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“You know, she wasn’t the greatest cook,” said Stevie Stacionis of her grandmother, the family matriarch for whom Mama Oakland, the Italian-inspired eatery on Grand Avenue, is christened. Instead, Stacionis admits, her grandma was the consummate host, teaching Stacionis how to greet guests and make them feel welcome. “Mama’s mother, my great grandmother, was the real cook — and a great one, at that.” 

This two-prong matriarchal punch is what inspired Stacionis and her husband, Josiah Baldivino, to open Mama Oakland in 2019. (The certified sommelier husband-wife team, who met while working together at Il Fornaio in Pasadena, also own Bay Grape, a wine and education shop located four doors down from Mama.) The restaurant – which had to shut down during the pandemic, reopening in summer of 2021 – has earned acclaim for its accessible three-course menu helmed by executive chef Priscilla Przygocki, who uses the Stacionis family’s culinary history for inspiration. 

While the menu changes weekly, one mainstay you’ll always find: Mama’s beef and pork meatballs. The recipes for the meatballs was passed down through generations in classic oral tradition, taught in the kitchen while standing next to a roaring stove. “When you come of age in my family, you get shown how to make the meatballs,” said Stacionis. “I remember learning it from Mama, who showed it to me in a very pasta-granny sort of way – you know, there was no recipe and you sort of felt your way through it.”

The recipe, which uses a two-to-one ratio of ground pork to ground beef, employs a good amount of celery, green bell pepper and asiago cheese, but — perhaps surprising to some — little garlic. “Mama, as well as most of my family, including myself, have garlic and allium sensitivities, and that’s why we never put minced garlic in the meatballs,” explained Stacionis. Instead, she said, they add a few crushed garlic cloves to the olive oil as it heats, discarding the allium corpse after a subtle flavor has been extracted.

“Most people have this silly notion that most Italian-American food is super garlicky, when that’s not always the case. For me and my family, the use of heavy garlic is non-negotiable.”

Despite the vampiric-like aversion to too much garlic – which, let’s face it, can overpower any dish when used with reckless abandon by overzealous cooks – Stacionis stressed that home cooks should consider her family recipe a jumping off point, not a strict set of instructions. Cooks should feel free to add their own touches along the way as they see fit, she said.

The fun part of learning this meatball recipe, Stacionis said, were the little samples she and her grandmother would fry up for taste testing. “That’s part of the deliciousness and fun of it, creating these mini-meatballs along the way to make the final dish just how you want it.”

The recipe also calls for shallow pan frying in order to achieve maximum crispiness on the exterior. But in order to have a moist and supple interior, Stacionis stressed a tried-and-true ethos for making sure meatballs come out moist and tender: don’t overdo it. Similar to over-mixing cake batter, too much handling of the meat mixture will lead to dry and tough balls.

“Grandmother would always make a gesture alluding to the fact that one should handle the meatballs the same way you would, you know, handle some other set of balls,” Stacionis said, delicately suggesting that the meatballs were comparable to a set of sensitive human testes.

Diners at Mama are watched over by this stern-eyed matriarch. Credit: Emma K. Morris

“She loved calling herself ‘a little shit ass’ because she had such a potty mouth and a really dirty sense of humor, which I loved,” Stacionis said.

Speaking of fun Valentine’s Day activities, Mama is offering a special menu on Feb. 14, with their pan-fried meatballs offered as part of its spaghetti entree option. The three-course holiday menu ($36.95) will also feature red pepper soup, spring pea salad, roasted New York al pepe, ricotta cannelloni, seared scallops, tiramisu and Meyer lemon cake. Reservations are available online.

For those of you who want to eschew dining-out for a more intimate at-home affair, making Mama’s meatballs could also be a fun Annie Hall-esuqe activity, minus the lobster fracas. Stacionis and her husband, who make them each year for V-day, like to crumble the balls atop heart-shaped pizzas the couple shares with their kids. 

Mama’s pan-fried meatballs

  • 2-to-1 ratio of ground pork to ground beef
  • One green bell pepper, finely chopped
  • Olive oil
  • Whole garlic cloves, peeled
  • Equal parts stale bread and Saltine crackers, torn/squished into coarse crumbs
  • Parsley, finely chopped
  • Basil, finely chopped
  • Celery, finely chopped
  • Asiago cheese, grated
  • Eggs – one per pound of meat
  • Cold water – about one tablespoon per pound of meat
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

Sweat garlic and bell pepper in olive oil until pepper is soft, then discard garlic clove and let peppers cool. Combine ingredients in a large bowl; mix with your hands just until thoroughly combined.

Fry one small meatball in oil until cooked; check seasoning and add more of anything needed.

Roll mixture into 1.75-inch balls and arrange on sheet pan. Wrap sheet pan in plastic wrap, label and date, and freeze or refrigerate until ready to cook.

To cook, let them thaw in the refrigerator, then heat ¼-inch vegetable oil in a pan until it shimmers. Pan-fry meatballs over medium-high heat, allowing each side to sear and create a crispy crust.

If meatballs are not fully cooked inside after searing on all sides, reduce heat to medium-low and continue simmering until done.

Beverage pairing: Honestly, meatballs pair beautifully with almost any beverage. (Swedish meatballs and Diet Coke make a perfect coupling after making one’s way through IKEA’s labyrinth of Scandinavian decor, for example.)  But Stacioni recommends Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo, a deeply colored and well structured rosé (looks almost like a red wine), designed to stand up to dishes with plenty of acid and fat — like meatballs covered in a red sauce.