Many people were totally absorbed last week by the Hostess company filing for reorganization, and the possible extinction of the Twinkie (don’t panic—DIY Twinkie recipes have already appeared online). These folks were so threatened by the impending loss of their sugar rush that they missed the week’s most compelling food story: the death of Ion Oita, otherwise known as the Meatball King.
Eastern Europeans are obsessive about meatballs, and the Romanians in particular consider them to be an art form. The preparation, cooking and serving of meatballs reached its zenith at The Hunchback, a Bucharest restaurant co-owned by Oita and his partner, Chef Sandu Andrei. The eatery apparently got its name because Andrei, after years of leaning over to grill meatballs, had permanently damaged his posture. The two men met in 1975, when Andrei was grilling in southern Romania, and Oita persuaded him to go into business in 1996.
In a country where meatball recipes are jealously guarded and chefs at popular restaurants have the status of soccer stars, The Hunchback (formally known as Lococosatu Restaurant) apparently was in a league by itself. Their specialty was really more of a spicy, meatless sausage, cooked over the hot grill and served with runny mustard. While the recipe will never be divulged, there was no secret about what drew patrons to the place—-absolutely fresh beef and pork, hand-cut French Fries, and just the right mix of herbs and spices. The formula attracted a mix of laborers, bankers and businessmen to the restaurant every day.
The circumstances of the Meatball King’s death were unfortunate. It was suicide, and appeared to be related to a court case involving his son, who is confined to a wheelchair. The meatballs will live on, but the restaurant will be deprived of its public face, a man who knew everyone and greeted them by name.