In between my evening MAC doubleheaders in late November, I had an afternoon to kill in Columbus and looked for a few cultural diversions to keep me out of trouble. With BBQ in central Ohio out of the question, the most obvious choice was exploring a few of my other favorite things: meatballs and booze.
As faithful readers of the blog already know, I am a purveyor of the finer things in life and you’ve heard my familiar schtick about the greatness of barbecue, chocolate shakes and burgers. Predictably, I also happen to be a connoisseur of meatballs too, and I appreciate the subtle artistic nuance of a perfect meat sphere. I’ve eaten them across this great country of ours, including handfuls of them at the infamous Meatball Shop in New York City.
With those credentials out of the way, allow me to introduce you to perhaps the greatest meatball on the planet: Marcella’s. While it’s a tad more upscale than my typical haunts, Marcella’s Italian Kitchen in Columbus dishes out the meatball of the gods. About the size of a regulation softball, a single meatball is a sizeable portion on its own. The behemoth is served in its own cast iron pot, and arrives garnished with parmesan cheese. One bite and you know you’ve gotten into something transcendent. The ball is incredibly light and fluffy, almost spongy in texture and yields easily with a fork. Well spiced with Italian seasoning and grated cheese folded in, the ball arrives slathered in a thick red tomato sauce. This is the holy grail of meatballs. You will, quite simply, never surpass this; you can only hope to find its equal.
Following the epic meatball, it’s time for a little post lunch digestif. Fortunately, as the national explosion of micro distilleries swells, two such places have opened up within the city limits of Columbus: Middle West Spirits and Watershed Distillery. I make a visit to Middle West first, tapping on the door until one of the distillers answers and happily gives me an impromptu tour. These smaller operations are a far cry from the pristinely manicured grounds and professional tours that I had earlier this fall in Kentucky bourbon country, and getting a personal tour is a warm touch. He proudly shows off the gleaming copper Kothe still. Custom ordered from Germany, it features more knobs, dials and windows than a Virginia class submarine. The strong aroma of fermenting mash permeates the humid air in the warehouse, accented by the sweet, intoxicating scent of oak and bourbon. While they make an array of award winning vodkas, I opt for a few small samples of their equally esteemed wheat whiskey and reserve bourbon, both crafted from locally sourced Ohio grains. Naturally, I pick up a jet black bottle of the OYO Reserve Bourbon before heading out the door.
Following Middle West Spirits, I head to the other upstart in town, Watershed Distillery. Things are a bit more formal here, and the counter girl insists on the $10 fee for a tour despite the place being empty. I decline the tour, but fork over five bucks for a couple of tastings of their different spirits – vodka, gin and bourbon. The bourbon barrel aged Gin is a refreshingly unique departure from the norm, and if you’re a gin fan it would be worth a try. A staunch traditionalist, however, I ultimately pick up a bottle of their traditional oak aged bourbon. Between the Watershed and Middle West bourbons, I’ll be returning home with a nice haul of craft spirits.
From there, I brave the two hour drive to Toledo over the flat expanse of northern Ohio. Occupying the west bank of Lake Erie, and located only sixty miles from Detroit, Toledo has an overwhelmingly industrial feel. Cranes and smokestacks jut into the skyline, and the rusting dreck of factories and bridges dominate the landscape. I make a brief stop at Tony Packo’s Cafe, a Hungarian hot dog house considered an institution in Toledo since 1932. I order up a combo plate of their signature chili dog and stuffed cabbage, admiring the eccentric collection of signed hot dog buns adorning the walls. Comfort food served on red and white checkered table cloths never tires in my book, and after a quick meal I head towards the University of Toledo.
The lights of the Glass Bowl beckon, and after easing into a five dollar parking space, I head towards one of the more unique stadiums in college football. Named after the city of Toledo’s prominence in the glass manufacturing industry, the Glass Bowl was constructed in 1936. The stadium features impressive traditional stonework, craftsmanship which has been deftly preserved throughout several modern upgrades over the years. Two stone towers on the south end pierce high into the night sky. Like medieval ramparts they stand in stoic contrast to the blaring, garish jumbotron pumping out ads for the local tire warehouse. A blend of the old and the new, the Glass Bowl is one of the finer venues in the sport – architecturally speaking.
I pass by a few revelers as they spill out of a converted party ambulance, the lights flashing above while they clutch red solo cups. Aside from them, however, the lots are pretty quiet on a chilly Wednesday night. A 25 foot blue and yellow rocket sits perched on a stand outside the Northeast entrance to the Glass Bowl. Bought in 1961 from the U.S. Army missile program, the one ton projectile points directly towards the fifty yard line of arch nemesis Bowling Green State’s Doyt Perry Stadium.
I pick up a $35 face value ticket for 20 bucks from an old lady pawning a single after her nephew elected to stay home on a brisk night. As the game kicks off, the Rockets take the field garbed in garish pink and blue uniforms – an admirable salute to breast cancer awareness, but a trend that I find thoroughly tired at this point. But they play spirited football for the first half, holding the explosive Northern Illinois onslaught to a single touchdown and carry a 10-7 lead into the locker rooms at halftime.
The second half would ground the Rockets, however, as the Huskies make a few halftime adjustments – most of which consist of letting Jordan Lynch run wild with the offense. Lynch, the outside Heisman hopeful, explodes for three rushing touchdowns in the second half and the rout is on. Racking up 160 yards on the ground and another 200 through the air in the process, Lynch would pad his already impressive season statistics and his case for the bronze trophy. The Huskies would eventually roll to a 35-17 win, improving their unblemished record to 11-0 and an outside shot at a BCS Bowl bid still possible. Rocket fans start filing solemnly out of the Glass Bowl with a few ticks remaining in the fourth quarter. Per my usual, I hold on until the final whistle, admiring the fine stonework of the historic venue for a few extra minutes.
Special thanks to my friend Becky for her hospitality in Columbus, and agreeing to my finicky meatball requirements…can’t wait to catch you at an Irish game next fall!
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