Crafting a perfect meatball recipe and introducing it to the prepared-foods market isn’t easy, but Chef Joe Chiodi had a perfect test kitchen to help him with the process: his FDNY firehouse.
The full-time New York City firefighter from Wantagh owns The Famous Meatballers, a new homegrown food brand that recently came out with a fully cooked, heat-and-serve packaged meatball being sold at stores across Long Island.
“I served them up at the firehouse and all the guys were just ranting and raving,” Chiodi says. “Having the guys as my lab rats was tremendously helpful. I got such a big reaction. I knew I had something special.”
Friends and family urged Chiodi to open a restaurant, but he wasn’t ready for such a commitment. Instead, he decided he would be able to fit starting his own food line into his busy schedule.
On most days, Chiodi gets to Engine 262 in Astoria, Queens around 7 a.m., makes sure his safety equipment is in order, and inspects the fire trucks before being assigned his position for the day. Calls he responds to during a given shift range from false alarms to serious car crashes and fires. Between the action, he prepares family-style meals for the team of hungry firefighters.
He spoke to the Press from his firehouse just before lunch on a recent Tuesday. Chiodi had a large pot of turkey chili simmering on the stove. A few interruptions in the conversation gave an impression that the team was starting to get hungry.
“Usually meals are kind of a group decision,” he says. “But when I’m working, the guys basically just ask me what I’m making and how they can help.”
Eventually, Chiodi hopes to introduce a few other products, including the chili he’s been trying to perfect, along with a turkey meatball and perhaps a chowder down the line. But for right now, it’s all about the meatballs.
“What I really want is for The Famous Meatballers to be a household name,” he says.
A good meatball is a little on the softer side in terms of texture, according to Chiodi. His meatballs are sous vide, a method of cooking in which they’re placed in a vacuum-sealed pouch — sauce and all — and cooked for a long period of time in water.
“I use a little more garlic than most people, so the flavor really comes through,” Chiodi says, adding that the recipe is based on a combination of two family recipes passed down to him.
He finds that sitting down for a meal with the other firefighters can be therapeutic, easing the chaos of the job.
“Sometimes it’s a great stress breaker,” he says. “You go out and you might have a stressful call, someone might pass away, or maybe something crazy happens. And then you get back to the firehouse and it helps to just be together, and tell stories and bust each other’s chops.”
Chiodi is married to a Long Island schoolteacher with two children. Being a full-time firefighter, a full-time dad, and launching a brand new food line adds to the pressure.
“We are extremely busy,” he says, adding that not all his meals are consumed at the firehouse. “We make sure that we have time for our family. And we try to sit down and eat as a family as much as we can.”
The Famous Meatballers Italian-style Meatballs in Marinara. Sauce are currently being sold at Salpino Italian Food Market & Catering; North Shore Farms; and certain King Kullen locations. For a more detailed list visit thefamousmeatballers.com/locations.