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View From Lodi, CA Pittsburgh, PA: The Maligned Meatball—Make It Right For St. Joseph`s Day!
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March 12, 2010, 04:00 AM
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When the Food Network debuted in 1993, I immediately became one of its biggest fans.

At the time, my mother was bedridden. When I visited her in Los Angeles we idled our afternoons away by watching Emeril Lagasse, Mario Batali and Bobby Flay, three of the original celebrity chefs.

My interest perked up when bakers like Gail Gand or Julia Child appeared on the screen. Although I had never baked anything in my life, I was inspired by Child to try her brownies.

As a result, I eventually became a dedicated home baker who eventually became confident enough to enter state fair competitions and come away with some blue ribbons.

I owe a debt of gratitude to the Food Network for providing me with the incentive to start a new hobby that has brought pleasure to my friends and relatives.

Gradually, however, my favorites disappeared from the Food Network. The first to go was David Rosengarten who had the most popular show until the channel switched him to 1:00 AM before canceling the program altogether

Soon the network eliminated Gand, the Child reruns, Michael Lomonico, the Two Fat Ladies, Two Hot Tamales and Ming Tsai.

When Lagasse and Batali got the axe, the housecleaning was completed.

Even though I watched their shows, I was not necessarily a fan of all those original chefs. But I always learned some cooking trick or new technique whenever I tuned in. Sometimes it was as simple as how to more effectively peel garlic. Other times, it would be a new recipe for coq au vin.

From Rosengarten, a Cornell University Ph.D. in dramatic literature, I learned what is absolutely the world`s best cinnamon bun recipe. Sure, it takes four hours start from start to finish (only thirty minutes hand`s on). But people eat one, they never forget it.

Rosengarten also taught me the three simplest imaginable secrets to making the perfect bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich.

Loud, unattractive and uninspiring personalities like Paula Deen, Rachel Ray and Guy Fieri gradually replaced my old mentors.

What would prompt me to watch 30 Minute Meals? I already know how to open a package of frozen spinach.

Fieri`s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives might be interesting if were about to embark on a cross country auto trip. I`m not so why should I waste my time?

By the way, if you are interested in which local Lodi spot Fieri considers the best, it`s Giusti`s out on the Delta.

Batali summed up the Food Network`s transition from serious to reality show format. Said Batali: "They don`t need me. They don`t need someone who uses polysyllabic words from other languages. They have decided they are mass market."

I, however, miss Batali because he brought an understanding about Italian food that was missing from the mainstream.

One of Batali`s most important lessons was about the maligned meatball which he thinks Americans ruined. Since my feast day of St. Joseph`s is only a week away, I`ll explain to all aspiring Italian cooks what a good meatball is all about.

If you can absorb the basic meatball premise, you`ll be fine. A meatball is not a hamburger shaped into a golf ball- sized orb.

In Italy, meatballs were devised to make meat stretch further when times were tough. Cheaper ingredients like eggs and bread were added as fillers.

As Batali further explained, in Italy a meatball is hardly ever served with pasta. But if you follow that all-American practice, I forgive you because I do, too. The meatballs and spaghetti combination is great so don`t deny yourself because of a technicality.

Here`s Batali`s recipe: 3 cups of day old bread, 1 1/4 pounds of ground beef, 3 eggs beaten, 3 garlic cloves minced, 1 cup grated pecorino, .1/4 cup each of Italian parsley minced, olive oil, lightly toasted pine nuts (optional) and 1/2  teaspoon each of salt and pepper.

Soak the bread in warm water, then add it to the remaining ingredients to form your meatballs. Instead of frying, which makes a big mess and produces a most unsatisfactory meatball that is burnt on the outside but dry on the inside, bake them in a 350 degree over for about thirty five minutes.

The baking instead of frying secret I learned from Mike Maroni, another Food Network favorite.

Maroni, who has a 100-year old meatball recipe he learned from his grandmother, will also forgive you for plating them with spaghetti.

His long departed grandmother however most likely would not have.

Joe Guzzardi [email him] is a California native who recently fled the state because of over-immigration, over-population and a rapidly deteriorating quality of life. He has moved to Pittsburgh, PA where the air is clean and the growth rate stable. A long-time instructor in English at the Lodi Adult School, Guzzardi has been writing a weekly column since 1988. It currently appears in the Lodi News-Sentinel.