Getting Saucy with Spaghetti and Meatballs

Emily: Pasta is my favorite food. I like it best with red sauce, either tossed with veggies or filled with cheese. But with meatballs on top? Well, it’s not No. 1 on my list, but it is a classic, and often the first item listed under the pasta section of a menu. And because Dennis is such a devoted meat-eater, I figured spaghetti and meatballs would be ideal for both of us: carbs for me and meat for him. Aren’t I the picture of compromise?

Dennis: Ugh. That pretty much sums up my reaction to the news that we would be traipsing around town sampling spaghetti and meatballs for our next experiment in spousal relations. My contempt for this dish stems from my firm belief that, as traditionally prepared, it spotlights the wrong ingredient. Why would anyone in their right mind serve two gorgeous meatballs atop a mountain of rubbery, undercooked noodles? No, no, the meatballs should be center stage between two halves of hot Italian bread, bubbling with garlicky cheese. It did not bode well that we began with an imperfect concept.

Emily’s spaghetti and meatballs profile: Slightly sweet sauce with a spicy meatball kick.

Dennis’ spaghetti and meatballs profile: I think we covered that.

5201 Southwest Ave., St. Louis
Mon. to Fri. – 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sat. – 5 to 11 p.m.

E: Our first forkful of spaghetti and meatballs was a to-go experience. We called ahead, and our order was ready when we arrived at the restaurant. It was securely sealed in Saran Wrap until we made it safely home, where we were greeted by two whiffle ball-sized meatballs atop a thin layer of sweet sauce with just a hint of tang.

D: It’s nice when your beliefs are confirmed. It’s even nicer when it happens right away. Two huge herbaceous meatballs seemed to taunt the strikingly undersauced noodles: “You are gummy, chewy, lacking in flavor and no one wants to eat you.” I did end up giving it a shot, but the meatballs and what sauce was left eventually ditched the spaghetti and ended up happily ensconced between slices of cheese garlic bread that I had fortuitously ordered. And you know what? I gained a deeper understanding of my wife. I now at least had an inkling of how she felt during our sushi and slinger reviews. If she, with an active loathing of those dishes, could muscle through, certainly I could get up off of my apathy and soldier on.

Old Spaghetti Factory
727 N. First St., St. Louis
Mon. to Thu. – 4:45 to 10 p.m., Fri. – 4:45 to 11 p.m., Sat. – 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., Sun. – 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.

D: I know it’s not an (this is totally made for air quotes) “independent restaurant” (see I told you), but I have fond memories of The Landing location from when I was in my mid to upper single digits. Unfortunately I learned that sometimes you can’t – no, scratch that – shouldn’t go back. My world collapsed in on me when I stepped up to that hostess stand on a Sunday at 4:58 p.m. and heard, “I’m sorry, there’s a bit of a wait. If you would like to turn your soul in for a beeper, we’ll buzz you in a few millennia.”

E: In reality: We were politely told that there would be a 45-minute wait, which turned out to be right on the money.

D: Something like 407 parties of 20 later, we were seated. I was ruined though. There was some spaghetti and the requisite two meatballs, but the only thing I really remember enjoying was the Sicilian Garlic Cheese Bread, which tasted more like a pesto and cheese flatbread.

E: Do not order that. The fact that he liked it proves he’d seriously gone bonkers by this point. Here’s what really happened: All the employees were polite and obviously had their system to get customers fed as quickly as possible, but there was no time amid the crush of patrons for personal service. Our spaghetti was topped with two meatballs twice the size of golf balls, and the sauce was unremarkably mild, with little depth of flavor. Although completely edible, wait or no wait, it’s not something I’d go back for a second time.

Zia’s on The Hill
5256 Wilson Ave., St. Louis
Mon. to Thu. – 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., Fri. and
Sat. – 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.

E: I haven’t been to the restaurant since my teens, but I’ve been buying Zia’s spaghetti sauce in the grocery store for years. Dennis commented that it’s the “least ketchup-y” of the sauces we’d sampled so far, and it’s definitely spicy enough for me. Zia’s mixed things up a bit by offering both baked and classic versions of spaghetti and meatballs, and being that I can rarely get enough cheese, I went for the delicious baked option.

D: It was at Zia’s when I finally came to the realization of why garlic cheese bread is a better vehicle than spaghetti for meatballs. It’s so simple I can’t believe that I didn’t put two and two together before: The reason is milk fat. The baked spaghetti, with all kinds of baked cheese and, subsequently, a creamier sauce, held the attention of the meatballs. But just when we were getting somewhere with the other parts of the dish, I discovered that the meatballs were bland and, at that point, completely lost faith that a worthwhile plate of spaghetti and meatballs existed.

Farotto’s Italian Restaurant & Pizzeria
9525 Manchester Road, Rock Hill (pictured above)
Mon. to Thu. – 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Fri. and Sat. – 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Sun. – 4 to 10 p.m.

E: Despite the fact that I ordered a slinger at every locale in last month’s article, somehow Dennis still persuaded me to let him try a bite of my meal so he could order something else.

D: When I tasted Emily’s, though, I knew I should’ve stuck it out. This was easily my favorite, with crusty, flavorful meatballs; the right amount of sweet, tangy and softly heated sauce; and perfectly cooked spaghetti, a touch thicker than angel hair. It wasn’t enough to change my world view of spaghetti and meatballs, but it was enough to plant seeds of hope.

E: This was my favorite, too, and I recommend skipping the house salad to make sure you have plenty of room, because it’s hard to quit eating this dish even when your stomach knows it’s full.