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With the exception of the Shell House just off I-95 in Savannah, my best food finds have been off the beaten path.
Well, there is this one place we recently discovered on Highway 17 South as you’re about to leave Charleston, South Carolina. Having had our fill of turkey and ham over Thanksgiving weekend, my wife and I figured on a light lunch and a quiet drive as we took the scenic route home from Sneads Ferry, North Carolina.
I wanted to avoid I-95 and the billions of snowbirds returning to Florida from their annual pilgrimage to the snow states. As lunchtime approached, we were looking for something Italian and were about to give up when we found La Fontana’s Italian Restaurant.
Their claim to feature “old country” and “homemade” pasta got my attention. Their spaghetti and meatballs won my heart. I’ve not found meatballs that delicious since the Saratoga closed its doors shortly after my wife and I celebrated our first anniversary there 35 years ago.
The Saratoga was run by an Italian-American retired Marine whose cooking skills apparently were better than his management skills. His restaurant — located next to the New River bridge in Sneads Ferry, near the back gate to Camp Lejeune — was open about two years.
The savory flavor of Saratoga’s meatballs faded from my taste buds’ memory until that moment three months ago, when I tried the meatballs at La Fontana’s. Before the memory could fade again, I decided to re-create it by making my own Italian meatballs. I’m almost there.
Cooking is like an art form. Just as it takes a keen eye and adept hand coordination to paint, sculpt or do wood craft and a keen sense of hearing and voice to write, play or sing music, it takes the combined senses of smell and taste to be a good cook.
Yeah, I know food competitions say presentation is important for making food appetizing, but I don’t put a lot of stock in that.
I’ve tasted a lot of dishes that looked great but were not fit to serve buzzards, and I’ve tasted some foot-stomping delicious stuff that looked like regurgitated roadkill. Looks are deceiving.
Perhaps I say this because the meatballs I’ve made so far are not the tightly packed, round morsels you’d see in a fine Italian restaurant. I think, though, after only two trial runs, my not-so-pretty meatballs can compete with some of the chain restaurants. No, they’re not yet Saratoga or La Fontana’s quality, but I’m working on it.
Each time I make them, I taste them with baby bites after first taking a deep breath of them on the cooking sheet when I remove them from the oven. Did I use the right amount of salt? Is the garlic flavor what it should be? Did I use too much oregano, basil or red pepper?
I add the finished product to a pot of marinara sauce, preferably a premium commercial brand like Rao’s or my son’s delicious meatless sauce. Without his permission, I can’t share his recipe, but here’s my meatball recipe — at least for now.
• 1 cup Italian breadcrumbs
• ¾ teaspoon sea salt
• 1 ½ teaspoon oregano
• ½ teaspoon black pepper
• 1 tablespoon basil
• ¼ cup finely chopped, dried parsley
• 1 medium onion and ½ medium green pepper, puréed in blender
• 2 garlic cloves, crushed
• Pinch crushed red pepper
• ½ pound ground beef
• ½ pound ground veal
• ½ pound ground pork
• ¼ pound mild Italian sausage
• 2 large eggs
• ¼ cup milk
• 1 cup grated parmesan cheese
• Italian seasoning
• Olive or canola oil
Thoroughly mix dry ingredients with milk and eggs then form meatballs slightly larger than golf balls. Brown in a large skillet with olive oil/canola oil. Sprinkle with Italian seasoning before baking on a cooking sheet at 350 degrees for 40 minutes.
Serve over thin spaghetti noodles or on hoagie roll with marinara sauce.