The Meatballs Cometh

What a cook might see after baking 10,000 meatballs

It's a task that Connie Nagle doesn't take lightly, and one she readily admits seems "impossible" to accomplish. Thousands of people not only eagerly await the fruits of her efforts but also will judge them against dozens of other tasty encounters. Still, the member-in-good-standing of the Daughters of Italian Heritage took the challenge head on and plunged her hands into daunting piles of ground beef -- 800 pounds, to be exact -- to create that most perfect of foods: the meatball.

Working with several dozen volunteers, Nagle is overseeing the production of meatballs for this year's Festa Italiana. And when the last pan is loaded into the oven for baking, the tally will stand at 10,496 examples of spherical splendor. As my grandmother Ruggiero might say, "Thatsa lotta meatballs!"

"They're so popular because people have grown up with meatballs all their lives and they're easy to make," Nagle says, adding that the delicacy is actually more prevalent in America than in Italy. The secret to her rapid assembly-line production? "We actually use an ice cream scoop. Just to make sure they're consistent in size."


Festa Italiana

Downtown in front of City Hall, 901 Bagby

11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, September 13 and 14, and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday, September 15. $6; free for children under 12. For more information, call 713-524-4222.

So the recipe must have been handed down in secrecy from relatives in the old country, right? "No, it's pretty simple. We even have it printed up on cards at the booth," Nagle laughs, rattling off its proletarian ingredient list.

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Connoisseurs of la cucina Italiana will tell you that a meatball sandwich or a bowl of pasta is only as good as its sauce. That's something that weighed heavily on the mind of Joe Messina, who, along with co-cooks Joe Puccio and Griff Mercilliot, was charged with producing 800 gallons of the deep red suga for mass consumption.

"It's a new recipe this year that the three of us came up with," says Messina, noting that the sauce has gotten good reviews during test runs at the monthly masses at the Italian Cultural and Community Center. "I just love seeing people enjoy our food and our culture. That means a lot." Messina also encourages people "not to forget about the wine." He surreptitiously uses a small amount to flavor his sauce.

Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, Festa draws more than 20,000 visitors. The event is presented by the Federation of Italian-American Organizations, which helps more than 20 Houston-area Italian clubs (such as the Italian-American Golf Association and Italian-American Lawyers of Texas) come together to work toward common goals. The 2002 edition will be marked by continuous entertainment, including Italian music, tarantella dancing, a tenor contest and grape-stomping. Federation president Gary DeSerio says there also will be a small commemoration of the anniversary of September 11; several ground zero workers and their trained search dogs will attend.

As for Nagle, after the 10,496 meatballs are mixed, rolled, baked, frozen, thawed, rebaked and then served, you'd think they'd be the last things in the world she'd want to see or eat. But you'd be wrong. "The week after we bake them, I don't even want to see another meatball ever," she says. "But when I'm watching everyone else eat, that's when I want one. They're too good to pass up!"

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