I don’t remember either of my grandmothers ever making meatballs. My Yugoslavian grandma seemed to always be in the kitchen, though, and my very first cooking lesson was on a sticky summer afternoon, when she lifted me onto the counter and showed me how she made those sweet, sugar-dusted walnut rolls that I’ve still never been able to recreate. My Italian nonna was slightly less interested in being domestic, but she did have a pizzelle maker, which meant that she always had a stack of those delicate cookies in a tin in the kitchen (and it also meant that I always left her house covered in a layer of equally delicate crumbs).
But a lot of grandmothers — and a lot of nonnas, especially — must be meatball masters, because if I had a dollar for every “Grandma’s Famous Meatball” I’ve seen on restaurant menus, well, then I could afford to eat out a lot more often. Even when I was staring into supermarket freezers, looking for frozen meatballs to try, I saw more than one grandma’s picture printed onto a plastic package. But when I was halfway through this taste test, halfway into a meal that included almost a dozen different kinds of meatballs, I started to wonder if my grandmothers both cut meatballs out of their kitchen playlists because they’re surprisingly hard to get just right.
In my quest to find the perfect frozen meatball, I really did try 11 different brands that I picked up at both supermarkets and specialty retailers. (Also, yes, there are that many different kinds of frozen meatballs — more than that, even). For this particular taste test, I stuck with all beef meatballs, although hopefully I can raid the freezers for turkey versions in the future.
Related: How To Make Meatballs: The Easiest, Simplest Method
I also baked the still-frozen meatballs in a conventional oven, although most varieties also had cooking instructions for simmering them on a stovetop, for prepping already thawed meatballs, or for heating them in a microwave in case of, like, urgent meatball-related emergencies. Each meatball was sampled by itself first, and then a second time with Rao’s Homemade Marinara Sauce (which, after a previous taste test, is still the only jarred pasta sauce I take home with me).
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After about four meatballs, I realized that they’re surprisingly dense foods. After 10 meatballs, I honestly started to wonder whether any of them would … um, actually taste good. My boyfriend (an enthusiastic co-tester) and I were both in agreement that, too often, either the vaguely defined “Italian” spice blends were overpowering, or the meat itself tasted artificially smoked, or that the texture was strange. (One brand had the same taste — and the same mouthfeel — as school cafeteria chicken nuggets. That’s not a bad thing, unless you’re eating something that’s presumably supposed to be a beef meatball).
But after some early disappointments, we did enjoy some very good meatballs. Our overall favorite was the Italian-Style Beef Meatballs from Pineland Farms. Each bite was pleasantly savory, but nothing was so strong that it overpowered the flavor of a marinara sauce. These meatballs would work on their own as an appetizer — bring out the fancy toothpicks! — or tossed with your favorite pasta dish. (I will say that I’m sorry to be the bearer of both the best and the worst news in the same paragraph but, right now, Pineland Farms meatballs are only available at retailers on the East Coast).
We also gave high marks to the Italian-Style Meatballs from Farm Rich. These had a satisfying peppery bite to them, and they were also pretty substantial meatballs — the kind that would be perfect in a meatball sub. (Also, don’t worry: Farm Rich’s Meatballs can be found at most major supermarket chains, as well as at Target and Walmart).
As good as the Pineland Farms and Farm Rich meatballs were, I’m probably not gonna be ready for another meatball for six or seven months. But man, I could really go for a stack of my Nonna’s pizzelle right now.
Do you have a favorite brand of frozen meatballs?
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