The New Jersey food truck scene is one of the most dynamic in the country. People from all backgrounds and businesses throw their hats in the ring with a variety of mobile menus. The story behind Mama’s Meatballs, for example, is quite the tale. Owner Michael Antinore is an Italian-American hairdresser from Southern New Jersey, who’s also an expert at slinging balls—meatballs. He currently operates one of The Best New Jersey Food Trucks.
Before Mama’s Meatballs, Michael spent his younger years making meatballs with his grandmother on Sundays in Philadelphia. One of his fondest memories from childhood is learning his grandmother’s secret — and delicious — recipe for her homemade meatballs. Today, Michael uses that same recipe to create his own mouthwatering meatballs.
After two years of planning, Mama’s Meatballs hit the food truck scene in 2013. Of course, the truck carries several variations of his grandmother’s recipe wherever it goes. Obviously, the tri-state area loves grandma’s recipe as much as Michael does; because it didn’t take long before the food truck was bringing home awards. In fact, Mama’s Meatballs earned the #10 spot on a list of the 101 Best Food Trucks in America.
Presently, Mama’s Meatballs exists as both a food truck and a storefront location on Haddonfield Road in Pennsauken. However, the brick-and-mortar spot closes for the summer while Michael takes his meatballs on the road.
Michael Antinore sat down with Best of NJ to talk about his background and award-winning food truck. Check out the full interview below!
The Best New Jersey Food Trucks: Mama’s Meatballs Interview
Best of NJ: Why meatballs?
Michael Antinore: I had the idea for a long time. You know, each truck tries to do a little niche. No one was doing meatballs, or if they did, it was usually just regular meatballs. So I had this idea to make different meatballs. The idea was to put things you’d normally put on top of the meatballs on the inside; and then put different stuff on top. So, for example, we have our Rocky Ball Boa, which is sweet magnolia, sweet sausage with sautéed peppers and onions mixed into it, and then it’s stuffed with sharp provolone, and then we top that with our great marinara sauce, sauteed peppers and onions and pesto and parmesan cheese. So we put more stuff on top to give it even more taste. Every bite, you get a different burst of flavor.
BONJ: Give us a breakdown of what other meatballs you typically offer on the truck.
Michael: We have our “Datza Spicy Ball,” which is mainly hot sausage with roasted long hots, crushed red pepper, and jalapeño cheddar cheese in the middle. Then we have the “Rabe Father,” which is broccoli rabe that we mix with turkey; then we stuff it with asiago cheese, and that comes with marinara sauce, pesto, parmesan cheese, and arugula.
We have “Blue Balls,” which we stuff with blue cheese, and they’re topped with a blue cheese sauce that comes with bacon bits and parmesan cheese on top of that. We also have the “Nacho Ball,” and that’s all beef with jalapenos, onions, and taco seasoning on the meat; then we stuff it with cheddar cheese and put pico de gallo and lime-infused sour cream on top. It comes on a flour tortilla and tastes just like nachos.
The Mama’s Ball is my grandmother’s recipe. That’s always the biggest seller, along with the Rocky Ball Boa. That was her recipe. It’s her sauce, too—her gravy.
Life Before Mama’s Meatballs
BONJ: Incorporating a fond memory of your grandma adds an even more personal, sentimental element to your business, right?
Michael: Definitely. I grew up with my grandparents, and my grandmother would make meatballs on Sunday. My grandmother would make Sunday gravy. She made everything—the meatballs, the sausage, everything—and then just cook all day. We would wake up on Sunday mornings and start making those (meatballs). She fried all her meatballs, because she only made three pounds. We (Mama’s Meatballs) are making four hundred pounds. So we have to bake more. But my grandmother and I were frying the meatballs. Then I’d eat my meatballs like a lollipop: I put a fork in it, and I’d sit and watch TV and just eat meatballs. And she would yell at me because I’d eat them all [laughs].
BONJ: What did you do before Mama’s Meatballs?
Michael: I’ve been a hairstylist for more than 20 years; I have a hair salon, East End Salon in Old City, Philadelphia.
BONJ: How did the food truck come about?
Michael: I would sit with my former partner, who started Mama’s Meatballs with me; he and I were friends for 20 years. I would cut his hair, and I’d tell him, “I got this idea for a food truck.” This is back in, like, 2011-2012. There really wasn’t a food truck scene yet, but they were trickling out. And I told him that I had this idea for a food truck called Mama’s Balls; we’d make all these different meatballs.
He was like, “You’re crazy!” and people thought I was crazy [laughs]. I said, “I’m telling you, man, people are going to like this.” We came out in 2013, and the meatballs have been a hit since.
Work is Fun, But Fun is Work
BONJ: The names you come up with are always creative. Talk a little about how fun that is.
Michael: It’s a lot of fun [laughs]. I actually thought of the name of the truck before I even thought about the business concept. I was like, “What a great name: Mama’s Balls. And we’ll do meatballs.” Then I started thinking of the concept of the different types of meatballs we could do. We’d come up with a certain recipe, and then I’d give it the fitting name. Sometimes I had the name first, and then I made a ball around it. For example, I wanted to have a sausage and peppers ball, and I was like, “Rocky Ball Boa!” [Laughs].
BONJ: What do you think are some food truck challenges that most patrons might overlook?
Michael: There’s so much more that goes into this than you’d think. One thing is it’s usually pretty difficult to keep it so you have almost no waste. That’s the key, because food waste will kill you. Also, be prepared, because I’ve learned things break all the time; even though you’d think not much could break on a food truck. Little things like that really affect how you operate.
If you don’t have your own commercial kitchen, you’ll have to prep and cook in a commissary and pay those commissary fees. You might think, “Oh, I’ll cook at home,” but you actually can’t do that. Then you also have to figure out where you’re going to park your food truck; because not everyone can park it at their home—or wants to [laughs]. You’re really a gambler if you’re a food truck owner.
I tell people all the time when they ask me about starting a food truck; you have to get your concept down. That’s number one. What do you want to do? And then number two is to build your truck around what you’re going to do.
More About Mama’s Meatballs
BONJ: Does the truck cater events?
Michael: The truck definitely comes out for catering. You can rent the truck, and we’ve been doing a lot of corporate stuff. We just did a big thing up in Hackensack, where about 800 people were served that day. I also like doing lunches at corporate parks. The company will call us in, and we just show up with the truck for their lunch. We’ll do events for all sizes of parties, and you’ll get our award-winning balls.
BONJ: What are some of the events you’ll be attending this summer?
Michael: We’ll be in Swedesboro on June 27. That’s another good one; they have about 10 or 15 trucks go to that at Swedesboro Auction Park. They hold that event once a month in June, July, and August. We’re still booking July; to find out about upcoming events, readers can follow us on Facebook at Mama’s Meatballs!
Want to find more of The Best New Jersey Food Trucks? Then check out The Best New Jersey Food Trucks: The Complete Series.
Feature (Top) Image (& Additional Images): © Patrick Lombardi / Best of NJ