The Most Common Dish Italian Restaurants Mess Up, According To Chef Joe Isidori

When we go out to eat, we sometimes do so with an adventurous spirit, ordering something we typically wouldn't (and, often, couldn't) make at home. Other times, we just want something familiar and comforting — like a heaping bowl of spaghetti and meatballs.

A timeless classic, meatballs can be found on the menus of countless Italian restaurants across the United States. While the simplicity of the dish often instills diners with confidence that their order is safe, in an exclusive interview with Mashed, Chef Joe Isidori of Arthur & Sons in New York City says that most Italian restaurants miss the mark when it comes to meatballs. "For some reason, everyone gets them wrong, and they never match up to the ones your mother used to make."

While meatballs can be cooked in several ways (including in the oven or simmered in sauce), Chef Isidori says, "The main issue lies in the fact that most restaurants don't fry their meatballs or keep them in a steam table." Pan-frying meatballs before adding them to sauce not only infuses the dish with more flavor (thanks to the Maillard reaction) but also ensures that the meatballs have a toothsome, crispy shell that keeps them from falling apart. And because restaurants don't make meatballs to order, storing pre-made meatballs in a steam table will keep them moist and at a safe holding temperature.

Freshness is the secret ingredient... and cheese

When restaurant meatballs leave much to be desired, Chef Joe Isidori of Arthur & Sons says a lack of freshness may be to blame, stating, "There's nothing worse than biting into a meatball that was made days ago." Because the flavor of cooked meat tends to decline after more than 24 hours in the fridge, when restaurants store meatballs for a few days before serving, that could be reflected in the dish's flavor. Isidori adds, "At Arthur & Sons, we make our meatballs fresh every morning, cook them for three hours, add sauce, and serve throughout the day."

Even if your favorite local Italian restaurant pan-fries its meatballs and makes them fresh every day, Chef Isidori says they still might not live up to your nonna's meatballs if they haven't got one specific ingredient — ricotta cheese. "The key to achieving light and tender meatballs is incorporating soft ricotta, which helps keep them moist and flavorful," Isidori says. "That's precisely why when you come across a place that gets meatballs right, it quickly becomes your go-to spot for Italian cuisine."