Meatball Mafia organizes food in Columbus
The idea of an Italian-American food truck themed after Youngstown’s ties to the mob serving meatballs in Ohio’s capital city would never work. That’s what Robert DelliQuadri remembers from a conversation with a buddy in the food truck business.
“His first response was, ‘nobody cares about Youngstown. You’re not New York, you’re not Chicago,'” DelliQuadri said. “‘It’s going to fail’ –and that made me laugh because I thought this guy from central Ohio, he just doesn’t know.”
The Meatball Mafia truck and the meatballs became a hit, doing well in food truck competitions in Columbus, and has grown into a restaurant by the same name at Crooked Can Brewing Company in Hilliard northwest of Columbus.
The restaurant, too, contains decorative elements of the city’s connections to the mafia as well as highlighting Youngstown and its rich and proud Italian heritage.
DelliQuadri and his brother, Vinnie, co-own the restaurant.
Robert, of Liberty, arrived in Columbus in 2000 to attend The Ohio State University after graduating from Ursuline High School. He said he immediately noticed the lack of good, hearty Italian food the likes of which he grew up with made by his grandmother or found in any number of Valley restaurants or bars.
“I’m not a good cook by any imagination, but I can make meatballs and sauce. My father passed away in 2000 and I kind of realized when I was in college that if I didn’t remember how my grandmother taught us to make meatballs, then I was never going to get them again,” he said.
“Over the years I just started thinking there is just not good Italian food here, not what I’m used to anyway,” Robert said. “There are fancy Italian restaurants, but it’s not like Youngstown where you can go to some dive bar and get really great veal parm or peppers and oil. Peppers and oil don’t even exist here; it’s not even a thing.”
Ignoring the advice of his friend, Robert moved on the truck idea, buying a truck in 2014 from a leasing company on Belmont Avenue. It was transformed from a delivery truck into a food truck at another brother’s landscaping company, DelliQuadri Lawn Maintenance and Landscaping.
Into the processing of refurbishing and outfitting the truck, they discovered it was once a delivery truck for The Vindicator newspaper when based in Youngstown. Some of the signature orange familiar to readers still shows on the truck.
It took a couple of years to ready the truck and in 2016, The Meatball Mafia launched. There were some growing pains and a learning curve, but the truck hit a groove — taking second place at the Columbus Food Truck Fest in 2017 and then first in 2018. At the time, the festival was the largest in the Midwest, Robert said.
Still, the pressure was on to represent Youngstown and Youngstown-style Italian cuisine, especially since the Columbus area, Robert estimates, has a lot of transplants from the Mahoning Valley.
“Youngstown is forever, and the people from Youngstown I feel if we like something, then we love something and we can’t shut up about it … but also if we hate something, we tell everybody about it, so I knew I had a lot of pressure,” Robert said. “These better be good meatballs or they will tell me it’s wrong, and they won’t be shy about it.”
The viral outbreak sidelined the truck this year, but a connection to the festival opened the door to the restaurant.
The son of the owner of Crooked Can had a food truck at the festival and when it came time to populate the brewery with food selections, he suggested The Meatball Mafia. Because of the open-air setup of the brewery, it was looking for brands used to working in small spaces, and Robert’s company fit the bill perfectly.
Eighteen months later in mid-June, Robert, 38, and Vinnie, 37, opened the restaurant.
The decor pays homage to Youngstown. Included are posters of one of the city’s favorite sons, Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini, and also represented is one of the Valley’s most colorful and polarizing figures, former Congressman Jim Traficant. There also is a Youngstown State University license plate signed by university President Jim Tressel.
A paper box from The Vindicator serves as a menu holder. Robert bought it one night on eBay.
“I swear I spent $18,000 on the front of this place and I spent $29.95 on The Vindicator box and that thing gets more attention than everything else I did,” Robert said. “As soon as they see that bright orange mailbox, they go, look, The Vindicator. I can hear them from the other side of the market. They see it, and it just cracks me up.”
The swinging metal door to the kitchen, too, has a special touch — bullet holes. Robert said he approached a local shooting range and asked if it was interested in shooting the door and explained why, and the place happily accepted.
The holes in the door are from bullets shot from a Tommy Gun and sawed-off shotgun.
“I couldn’t be happier with the way it (the restaurant) turned out,” Robert said. “The Youngstowners are already digging it, they are already telling everybody. I get customers every day who say, ‘I’m from Hubbard,” or ‘I’m from Campbell,’ even New Castle (Pa.). It’s just that regional feel that our brand is all about.”