Meatball Mafia will pull you back in with bold flavors
“America First” is printed above a portly politician with weird hair on a poster near the menu above a service counter. Below the man’s smiling/scowling visage, the poster reads: “For President ... He Can Win!” in a red font that makes the message seem like a warning.
This raises questions.
Is a political poster on the wall of an eatery the last thing you’d want to see now? Or is such a sight practically inevitable? And what if the poster makes you laugh, which is the effect this one had on me?
See, the politician depicted is the late James A. Traficant — a former congressman from Youngstown whose corruption and flamboyance could provide enough source material for a Coen brothers movie. And the date on the poster is 1988, 14 years prior to Traficant being expelled from Congress for offenses such as racketeering, taking bribes and forcing his staff to work on his houseboat.
But back to those questions. You can get your own answers to them — as well as crowd-pleasing, regional-style Italian-American food — when you visit a vendor in Hilliard’s Center Street Market. This friendly stall, which is plastered with myriad Youngstown-referencing decorations, bears a tongue-in-cheek title aligned with a wisecracking identity: The Meatball Mafia.
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As stated on its website, The Meatball Mafia originated in 2016 when two Italian-American brothers started offering the flavors of their native Youngstown from a Columbus food truck. After winning awards — including first place at the 2018 Columbus Food Truck Festival — the business expanded to the newly opened market a few months ago. It expanded its menu, too.
Meatballs made from an old family recipe remain the focus. The firm-yet-tender orbs, which are light on filler and generally doused in an appealingly tart house tomato sauce and garnished with not-quite-melted mozzarella and provolone, are comforting and eminently likeable.
Playing on Youngstown’s reputation as a one-time hub of organized crime, many items bear titles that reference gangsters both real and fictional. One of my favorite dishes — and a prime example of the simple-yet bold, old-school-style food here — was the flavor-bomb Satriale Bowl ($13): three meatballs, hunks of DiRusso’s mild Italian sausage (from Youngstown), zesty pepperoni, banana peppers, sauce, mozzarella, provolone and creamy ricotta.
Meatballs, sauce, cheese and fiery giardiniera are the killer crew that whacks taste buds (in a good way) in the Nicky Santoro ($10) — a sloppy-but-irresistible sandwich on a soft-and-warm sub bun. The same kind of roll holds sauced meatballs crushed into a sort of coney sauce and poured over an Italian sausage in the Bada Boom sandwich ($10). Sure, I’d prefer the sausage had been seared and the bread toasted, but this was still fun to munch.
So was the Brier Hill Pizza ($13), named after Youngstown’s “Little Italy.” This tomato-forward regional classic came with: a bready, medium-thick crust that was crisp in the right places; loads of house sauce; grated Parmesan (no melted cheese); green or very spicy Hungarian peppers (go spicy); plus an endearing, neighbors-having-a-potluck origin story from my server.
Hot Peppers in Oil ($5) is another beloved “Y-town” staple. Characteristically, this pile of Hungarian peppers, scooped up and eaten with white bread, was a humble but entertaining snack.
Warm meatballs and sauce topped a cool rotini pasta salad enhanced with pesto, minced peppers and onions, plus briny notes in the James A. Traficant ($9), an odd but never boring combo named after Youngstown’s not-so-favorite son.
The Traficant in a bowl demonstrated that “never boring” can be a far better quality in food than in a politician. Relatedly, writing this in late October before a momentous presidential election concludes reminds me of something Mark Twain said: “Politicians are like diapers, they need to be changed often, and for the same reasons.”
5354 Center St., Hilliard (in the Center Street Market)