Michael Antinore loves to talk about his family, his travels, his businesses and his balls.
It’s impossible to talk to him without using “ball” wordplay. After all, his business is called “Mama’s MeatBalls,” the only food truck specializing in meatballs in the Philadelphia area and with one season under its belt (so to speak) Michael is looking forward to another successful season dishing out his famous balls. (See what I mean?)
Born in South Philadelphia in 1973, Michael had modest beginnings. He was born Michael Ciraolo and his parents divorced in 1976. His father was not an active parent and Michael’s mother finally said to his father, “Either you’re going to be involved with your son or not.” His father signed away parental rights to Michael’s mother which was legal at that time. In grade school at Epiphany of Our Lord, (now Our Lady of Hope), he was part of a class that was notorious for bullying and picking on each other for the slightest differences.
“If you didn’t have a tough exterior, you were going to die.” Almost everyone in the class had a nickname and Michael’s was “Ears.” “One time someone said it to you, it stuck with you the whole time.”
A few years later, Michael heard from a friend that parental custody laws had changed and Michael could sue his father for child support. He did so, “not to get rich from him,” he said, but just to prove a point. “Now, the only time I would call this man up is if I saw him on the news and he hit the power ball.” Luckily, Michael had two good male role models in his life—his grandfather and his uncle. He was surrounded with people who loved him. “I’d rather have that than any father.”
In seventh grade, Michael decided to formally change his last name to his mother’s maiden name, Antinore. He didn’t want to go through life as a Ciraolo, he wanted to begin high school with a new name. Little did he know that a decade or so later, when traveling to Italy, he made a choice that would not only change his name, but his place in the world.
He graduated from St. John Newman High School and at nineteen he and his best friend, Michael Doyle, moved to 22nd and Walnut. It was like a different world. “Looking out the window at Rittenhouse Square—this is not where we came from. This is a whole other world out here. We made it.”
He started working at The Saloon restaurant and began meeting new people. “When you’re in South Philly, you live in a microcosm and you don’t realize it. You live in a microcosm of ideas and people and how they think of things and the negativity. I always say you could find anyone in South Philly and they’ll find the negative thing in something.”
“I could say to my mother, ‘You just hit the power ball’ and she would say, ‘Now I have to pay taxes, all these people are going to call me, I’m going to have to move, everyone’s going to want something from me.’ Mom, you just won two hundred million dollars! ‘I don’t even want the money,’ she’d say.”
Michael is a ‘glass is half-full’ kind of a guy. Even his wife, Katie, wonders how he got that way. He’d heard a quote from someone about being raised Italian American on the East Coast. “If you come from an Italian family on the Northeast quadrant of our country, then you could do anything, you can make it.”
For Michael, his motivation came from people around him telling him he wasn’t going to make it. “[You could say to someone] ‘I got his idea for a meatball place,’ and they would say, ‘Whataya going to do with a meatball place? You know how many meatballs you gotta sell? Whataya crazy? Yeah, good luck with that!’ There’s no, ‘That’s a great idea, let’s see what we can do with that.’ It’s how much they can put you down to where you build yourself up to do it.”
Working at The Saloon with so many different people from different backgrounds, Michael became the token South Philly guy. He was the one with the sense of humor and grit that he’d learned from his rough and tumble classmates in elementary school.
In spite of getting out of his neighborhood, he knew he wanted to expand his horizons even more. He went to hair school to learn a trade and when he was twenty-three he was encouraged by a coworker at The Saloon to backpack through Europe. He and his friend ventured to Milan, the Almafi Coast and Florence. “I think that should be a law for everybody,” Michael said. “…you go out and you see how the other world lives.” When he landed in Italy, he felt right at home. “There’s something about the place—you feel like you’re home.”
Michael’s Roots in the Renaissance
In Florence, Michael recognized his family’s name and coat of arms around different buildings throughout the city. He went to Palazzo Antinori to find out the connection. He gave the receptionist his passport. “‘I’m an Antinore,’ I told her. ‘I’d just like to know anything you can tell me about the family and if I’m related.’” She looked at his passport, then at him and said, “Wait here.” She took his passport and went into another room in the palace. Michael waited, gazing at a fresco of the Antinori Family Tree that was painted on the wall. She returned and said, ‘Come with me.’ He was introduced to Piero Antinori who had just completed the Antinori Family Tree, and Piero offered to tell him about it.
There were three Antinori brothers from Cinqueterra; one stayed in Cinqueterra, one moved to Rome and one moved to Florence. The Antinori’s in Florence were one of the most influential families of the Renaissance, as important as the Medicis. Michael’s blood line is tied to the brother who moved to Rome. They were the only Antinori’s who immigrated to the United States.
The Antinori’s in Florence have one of the oldest continuously family-run businesses in the world, specializing in wines that they have crafted for over three hundred years as well as olive oil. On another visit, Piero Antinori gave Michael a tour of the vineyards.
“When I show my passport in Italy they say, ‘Oh, you’re an Antinore! Much money!’ No, no, no, I tell them. That’s not me, I’m broke!”
His goal in life is to die in Florence. “…on the outskirts, on a farm, instead of having a vacation home at the beach. I can go there for a couple of months and have goats and trees and I can be that old guy like in the Godfather, walking around the village, with the orange in my mouth breaking people’s balls.”
Even though Michael loves to travel he loves coming home to the United States. “People always talk about how bad this country is, but you know you’re country is failing when people are no longer dying to try to get in.”
