Thursday, July 18, 2013

In search of the best spaghetti and meatballs ever

Posted By on 07.18.13 at 09:38 AM

The best spaghetti and meatballs ever?
It's not such an odd thing to claim the "best spaghetti and meatballs ever" as the back-from-the-dead Centro Ristorante does on its menu. Sure, it's grandiose and borderline obnoxious, especially considering how much spaghetti and meatballs there is in the world, but not impossible. Case in point: there's plenty of roast chicken, too, and obviously, as much as it's possible to determine ephemeral things like historical food, the Zuni Cafe's recipe is the best roast chicken ever.

The meatballs at Centro are large, approximately the size of regulation tennis balls, or maybe a wee bit larger. You probably couldn't play tennis with them, though, because they are on the tender side and would get stuck in your racquet and it would be a pain in the ass to clean. They are mostly made out of the traditional meatball meats—beef, pork, and veal—with some bread crumbs and egg and onion and garlic and parsley to hold it all together. There is nothing unorthodox about their composition, no raisins or pine nuts or shrimp.

The provenance of the meat is unknown. It's likely there are no pictures in the kitchen of the cows and calves and pigs who willingly gave their lives so that we might enjoy their flesh ground and packed into meatballs. Then again, if you have a really excellent side of grass-fed beef or a big chunk of heritage pork, why would you turn it into a meatball? Meatballs were invented for a reason.

Anyway. Moving on. As said before, these meatballs are too tender for tennis. They are almost too tender for a fork. You don't have to press very hard to get them to fall apart. They taste . . . meaty, but in the most pleasant of ways. Normally they come swimming in marinara, but my dining companion had requested the Bolognese. It was kind of like meat overkill, a battle of meatiness, but I am pleased to say the meatballs came out ahead.

The spaghetti is "housemade" according to the menu. It's probably fresh. I mean, one would assume. The kitchen staff knows how to cook it al dente (which, actually, is more than I can say for myself). It's a nice complement to the meatballs.

This is a very fine plate of spaghetti and meatballs, no doubt about it. (And if an Italian restaurant can't turn out a decent plate of spaghetti and meatballs, it has no business existing.) But is it the best ever?

I'm not sure what's supposed to happen when you taste something that's the best ever. Part of the enchantment of the Zuni Cafe recipe was that it allowed me, a fairly average and unimaginative home cook, to produce a roast chicken of astonishing beauty with a glorious mix of crispness and juiciness. I didn't even have to truss it. A plate of spaghetti and meatballs served up in a restaurant does not bring on the same feeling of accomplishment.

Is it an acceptable criterion to suggest that if you eat something that is the best ever, it would make you want to eat it and eat it and eat it until your insides explode? Or at least until they feel very tightly stretched? And then go back again and again, as much as your budget will allow?

If that's the case then, no, Centro's spaghetti and meatballs are not the best ever. But they may be the best-served spaghetti and meatballs ever. The waitstaff has been instructed to carry the spaghetti and meatballs to the table in shiny silver vats. Then, with great care and ceremony, they wind the spaghetti around a serving spoon and deposit it on the plate. On top of that, they place a single meatball (each order comes with two) and dissect it and juxtapose the two halves just so. Finally, they dust all this with a layer of Parmesan cheese. No other dish gets this special treatment. Somebody must have faith in it. Or at least in the everlasting appeal of spaghetti and meatballs.

Centro Ristorante, 6 W. Hubbard, 312-988-7775.

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