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On the Road

A Million Meatballs in Rocky’s Shadow

We traveled to Philadelphia to taste meatballs that would make Rocky proud.
By Published Feb. 21, 2018

Before creating our own recipe for tender meatballs you can make on a weeknight, staff photographer Steve Klise and I traveled to Villa di Roma, a touchstone in South Philadelphia’s Italian American community, one of the oldest and most dynamic in the United States.


 

Where We Went

South Philly Map

South Philly

Among the Italian-Americans with roots in town: Frankie Avalon, Joey Lawrence, and yes, Sylvester Stallone.

As I step out the front door of Villa di Roma, I wave to the faded black-and-white picture of the iconic Rocky Balboa that is hanging above the bar, a sure sign that I’m solidly in South Philadelphia. I walk a short distance up 9th Street to a satellite prep kitchen where Basil DeLuca, one of the three brothers who owns the Villa di Roma restaurant, and his daughter, Carmella Garofoli, are making that day’s meatballs.

The prep kitchen is long and narrow, fitted with shiny stainless steel appliances and fixture and tiled with ceramic floors; a worn wooden table sits in the middle. Two massive pots of tomato sauce, a.k.a. “gravy,” simmer on the stovetop in the background, the future destination for the meatballs in progress. Every now and then, Basil gives the sauces a purposeful stir with a whittled down canoe paddle.

When I ask for the recipe, he denies one exists. “We don’t measure. We eye everything up.”

Why the satellite prep space? “I couldn’t do it all in that kitchen," Basil says in his thick Philly accent without taking his eyes off the meatballs. He makes 145 a day, 6 days a week, and he’s been at it for 25 years. That’s more than a million meatballs, and he claims he’s no less enthusiastic or passionate about the process than he was the day he started making them. When I ask for the recipe, he denies one exists. “We don’t measure. We eye everything up.” Basil forms each meatball with careful hands, adding or removing a bit until it feels “just right”, which is about three ounces.

Basil and Carmella work through ten-pound batches of meatballs, their focus only broken by the occasional joke. When he taught her the process a few years ago, they made a few adjustments because her hands are smaller than his; three handfuls for Basil is about four-and-a-pinch for Carmella.

Whenever he calls out one of Carmella’s meatballs as imperfect, and she admits that he’s right, he takes a selfie with her for the record. “I’m a perfectionist, but she’s getting worse than me.” Good news for their customers.

If You Go

Restaurant: Villa di Roma

Address: 936 S 9th St, Philadelphia, PA 19147

What we ate (and loved): Drop meatballs, fried asparagus

Insider tips: An operation that spreads over most of a block of 9th Street in the Italian Market, Villa di Roma offers red-sauce favorites in a familiar Italian-American setting. Just down the street from the entrance to the restaurant (which takes you through a bar watched over by a framed photo of Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa), members of the DeLuca family staff a commissary kitchen that turns out thousands of handmade meatballs every day, mixing and measuring ingredients by handfuls and instinct according to a recipe passed from generation to generation. Not necessarily traditional, but also worth ordering: breaded and fried spears of asparagus, served with a lemon-butter sauce that gets a spicy kick from just a few heavy dashes of hot sauce.

Read about some of our other trips around the country, in the name of recipe research: