Although Trattoria Il Mulino might not have impressed in its initial opening days, the new restaurant more than made up for it at yesterday afternoon's Meatball Invitational at Damian's Cucina Italiana.
The Il Mulino meatball ticked off every box that the panel of professional judges -- including Houston sports legends Larry Dierker and Dan Pastorini as well as Sarah Rufca from CultureMap, Syd Kearney from 29-95 and me -- were looking for in an Italian meatball: a perfect texture from its blend of pork, beef and veal; fresh herbs; a blend of ricotta, Parmigiano Reggiano and pecorino Romano cheeses that enhanced but didn't weigh down the meatball; and a beautiful presentation with a single, bright-green leaf of basil. It received a nearly unanimous vote for Best Italian Meatball from the panel in a blind tasting.
Meanwhile, downstairs at Damian's, attendees were mingling with their favorite chefs and determining their favorites for the People's Choice award. Some found that it proved difficult with so many restaurants and so many different meatballs to choose from, many of which weren't Italian-style meatballs. Luckily, the judges upstairs were able award a second prize of the afternoon for Best Non-Italian Meatball.
Judges were much more split on this latter category, as the entries ranged wildly (and deliciously) across the board. My personal favorite was the albondigas con elote from The Barbed Rose, with a spicy mayonnaise and kernels of roasted corn adorning a flavorful Spanish-style meatball. But I was torn between the albondigas and the North African-style entry from Oporto: a Moroccan-lamb meatball served with a tangy yogurt sauce. This was exactly the variety I was hoping to find at the competition, and came away mightily impressed with both restaurants' showings.
In the end, though, I was outvoted by my fellow judges and their enjoyment of the all-pork, Taiwanese-style meatballs from Azuma, which won the Best Non-Italian Meatball category. Both sweet and savory with a slight kick from green onions and what tasted like ginger, the meatballs were a classic pairing of Asian-inspired flavors in a soft, juicy ball of meat. What's not to love?
The surprises of the evening, however, came from Carrabba's and Abuso Catering. Carrabba's classic marsala sauce -- which doesn't feature on any meatballs on its regular menu, as far as I can tell -- was bright, earthy and tangy all at once, while the simple meatballs from Abuso (like Trattoria Il Mulino, also garnished with a single basil leaf) were a classic standard done exactly right.
But the People's Choice award went to Nash D'Amico for his straightforward meatballs from D'Amico's Italian Market Cafe (home of my favorite risotto in the city, by the by). D'Amico and his daughter looked beside themselves as they held up one of the meatball-topped trophies presented to them by Teresa Byrne-Dodge from My Table Magazine and Bubba Butera, owner of Damian's.
And the best part of all? Two worthy local charities -- the Houston Food Bank and the Texas Italian-American Sports Foundation -- benefited from the ticket sales at the Meatball Invitational, which looks like it's shaping up to be a yearly event. My fork is at the ready for next year.
For many more meaty photos from the afternoon, dig into our slideshow.