One Square Mile Johnston: 100,000 Meatballs

Jan 31, 2017

This week our series "One Square Mile" is shining a light on the town of Johnston. You can’t talk about Johnston without talking about Italians, and some would say you can’t talk about Italians without talking about Italian food. We talk to one expert: a 92-year-old woman who, by her granddaughter's estimate, has made 100,000 meatballs in her lifetime.

Audrey Gesualdi is 92 years old. She’s lived in Johnston most of her life. She’s a grandmother of 12. And a maker of meatballs. In fact, her granddaughters have done the math: Gesualdi has made more than 100,000 meatballs in her lifetime.

“It’s right. They’re right," said Gesualdi.

“And that’s only if she’s been making 50 years," said her granddaughter, Shannon Gesualdi. “Yeah, because you got married at what age grandma?"

“1950," responded Gesualdi.

“Yeah, 1950," said Shannon. "So the new number, that’s closer to 150,000. So you’re really at a solid 100,000, cause a week or too you didn’t make them. So we’re solidly at 100,000 meatballs, gram.”

On this Sunday she’s already made the requisite hundred or so meatballs for family lunch. I taste one, about the size of a golf ball, fresh out of the frying pan. And it’s good. You can’t make 100,000 meatballs without learning a few tricks. So what’s the secret to a great meatball?

"It's the ingredients you put in," said Gesualdi.

OK, that’s a little more straightforward than I thought. But Gesualdi is a practical woman. She isn’t sure how much longer she can keep up the ritual of making meatballs for her giant family – seven kids, 12 grandchildren – every Sunday. So maybe it’s time someone made a few meatballs for her. And where better than the kitchen of the Johnston firehouse on Atwood Avenue? There's just one question: will the firefighters’ meatballs pass muster?

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Thursday morning, firefighters at the Johnston Fire Department on Atwood Avenue have already started the meatball mix.

Meet Richard Boehm, a sous-chef and battaIion chief. He introduces me to the chefs.

“This is Battalion Chief Tommy Marcello, Battalion Chief Dave Ianucilli, formerly owners of restaurants."

On the firefighters’ long dining table, Marcello is working a giant bowl of ground meat.

“I’m getting the meatball mix together," said Marcello. "So it’s a mix of ground chuck, veal and pork. Just added some soaked  Italian bread. David Ianucilli is sautéing my onions for me. And he already started the sauce.

While Ianucilli cooks the onions, Marcello chops herbs.

“That is fresh basil and fresh parsley of my garden this spring," said Marcello. I’ve been cooking since I was 14 years old. Family restaurants and neighborhood restaurants.

Ianucilli advocates for more garlic. And Marcello remembers one more ingredient: eggs. He cracks a dozen with one hand.

This looks and smells like a restaurant kitchen. There’s a huge stove with six burners, a supersized fridge. But there are a few reminders we’re in a firehouse. The alarm sounds, and a crew goes out on a call – hopefully they’ll be back in time for lunch. Marcello is almost done kneading the mix. Now it's time to shape the meatballs.

“I’m surprised you guys aren’t wearing aprons," I told the chefs.

“Get made fun of," came the answer, with sheepish looks.

Aprons aside, I ask what I asked Audrey Gesualdi: what's the secret to a great meatball?

“A lot of combination of the meat, good meat, and we use Italian bread as a filler," said Marcello. "That makes it tender”

And you soak the bread in milk, they note.

“I thought you were going to say the secret is love," I said.

“Nah. I’d tell my wife that if she was here," said Marcello. "But I don’t have to tell these guys that. It’s understood.”

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As the meatballs go into the oven, and a tangy, garlicky red sauce simmers away on the stove, 92-year-old Audrey Gesualdi arrives with her granddaughter Shannon and son Mike. Her son used to be a firefighter at this station, so she’s no stranger here. Ianucilli welcomes her in.

“You want to sit down, honey?” 

Gesualdi settles in at the head of the table. Hangs her cane on the window sill. She takes in the bustle of activity around her.

“That’s what it smells like at my house Sunday mornings," said Gesualdi. "Especially in the morning you open your window, people go by, going to church.”

Fire Chief Tim McLaughlin arrives to check on lunch’s progress. As one of the only non-Italians on this force in very Italian Johnston, McLaughlin has had to adapt. 

“I’ve been looking for a corned beef sandwich in this town everywhere. I’m an Irish guy,” he joked.

But he loves this town. 

“You can tell it’s a family atmosphere in this town. It’s Rhode Island, it’s typical Rhode Island. Everybody’s related to someone. It’s actually nice because people don’t leave here. They stay, the families stay," said McLaughlin. "From what I’ve found in the six years I’ve been here, it’s really a good town.”

Our head chef Tom Marcello checks the meatballs in the oven. They’re almost there. Firefighters file into the dining room for the feast. Co-chef Dave Ianucilli serves Gesualdi the first meatball, fresh and hot from the oven. He waits expectantly for the verdict.

“They’re good. I can’t complain. They’re good," said Gesualdi. "They’re cooked right through good too.”

Firefighters stuff giant, tender meatballs into fluffy Italian loaves, ladled with sauce and dig in.

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This kitchen full of Italians and honorary Italians are keeping a Johnston tradition alive. Marcello and Gesualdi reminisce:

“A lot of people don’t cook like that at home every Sunday. It’s not like it used to be," said Gesualdi, enjoying a meatball. 

"And that’s like a ritual. Every Sunday the family got together for dinner," Marcello agreed.

“The young girls, they don’t cook like we used to,” mused Gesualdi. “It’s easier to go out and eat.”

The firefighters want to hear it one more time from Gesualdi: whose meatballs win?

“Your meatballs are very good," admitted Gesualdi. "I gotta say it. They can beat mine."

“I doubt that," said Marcello.

Don’t doubt it. The firefighters make a delicious meatball.