bit more oregano and garlic, but otherwise were well executed. The meat was good quality, the texture appealing in a homestyle way. The salty mozzarella was perfect; stacked in thick layers on top of the dish, cooked until brown and bubbly. Unfortunately, the sauce was the worst
I've had in a while -- thin and watery, with a weird sweet aftertaste and no trace of savory spices. The $4.50 happy hour price tag made these balls worthwhile, but otherwise I'd skip 'em again until Picazzo's tweaks their sauce.
The Winner: Meatballz