In Which We Graduate To Baller (Crawler) Status

Achievement: #22. Meatball Ball Crawl

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:

1) Size
2) Flavor
3) Sauce
4) Presentation

And, of course, that most ephemeral of qualities:

5) Ballerness

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.

The Inaugural Baller Crawler Meatball Ball Crawl
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.

The Inaugural Baller Crawler Meatball Ball Crawl
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.

The Inaugural Baller Crawler Meatball Ball Crawl
Nonetheless, Big Jim’s gave us an auspicious start to our day, and for that, we salute you!

The Inaugural Baller Crawler Meatball Ball Crawl
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.

The Inaugural Baller Crawler Meatball Ball Crawl
How does a restaurant make it 40 years? With balls like these! These were tender and perfectly sized, with a delicious sauce and well-seasoned meat. And as an added bonus…

The Inaugural Baller Crawler Meatball Ball Crawl
…our order was presented on Fiestaware, which automatically elevated it to the top of the scale in terms of ballerness.

The Inaugural Baller Crawler Meatball Ball Crawl
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.

The Inaugural Baller Crawler Meatball Ball Crawl
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.

The Inaugural Baller Crawler Meatball Ball Crawl
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.

The Inaugural Baller Crawler Meatball Ball Crawl
At this point, we finally started to grow our numbers. Here is our expanded crew of Baller Crawlers, taking our first in a series of high school senior photo-inspired shots.

The Inaugural Baller Crawler Meatball Ball Crawl
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 Inaugural Baller Crawler Meatball Ball Crawl
Though, to be fair, we were a group of randos who started as a party of five that swelled to a party of ten over the course of our visit.

The Inaugural Baller Crawler Meatball Ball Crawl
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 Inaugural Baller Crawler Meatball Ball Crawl
…The owner and staff were super nice, friendly, and accommodating of our group (which had expanded yet again)…

The Inaugural Baller Crawler Meatball Ball Crawl
…and they offer wine tastings of a number of Italian varietals, all of which we found quite tasty in their own right!

The Inaugural Baller Crawler Meatball Ball Crawl
Piazza Talarico, I can safely say that your fan club grew by at least 14 on the day of the Ball Crawl!

The Inaugural Baller Crawler Meatball Ball Crawl
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:

The Inaugural Baller Crawler Meatball Ball Crawl
Their classic meatball, which is of a sensible size…

The Inaugural Baller Crawler Meatball Ball Crawl
…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).

The Inaugural Baller Crawler Meatball Ball Crawl
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.

The Inaugural Baller Crawler Meatball Ball Crawl
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…

The Inaugural Baller Crawler Meatball Ball Crawl
…a few servings of truly delicious babaganoush…

The Inaugural Baller Crawler Meatball Ball Crawl
…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.

The Inaugural Baller Crawler Meatball Ball Crawl
Fortunately, we made up for any lack of sauciness with our fierce posing skills.

The Inaugural Baller Crawler Meatball Ball Crawl
After 7 straight rounds of balling hard, we all had to take a moment to manifest our inner animal.

The Inaugural Baller Crawler Meatball Ball Crawl
Some of us more so than others.

The Inaugural Baller Crawler Meatball Ball Crawl
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.

The Inaugural Baller Crawler Meatball Ball Crawl
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…

The Inaugural Baller Crawler Meatball Ball Crawl
…and then, as if to prove how welcome we truly were, they gave us a round of their amazing housemade amaro and limoncello!

The Inaugural Baller Crawler Meatball Ball Crawl
DiAnoia’s, to your FOH staff, kitchen, and bar (especially our dear friend Nicole), we give our sincerest gratitude…from the very bottom of our balls.

The Inaugural Baller Crawler Meatball Ball Crawl
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.

The Inaugural Baller Crawler Meatball Ball Crawl
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.

The Inaugural Baller Crawler Meatball Ball Crawl
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…

The Inaugural Baller Crawler Meatball Ball Crawl
…but also to get a little weird, indulging in their special monthly feature, the gyro meatball…

The Inaugural Baller Crawler Meatball Ball Crawl
…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.

The Inaugural Baller Crawler Meatball Ball Crawl
Here we are, taking advantage of the stairs near the entrance to stage our prom photo.

The Inaugural Baller Crawler Meatball Ball Crawl
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.

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Filed under #22, #22-18, bloomfield, downtown, drinking, extreme eating, food, greenfield, italian, italian food, lawrenceville, meat, meatballs, pittsburgh, restaurant, squirrel hill, strip district, the strip, USBG, wine

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