There are two sides to my eating style: There's the unconscious mode, where I can nibble through half a box of raisins while reading a recipe, and not even know it, and there's my hyper-aware mode, usually employed at very pricey or highly respected restaurants where I want to savor every mouthful and tease out every nuance of flavor.
I had to employ the hyper-aware aspect during my stint as a judge in the second annual Meatball Slapdown at The Brooklyn Kitchen in Greenpoint.
I had never done anything like this before. My fellow panelists seemed to be more experienced official tasters. There was Ted Allen, of Bravo's "Queer Eye For The Straight Guy" fame. He's currently hosting the food show, "Chopped," and also makes guest appearances as a judge on "Top Chef."
Amanda Hesser is a food writer for The New York Times. Garrett Olliver is the brewmaster of the Brooklyn Brewery. And Frank Castronovo and Frank Falcinellli of the popular Frankie's Spuntino in Carroll Gardens and Frankie's on the Lower East Side, made the Slapdown's winning meatball last year.
How do you judge a meatball? Our official judge's ballot offered a list of criteria: appearance, aroma, shape, overall flavor, quality of ingredients, composition and texture. Taking good notes would be critical; there were six meatballs to sample, and they would be brought to us separately, making side-by-side comparisons difficult.
Our server came up the stairs with a red, round tray filled with meatballs.
"Meatball No. 1 has arrived!" said Frank Falcinelli, with all the boom and bravado of a town crier.
Ted Allen sat across from me, and we compared notes.
"This tomato sauce is sweet. Too sweet? What do you think?"
"It's not unpleasant."
We debated whether it was fair to talk to each other about our impressions. Allen said he's come down on the side of sharing viewpoints. He said it helps him organize his thoughts.
One meatball had a lot of large bread crumbs in it. I wrote, "Spongy texture." Frank Falcinelli called it "The poor man's meatball: lots of bread, little meat." He was the quipster of the table.
Another meatball, made of veal, he dubbed as "White Inner Thigh." It was mushy and had a heavy garlic taste.
Most meatballs were the size of golfballs. One was the size of a blue rubber ball, like the kind you see kids playing with on handball courts. "Grandma's meatball, without the bread," Falcinelli opined. A watcher on the sidelines -- a friend of Falcinelli's -- commented on the meatball's size and heft.
"Hey, Frank, a lot of PSI was needed on that one!"
He meant "pounds per square inch." And, yeah, it took a lot of pressure to push my fork through the little meat monster. It was super salty, too.
Another offering fell apart on the plate. It was slightly whitish-pink in color. The panelists blanched.
"Is it cooked?" asked Amanda Hesser.
A stray comment by our server -- "bananas" -- had the table abuzz. Was it made with BANANAS? Is that why it looked pale and raw?
As it happens, our server was saying "bananas" as in "crazy," not "bananas" as in "food" and definitely not as "meatball ingredient." Thank goodness. But this knowledge did not save the wet, gooey pile of meat that was Meatball No. 4. We universally gave it last place.
First place went to Struzzicheria in TriBeCa. It was the first meatball we tried.
I liked it, but since it was the first one I tasted, I ranked it third, straight down the middle. I kept bumping up its rating as the other meatballs came and went. Struzzicheria's meatball was a nice, two-bite size, fork-tender, evenly seasoned with garlic, parsley and salt.
It had a smooth texture, which doesn't usually rock my meatball world -- I prefer a rougher meat grind -- but, as Ted Allen would say, it was not unpleasant. It melted in the mouth. It had a little dollop of sweet, tangy tomato sauce on top.
I could probably run through six or seven of these little goodies, but I certainly couldn't do it unconsciously, like that box of raisins. They're too good to ignore.