You Never Forget Your First Meatball Salad

A few months back, I met a friend for dinner at Mart Anthony's, one of the red-sauce joints sprinkled around Chicago like blobs of fresh ricotta. We started with two hefty pours of Chianti and Nana's meatball salad, that gloriously Italian-American coupling of hot, tomato sauce-slicked meatballs and cold lettuce dressed in herbaceous Italian vinaigrette.

As I sliced through the tender beef meatball, sweet marinara immediately started mingling with the sharp vinaigrette, pooling beneath shards of crunchy iceberg, crisp cucumber rounds, and fat wedges of tomato. I alternated forkfuls of bright salad and soft meatball coated in sweet tomato, sometimes combining the two for a nostalgic jolt back to childhood, when a few rogue lettuce leaves would migrate to the spaghetti-and-meatballs side of the plate and surreptitiously coil onto my fork with the noodles, adding their vinegary punch.

"This salad is genius," declared my date—a Chicago transplant—as she mopped up its tangy, oregano-speckled sauce remains with a bit of bread. Another convert!, I thought smugly, as we now leaned into our respective mountains of pasta.

I can't remember the first time I ordered meatball salad, but I know it was in Chicago, a city whose love of improving a dish through the addition of more meat also gave us the Combo ("Cahm-bo")—an Italian beef sandwich garnished with an Italian sausage. Could meatball salad also be a Chicago original?

I started asking around.

"I don't know that I've seen it on menus outside Chicago," said Thomas Kleiner, the longtime general manager of Chicago's Club Lucky restaurant and a purveyor of meatball salad. "I do think it was a generational, second-day meal that a lot of Chicago Italian immigrants brought with them, mostly from Sicily."

Mart Anthony's owner John Campo agreed on both counts. "This is peasant food," he said. "Meatballs could always be made inexpensively; lettuce was cheap."

Campo's late dad Martin Anthony Campo, grandson of Neapolitan and Sicilian immigrants, opened Mart Anthony's in 1981 at its original location in Chicago's West Loop (it since moved to River West). His mom and grandmother lent their recipes and often hands to dishes that have since become staples like the stuffed artichoke and meat lasagna. Campo isn't sure whether meatball salad joined the menu four or five years ago, but his memories of it date back much further to childhood, when 40-odd aunts, uncles and cousins would descend on his parents' house each Sunday for dinner.

"My mom and grandma used to do all the cooking," he said. "Then when we're all sitting together and everybody's eating big bowls of pasta and meatballs, they're just having a little salad and a meatball."

When asked why they weren't having more, the women replied, "We've been cooking all day.'"

Years later, Campo and his dad started noticing that customers, too, sometimes wanted to toss a few meatballs in with their garden salad—even if they intended to follow it with a heap of pasta.

A couple miles northwest, at 30-year-old Club Lucky, meatball salad began as a staff family meal, homaging a beloved Sunday supper-leftovers dish that owner Jim Higgins's Sicilian grandmother often cobbled together on Mondays. Enough regular customers who'd spotted staff eating it requested it, so Club Lucky put it on the menu about 15 years ago.

Now the restaurant sells about a dozen every day, a version that's stayed true to Higgins's nonna's: Three slow-braised veal-and-beef meatballs are blanketed in reduced marinara and a dusting of parm, sided by antipasti remnants like roasted red peppers and olives tossed with romaine hearts, cucumber, and tomatoes in zingy house Italian dressing.

Kleiner isn't surprised that meatball salad wins more converts when people see a plate of it circling the dining room than when they read its name on a menu. "Initially, if people have never seen it, they go, 'What? Really?," he said. "They're two things that don't seem to naturally go together—maybe it's the hot-and-cold thing or the sauce-versus-sauce thing. But it is only controversial in concept, unless it's not executed correctly."

Even if at this point you've written off meatball salad as a leftovers concoction of niche Midwestern-Italian interest groups, there's still an art to the proper concoction. First, meatball salad calls for sturdy lettuces like romaine hearts and iceberg—no mesclun, mixed baby greens, or really any leafy green that will shrivel into a stringy puddle at the suggestion of heat. Tomatoes, cucumbers, roasted peppers, even a few strips of salami are acceptable additions—which are then tossed in zesty red wine vinaigrette imbued with (probably fresh) garlic and (preferably dried) Italian herbs, to cut the richness of the meatballs. Whether said meatballs comprise pork, veal, beef, or a cahm-bo, it's crucial that they are served alongside—never atop—the salad to prevent premature wilting, and to allow picky people the agency to control sauce, ingredient, and temperature commingling.

You could argue that the salad's hot-cold element is its least controversial, because we already embrace it whenever we order spinach salad with warm bacon vinaigrette, or hot grilled chicken with our Caesar salad. It might even be meatball salad's strongest asset. "Since I was a little kid, I've had a fascination with hot something and cold something together," said Todd Stein, executive chef and partner of Formento's in Chicago. "Meatball salad really works in that fashion, like pita with cold hummus and piping-hot falafels, but Italianized."

Formento's meatball salad doubles down on meat, adding strips of capicola, salami, and mortadella to the already hearty salad of romaine hearts, parm shavings, provolone, fried chickpeas and black olives—all doused in red-wine vinaigrette. Framed with unctuous ground chuck-and-pork meatballs, this version lives firmly in the meal column, unless maybe you split it with three other people.

In fact, my conversation with Stein began when I fired off a panicked email to him after noticing the meatball salad was absent from Formento's menu.

"Still and always available," he reassured me.

Still and always.

I think that's why I come back to these eateries over and over—not just for the bluntly named, second-day salad I'm so fond of. They bridge home and restaurant with warmth and familiarity that wraps me up the moment I walk in and inhale the aroma of browning garlic. Every time, I tell myself I'll try something new, but instead I order the same progression of dishes—each one a conveyor to some nostalgic taste of childhood.

Now I remember the first time I ate meatball salad. I was four, sitting on the back porch at my parents' Massachusetts home and balancing spaghetti with meatballs and salad on a sagging paper plate on my knees, anticipating that first perfectly imperfect bite when a little bit of everything migrated onto my fork.