National Meatball Day? YES. And we have our own local expert!

By mark-slade March 9, 2011

A Local Angle on ‘National Meatball Day’

In celebration of National Meatball Day, a conversation with Dan Mancini.

Add a comment (0 comments )
Section Sponsored By patch <a href=’;grp=[group];alias=ox-maplewood-slot7;size=300×120;target=_blank;loc=300;key=news’ target=’_blank’> <img border=’0′ height=’120′ src=’;grp=[group];alias=ox-maplewood-slot7;size=300×120;target=_blank;loc=300;key=news’ width=’300′ /> </a>
Yes, it’s Ash Wednesday and many in our community are fasting or abstaining from meat. It seems a curious day to celebrate National Meatball Day. But that’s the way the meatball crumbles this year!
In the middle of the worst recession since the Great Depression, South Orange’s Daniel Mancini decided to follow his passion. So a few years ago, he quit the garment industry, where he had made a stable living for 25 years, to make meatballs. And not just any meatballs – his grandmother’s special Sunday meatballs.
“When you think of it like that, it sounds crazy,” he said. “I just always thought, ‘Why wouldn’t it work?’ It was just taking something as simple as a meatball and finding a way to reinvent myself with it. Working in garments was a job; this is a passion. And it’s turned out really well.”
Now his grandmother’s meatballs – aka MamaMancini’s Meatballs and Sunday Sauce – are sold online and in thousands of grocery stores in the Northeast, Florida and Arizona. They will soon be sold at Whole Foods stores in California, Mancini said. (Whole Foods currently sells the meatballs at dozens of stores in the Northeast as well.)
“We’ve sold millions of meatballs,” said Mancini, who has lived in South Orange for 21 years and sold his first his first meatballs locally through Eden Gourmet.
Mancini is riding the crest of a meatball wave. The Meatball Shop restaurant opened this year on the Lower East Side in Manhattan, USA Today declared 2010 “the year of the meatball” and the NYC Wine & Food Festival recently celebrated Meatball Madness, where “the night was all about the meatball and everyone coming together to enjoy simple food,” Mancini told the anchor on Fox Business recently.
Mancini has made his grandmother’s meatballs on Martha Stewart Live, the DailyBuzz and NJ12. He’s talked meatballs on Fox Business and in The Wall Street Journal. And easy-cooking guru Rachel Ray called his meatballs a “revelation” and “exactly what you would make if you had the time and a fantastic Italian grandma to teach you.”
Mancini learned to cook at his Grandmother Anna’s side. She moved into his family’s Brooklyn home when he was only five years old, and she cooked all day. Every afternoon, he would help her. On Sunday morning, he awoke to the smell of her frying meatballs.
“Everyone has a scented memory that triggers something from your childhood,” he said. “For me, that’s it.”
When he was 15, Mancini said, he pleaded with her to teach him how to make her specialties.
“She came to this country with her recipes stored in her heart,” he said. “She taught me and now I have them stored in my heart.”
To produce the meatballs and get them to market, Mancini partnered with another South Orange resident, Matt Brown, who own Hors D’oeuvres Unlimited Corp., and Brown’s partner and father-in-law Carl Wolf, the former CEO of Alpine Lace.
“Dan’s passion was intoxicating,” Brown said. “Despite my initial efforts to diffuse the idea of mass producing meatballs and sauce, Dan was persistent enough to get my chefs to produce a test batch. After shopping the product around with some local help and hearing the reviews, we knew we had something special.” 
Because they were introducing the meatballs in the middle of a recession, they were cautious, starting first with Eden Gourmet and then taking it a step at a time.
MamaMancini’s meatballs are such a good seller at Eden Gourmet, that they turned one of the hot bars into an all-Mancini’s bar – where shoppers can buy the regular meatballs, turkey meatballs, pasta and a rotating special.
Mancini’s passion for his grandmother’s meatballs grew out of his passion for big, lively, family dinners.
“That’s the way I grew up. We’ve always had a big Sunday family dinner,” he said. “The question every week was always ‘Who’s coming over?’ This is why I started selling the meatballs – I truly wanted to find away to get people to come back to the table.”