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We’ve Entered the Era of the Large Adult Meatball

Unpacking a primal attraction to Olive Garden’s “Giant Italian Classic,” an inexplicably huge ball of meat

I’d like you to consider this quote from David Byrne, in which he explains the big suit he wore in Stop Making Sense.

I like symmetry; geometric shapes. I wanted my [plate] to appear smaller and the easiest way to do that was to make my [meatball] bigger. Because [hunger] is very physical, and often the body understands it before the head.

I edited the quote to be about the giant meatball on Olive Garden’s “Giant Italian Classics” menu, but it’s basically the same thing.

Olive Garden’s “Giant Italian Classics” spring menu, which is just a menu featuring things like stuffed shells but bigger, seems so redundant: Anyone who’s dined at one of those old-school Italian joints where everything is smothered in red sauce is familiar with plates of chicken Parm that would span a continental shelf, and Olive Garden regulars are no strangers to the Strega Nona-esque Never Ending Pasta Bowl.

But the Large Adult Meatball is something else — a primal attraction, food at its most food. In its debut ad, the big meatball drops from the heavens with a sensual thud onto a pillow of spaghetti, fat, wet chunks of tomato splattering in its wake. It’s an awe-inspiring feat of engineering and thermodynamics with a side of unlimited breadsticks. But the giant meatball doesn’t merely invoke the sublime, it also comes with a question: How do you cook a hunk of meat like that and not make it raw in the middle or burned beyond edibility? Olive Garden did not return multiple attempts to reach it about the big boy, which weighs three-quarters of a pound, but a rep told Food & Wine that “Olive Garden is known for its generously portioned, craveable Italian food at a strong value... So, in the spirit of Italian generosity, we’re serving up them up bigger than ever before with the introduction of Giant Italian Classics.”

Olive Garden isn’t the first place to attempt this meaty gimmick, nor is its big ball of meat the largest. LAVO in Las Vegas serves a one-pound meatball. Mama’s on the Hill in St. Louis serves a two-pound meatball for its “Mama’s Pasta Challenge”; finish it in one sitting and it’s free (unlike your bowels, which will likely be on lockdown after digesting that much meat). Last year, the Meatball Shop in New York City debuted a six-pound meatball, though it’s more like a spaghetti orb with a gooey cheese center and meat adhesive.

We can work backward toward how Olive Garden makes its Big Boy based on how the Biggest Boy of all was made. In a video for Rachael Ray, the meatball is assembled as two halves around the cheese core, and then baked for three hours before being doused in tomato sauce. The meatball, which is no longer on the menu, was $150, had to be ordered in advance, and was meant for a group. The Olive Garden’s meatball doesn’t have the spaghetti or cheese in it to conduct heat to the center, but considering it’s less than a sixth the size, it can probably be baked as well, and made to order.

The big meatball is ultimately a deeply American manifestation of the concept of “more” pioneered by Italian immigrants. In the “old country,” meat was scarce, so meatballs were made infrequently, and with whatever they could find on hand — they were usually pretty small, and were served as their own dish, without pasta. Between the 1880s and 1920s, southern Italians, newly immigrated to the U.S., were presented with meat that was both plentiful and affordable. Meatballs could be huge (though not like, Olive Garden huge), and what’s more, you could put them on top of your damn spaghetti. Bada boom, a meat tradition was born.

The great meatball expansion didn’t stop at spaghetti. They were put on sandwiches, and stuffed with things, and deep-fried, and now you can eat one the size of your head at chain restaurants across America, just as the original meatball crafters surely dreamed when they first saw Lady Liberty shining from their boat. They’ve even made it to joke Twitter:

Yes, a giant meatball is ridiculous, but the only reason Olive Garden’s ginormous meatball seems ridiculous is because it’s served at Olive Garden. Carbone has a veal parmesan the size of the whole plate on its menu, and it’s $70, and it’s still Carbone. The big soup dumpling is one of Drunken Dumpling’s main draws. The Meatball Shop is featured on Food Network for its creation. In its hands, it’s “deliciously unbelievable” and “a feast perfect for meatball lovers,” not a savory metaphor for all that’s wrong with the country. On Olive Garden’s menu, the big meatball is déclassé, lowbrow, putting diners at risk of hypertension and obesity, a symbol of American’s demand for more at all costs.

At over 1,300 calories, Olive Garden’s beefy boy is basically the only meal you’d need to eat in a day. But a big meatball, I believe, hits all the synapses that cause people to tweet about how they want celebrities to hit them with a truck. It’s not about hunger, it’s about the horny pull of annihilation. We want to both consume and be consumed, to be dared to eat it and then dare to eat it — and be aware of every gurgle and cramp in our bodies and nothing more. It’s the head that tries to analyze the big meatball. But watch the ball crash like a meteor onto the plate, undulating over a wave of sauce; the body understands.

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