"I can remember as a child watching both grandmothers and my mom rolling the meatballs," says Bo Santosuosso, co-owner of Johnny's on Fulton (3164 Fulton Rd., 216-281-0055, johnnyscleveland.com).
Squeezing through the narrow restaurant's sea of suits and ties, Santosuosso makes his way behind the bar. He worked his way up from dishwasher at age 19 to mixing drinks at 21 to his ownership today. In the 41 years he's worked at Johnny's, the family meatball recipe has never changed.
Santosuosso's mother's mother was from Sicily, his dad's mother from Tyrol. Santosuosso grew up a couple blocks away and he's been cooking their recipes, including their classic meatballs, ever since.
The one guiding principle: Don't even think about breaking from tradition.
"Everything's consistent," Santosuosso says. "You can't mess with anything; you can't add your own twist to it."
While we think of the Italian-American balls of meat and bread as a staple of fall comfort as the weather turns cool, meatballs transcend not only generations, but cultures.
The Greek have soutzoukakia, as found at Taki's Greek Kitchen (377 Lear Rd., 440-930-8888, takisgreekkitchen.com). Chef/owner Taki Diamantis, a former executive chef at Johnny's on Fulton, grew up with the Greek meatballs he serves today. But being the owner of his own restaurant, he puts his own spin on the dishes he revisits when he travels to Greece every year.
"We make the lamb meatballs in a spiced tomato sauce which is flavored with cumin," says Diamantis. "Between that and a little cinnamon stick, it goes a long way."
He also adapted a chicken meatball influenced by the southern region of the islands. Lighter and fluffier, they're accented with sharp cheese, a red wine reduced to a syrup and mint, an addition of Diamantis to the original recipe.
"It gives it a little sweetness with the sharpness of the cheese," he says. "The dill and the mint and the bold herbs really pop and make it vibrant."
Lamb and chicken are also two of five "polpettes" served at Dante Boccuzzi's D.C. Pasta Co. (12214 Pearl Rd., 440-238-8500, dcpasta.danteboccuzzi.com), which rounds out its offerings with pork, beef and a vegetarian ricotta cheese.
"People will come in and order all five," says manager Johnny DelBusso. "A table will sit down and say, 'Give us one of each meatball' and they all get to try them."
Each is made with breadcrumbs grated in-house from homemade bread, which differentiates "tender meatballs versus dried out, heavy ones," he says.
"There's something reassuring about having that nice, hearty food," says DelBusso. "It reminds people of their youth, when grandma used to sit there and make a pot of sauce with the bones and the meatballs in it."
Just ask his mother, Carmela DelBusso. Carmela is the "C" in D.C. Pasta and the former owner of Portofino Ristorante, which operated where D.C. is now housed.
"I taught him everything he knows!" she says.
Today, she's the chef/owner of Oggi Ristorante (203 East Royalton Rd., 440-526-0789, oggiristorante.net), where she cooks authentic Italian she retained from her 14 years growing up in Italy. Meatballs, she says, start with good ground pork, veal and beef, with Parmigiano and Romano cheeses.
"I use the butcher block black pepper, so when you eat the meatball you hit a chunk of pepper and it explodes in your mouth," says Carmela.
Then it's mixed with handmade bread soaked in milk and one egg per pound of meat. Meatballs go directly into the sauce.
"It's colorful, not the sinister dark sauce that a lot of people use because they think that cooking the sauce for hours and hours and hours makes it better," she says.
For all the global variations of meatballs, it all boils down to keeping the classics just that: timeless and simple.
"The simpler things are, the better they taste," Carmela says.