Last year, Fox and I put a spin on our traditional Pub Golf crawl and threw our first pierogi crawl. The event was a carb-loaded, excess-laden triumph…but one we immediately began thinking of ways to top. Fortunately, at some point during said crawl, one of our guests suggested — “You know what would be great? If you did the same kind of crawl, but you focused the whole thing on meatballs.”
Challenge accepted — and thus was born… the The Inaugural 101 Achievements Baller Crawler Meatball Ball Crawl, an 11-stop tour of some of the finest balls anyone’s ever put in their mouth.
To properly rate each stop, we adapted a scale we’d established a few years back, when we made our first attempt to do a rigorous ranking of our fair city’s balls:
And, of course, that most ephemeral of qualities:
It was not difficult for us to fill the day with restaurants that served a la carte meatballs; in fact, the challenge was in whittling our list down to create a mostly-walkable itinerary. Ultimately, we crafted an 11-stop tour traced through Bloomfield, Lawrenceville, the Strip District, and downtown Pittsburgh, with bookends in the Greenfield/Squirrel Hill area.
Our day began a little off the beaten path: at Big Jim’s in the Run, which is in the depths of Greenfield. It’s one of the only places in Pittsburgh that serves a plate of meatballs at 10am.
Like, a giant plate of meatballs. These were of a nice size, though they were less Italian-style and more “diner-style” in terms of flavor/seasoning. Fox and I downed 2.5 balls each…which, while delicious, was maybe not the way to start a 13-hour meat-athon.
With our morning meatball options fully exhausted in this area of town, we grabbed a Lyft over to Bloomfield, Pittsburgh’s Little Italy, to begin the main stretch of our crawl in earnest. Stop two of the day was at Alexander’s Italian Bistro, a restaurant that has called Bloomfield home for over 40 years.
…our order was presented on Fiestaware, which automatically elevated it to the top of the scale in terms of ballerness.
As we wrapped our second stop, we realized that we were still by our lonesome, and also ahead of schedule, so we took a detour to a local farmer’s market and bought this little punkin. It accompanied us for the remainder of the day.
Side quest completed, we returned to our regular schedule. Our third stop of the day was another Bloomfield institution, The Pleasure Bar. Seeing as they had a pina colada dispenser right at the bar, I ordered myself one to tide me over while we waited for the balls to come out.
When they did arrive, they did not disappoint. The sauce here was smoother and a little sweeter, making the dish feel lighter than some of the other meatballs. That lightness was quite welcome…especially given that I’d basically shotgunned a supremely rich and heavy pina colada 10 minutes earlier.
Stop four was to Lombardozzi’s Restaurant, a perennial favorite here at 101 Achievements (and also our favorite place to do pre-race carb loading!) Behold the orbilicious glory of these balls. They’re small and dense–perfect two-biters–and the presentation is stately, with wisps of herbs laying on top. They were, in a word, delicious — even if they took a little while to make it to our table.
The next stop was our first wild card of the day — a spot which we were visiting totally blind, with no preconceptions aside from the fact that their balls came a la carte. The place we came to was Piazza Talarico. I cannot say enough good things about this place. Their meatballs were ballin’ out of control…
The next stop on our tour was down in Lawrenceville: Alida’s Woodfired Cucina on Butler St. Here, we ordered a sampling of the two classes of ball that they offer:
…and their Bocce balls, one of which can barely be cupped by a human hand. Each set of balls had its own merits, but ultimately I gave the edge to the classic ones, because they had the perfect ratio of sear-to-insides (I prefer to get a little bit of the outer crust of a meatball in every bite).
Regardless of our preferences, though, these meatballs gave us plenty to talk about, as you can see in our re-enactment of a spread from a Delia’s catalog.
We were just past the halfway point by now, so at our next stop, Driftwood Oven, we took a moment to celebrate with our beverage of the summer, some Rhinegeist Bubbles…
…and of course, heaps more meatballs. I definitely want to come back here and try the meatballs as a topping on one of their pizzas! I enjoyed their flavor and the sauce quite a bit, though I wished there had been more sauce.
That bit of business out of the way, we made the long trek into the Strip District for our next stop, DiAnoia’s Eatery.
Now, a note. A few hours earlier — about the time I realized both that our numbers were well in excess of what I’d guessed they’d be, and that DiAnoia’s is actually a very popular dinner destination — I’d gotten in touch with the staff to
warn inform them that we were coming. Up until the very last moment, though, I was truly unsure whether this stop would end up even coming to pass.
Little did I anticipate just how awesome the staff at DiAnoia’s would be — even knowing a few people who work there. Somehow, they found a space for what had grown into a party of sixteen, served us huge, family-style platters of what I personally consider to be the best meatballs of the night…
DiAnoia’s also marked the clear climax of the evening…after which most folks tapped out of the Ball Crawl. Fox and I, however, soldiered on, walking all the way downtown to our next stop: Talia Cucina & Rosticceria At Talia, we were served a truly scrumptious hot sausage meatball, with a dollop of ricotta to cut the heat and provide a sweet, creamy counterpoint. It was a really smart (and delicious) touch.
At Talia, with our volume reduced (in both the headcount and decibel senses), we each took a moment to reflect on how much we’d grown in the span of our senior year, and how everything would be different in September when we went off to college.
Stop number ten was one of the few places in Pittsburgh where meatballs are the star of the show — Emporio: A Meatball Joint. Here, we decided to start with something classic…
…and what I can only describe as the Meal I Most Wish Had Been Served in my high school cafeteria, the chicken meatball in a cheese sauce. If loving this meatball was wrong, then I don’t want to be right.
And then, just as the day began, it was Fox and I on our own. The two of us caught a ride up to Squirrel Hill for a final round of ball-ery at Mineo’s Pizza, sat at the bar, and ordered one of these bad boys for each of us.
How were the meatballs, fresh out of the oven? Those details are lost to the sands of time. In our beef, veal, and pork-induced haze, we took no notes on this stop whatsoever. Is meatball amnesia a thing? I can no longer definitely say “no.” What I can say, though, is that as a leftover, this Mineo’s meatball was fabulous — almost like a piece of lasagna where they forgot the noodles, to my profound joy. So despite my lack of rigorous data, I’ll give these balls a tentative thumbs-up.
And thus endeth the tale of our Inaugural 101 Achievements Baller Crawler Meatball Ball Crawl, an event we happily can call an unqualified success (though we certainly learned a few things along the way that’ll make our next event even better). So watch out, ball purveyors of the Burgh…you just may meat us again next year.