Several weeks ago, a handful of Pittsburghers were tweeting about the number of restaurants with meatballs on the menu.
They nominated their favorites, citing Lidia's in the Strip District, E2 in Highland Park, Cure in Lawrenceville, Up Modern Kitchen in Shadyside and Ten Penny, Downtown.
942 Penn Ave., Downtown
- Hours:11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday to Tuesday; 11 a.m. to midnight Wednesday to Saturday.
- Basics: Emporio: A Meatball Joint offers four types of meatballs and an array of sauces that result in more than 500 combinations. Good service, affordable prices, 32 beers on tap and a prime destination are also draws.
- Dishes: Beef or pork meatballs with a selection of nine sauces, served as one of four portion sizes; wedding soup; matzo ball soup; escarole and beans; Buffalo fried chicken balls.
- Prices: Snacky things $5-$8; greens $5; soups $5; sides $5; poutine $7, with add-ons between $1 and $2.50; meatball sliders $3.50; panini $7.50; grinder $9.50; saucy balls $11, over any side an additional $4; desserts $5.
- Summary: Evening valet, outdoor dining.
- Noise level: Moderate.
And then they suggested a food fight to decide who's making the best meatballs.
The discussion was sparked by the recent opening of Emporio: A Meatball Joint. It's the ground floor restaurant and first stage of the tri-level Sienna Mercato on Penn Avenue, Downtown, from executive chef and managing partner Matthew Porco and Michael McCoy.
It seems the giant meatballs at Sienna Sulla Piazza in Market Square have inspired their own restaurant.
The trend began with such spots as The Meatball Shop in New York in 2010, which now has five locations around the city. In Miami, The Meatball Joint in South Beach opened and closed after a year run in 2013.
It makes sense that a meatball restaurant would close in Miami; there's hardly an Italian immigrant population and they're not exactly the food one would associate with beach bodies.
Here in Pittsburgh Emporio: A Meatball Joint will likely hold more staying power. For one, Pittsburgh is more like New York with plenty of meatball loyalists among the population.
And in a Downtown where the price point per check creeps higher with every new restaurant, Emporio: A Meatball Joint is an economical answer to family dining -- dishes run from a low of $5 to a high of $11.
Emporio is also in a fantastic location, not just for where it's perched on Penn Avenue, but that it's the cheap-seat version of a potential "It" destination: Il Tetto, the third-floor beer garden with retractable roof, is slated to open in late-April, and Mezzo, the second-floor wine bar and small plates restaurant, will open this summer.
What's with the love of meatballs?
Like Pittsburgh's humble greens and beans, meatballs are homestyle fare with such common status that some restaurants won't serve them. But unlike greens and beans, meatballs can be found in just about any city in America with or without a population of Italian immigrants.
Perhaps we're captivated by the memories of the children's song of angst over the loss of our poor meatballs. Or maybe it's because they're an awful lot like burgers, which also provoke heated debate over who makes the best and why.
Mr. Porco serves meatballs at his Market Square spot, Sienna Sulla Piazza, but they're more traditional than those at Emporio.
Each meatball at Sienna is a 4.5 ounce mix of pork, veal and beef, with bread crumbs, egg and herbs he dries in the kitchen. After this, he bucks tradition with mozzarella tucked inside, while chunky marinara coats each plate. They're $11 for a pair, and he sells a ton of them.
At the new restaurant, he makes four types of meatballs -- classic beef, spicy pork, vegetarian and chicken -- as well as a meatball of the day, such as cheeseburger or pepperoni pizza. Each features the listed meat, egg, bread crumbs and minced fresh herbs. They're also smaller, at 3 ounces. Patrons have a choice of nine sauces, which include government cheese and tzatziki.
While Neapolitan meatballs are seared and southern Italian styles are poached, Mr. Porco does neither. Instead, he oven bakes them in both restaurants.
At Emporio, beef is the favorite meatball, and Sunday gravy and arribiata are the best-selling sauces.
I gravitate toward pork or beef meatballs with Sunday gravy, a classic combination. In my three visits, the beef or pork has been the most flavorful. They can be good, but they're not always emphatically good, since it often depends on how they turn out that day as well as as the meat and sauce combination. The vegetarian meatball leans toward dry.
Don't forget about the rest of the menu. Emporio makes a terrific rendition of escarole and beans with a little tomato in vegetable broth. It's almost a soup and a very flavorful one at that, without the distraction of too many ingredients.
I also liked the wedding soup, with a similar composition as greens and beans, but made with chicken broth and pastina, served with a healthy shaving of Parmesan. The matzo ball soup is also a nice surprise, with lighter matzos than at nearly every restaurant I've had in Pittsburgh.
The marinated olives and mozzarella or the fries with Parmesan are the most grounded dishes among starters. And I liked the Buffalo fried chicken balls in spite of myself, because I often crave wings. The rest -- arancini that features truffle oil, pickle chips with bacon ranch dip, fried provolone sticks -- require a sense of humor or a heavy longing for the most antagonistic of fried foods.
From here we move to that kitchen sink dish imported from Canada, poutine: house cut fries or tater tots with gravy, and, potentially, a meatball, a fried egg, pancetta and or bacon. I can see how it appeals to kids or grown-ups on a drinking bender, but it's too absurd for me.
The service, however, is never absurd. Staff is trained by the very congenial general manager Ryan Burke, formerly of Soba in Shadyside. He's very visible, as you'll often see him on a sweep through the sprawling patio or the dining room with its brown leather banquettes and exposed brick.
Or maybe he's pouring drinks behind the U-shaped bar. The drink may be one of 32 draft beers, with healthy representation from Pennsylvania, Ohio and New York, and a handful of imports. Or maybe it's a retro cocktail such as the Harvey Wallbanger or the Grasshopper. There's also a short list of accessible wines by the glass.
And as for those meatballs? They may not always match the favorites of memory, but should the Pittsburgh Twitterverse get its wish for a meatball-themed food fight, Mr. Porco has the experience and the resources behind him to win it.