Baptism by Fire
Michael may not have inherited the Antinori fortune, but he definitely inherited their ambitious business sense. After returning from his first trip to Europe he was offered a job at a salon called East End Salon, which is located in a seventeenth century building in what may have been one of Betsy Ross’s residences.
The owner at the time, Joanne Grossman, took him under her wing and trained him. He and Joanne opened a second salon in 2003 in Sewell, NJ, the same year Michael’s daughter, Alessia, was born. Michael was going maintain the Philly location with Joanne’s partner and one day a week he would see clients in New Jersey to build his clientele there. A year later, Joanne was diagnosed with leukemia and passed away within a month.
It was a terrible loss for Michael and for all of the people who knew Joanne and her remarkable legacy. Michael sold the salon in Jersey, waited a year and bought out Joanne’s partner in Philly. He has been working at East End Salon for seventeen years now and his partner is Donna Sadic, also a South Philly native from 10th and Wolf. The salon has been in business for twenty years, which is remarkable in any business, but especially in hair design. Michael describes his staff as professional and dedicated.
Now the East End Salon is undergoing a transformation with the conversion of the top floor into artists’ lofts. Every First Friday, artwork will be displayed in the salon for the general public. Up and coming artists who normally wouldn’t get their artwork shown in Old City will gain exposure and experience. “We’re not looking to do this for a living. We’re doing this as a ‘mitzvah’ as the Jews would call it, it’s like good karma. What you give is what you get. We’re going to give back and give these kids a chance to show their stuff on First Fridays in Old City.”
East End Salon’s next art show will be held on First Friday in April. Michael has carried on his mentor’s philosophy. “When you come to the salon, you feel like you’re home. We’re not pretentious. You come, you hang out, you laugh, you leave.”
This Guy’s Got Balls
While he was building the East End Salon business, Michael and Katie had a second child, Aiden, and Michael set his sights on a new venture. “Food trucks were getting hot,” he said. “I started telling people and they thought I was crazy. I knew what I was getting into, but I didn’t know what I was getting into. The potential is what keeps you going.”
As a child, Michael used to cook meatballs with his grandmother and he wanted to merge the traditional meatballs of his youth with contemporary, gourmet meatballs. The “Mama’s Balls” are his grandmother’s recipe. The difference from his grandmother’s are that Michael’s meatballs are baked, not fried.
“We roll about a hundred and fifty to two hundred pounds of meat at a time.” He rents a kitchen at Greensgrow Kitchen and has a staff of seven or eight people. The night before a festival they can be found rolling meatballs all night long. The balls are sold at food festivals and on street corners.
Selections include the original “Mama’s Ball”: pork, beef, veal, topped with arugula, and parmigiano cheese; the Thanksgiving inspired “Ga-Ball-Ga-Ball”: turkey, stuffing, rosemary, thyme, stuffed with cranberry sauce topped with bacon, gravy, arugula, and parmigiano; “Blue Balls”: Bacon, beef, veal, pork, stuffed with blue cheese topped with blue cheese sauce, bacon, arugula, and parmigiano; and one that’s up my alley, the “Veg-Da-Ball”: 3 bean mix, red peppers, onions, Italian seasonings, rolled and fried in panko breadcrumbs and topped with peppers and onions, parmigiano, arugula and red pepper hummus.
Michael uses his own tastes for inspiration. “I look at other sandwiches that I like and put it into a meatball. Take a bite of Datz-a-Spicy Ball, you think you’re eating sausage and peppers sandwich with mozzarella cheese. Ga-Ball-Ga-Ball has turkey with cranberry in the middle. It’s like having Thanksgiving Dinner in every bite. The Apple Bomb has turkey with Granny Smith apples, and spicy asiago cheese. People can order single sliders or a three meatball sub.”
Michael has the only meatball truck in the city and he wants to keep it that way. “People would get bored if there is always the same truck on the corner, but if one comes once a week, people get excited and order.”
Michael has two business partners, Whitney and Billy Proudman who now realize how much work it is to sustain a popular food truck in Philly. “We didn’t know how big and how fast it was going to get,” Michael said. “The first time we sold out and we had to go back and make them all over again because we had to do it again two days later.”
Planning for next year, he wants to keep the Greensgrow kitchen and maybe expand to catering and eventually open a store. “People can come get sandwiches and buy balls by the sack,” he smiled. “People in the food industry get too serious, get over yourself….you have a food truck…have fun! Even if I have a restaurant, I want people to have fun.” Michael is a visionary, but he is also is also a realist. “You have to take baby steps in this industry if you want to make it.”
The South Philly Renaissance
Michael is excited about the growth and prosperity of his old neighborhood near 13th and Iseminger, but he also mourns the fact that South Philly isn’t the same as when he grew up there.
“Everybody policed everybody’s kids; I didn’t realize that your neighbors weren’t supposed to hit you in other parts of the country or the world. It used to be that you were guilty until proven innocent, and then it got to you’re innocent until proven guilty and now the kids are never guilty. We’ve lost the ‘it takes a village idea.’ I blame our generation for letting that die. The ‘not my kid’ is not a good thing. I think the old school way, not the beatings, but the mentality of it, is going to have to come back.” When he grew up in South Philly Michael considered all of his neighbors his ‘aunts’ and ‘uncles’. “Even if you weren’t related, you were a family.”
Michael has high hopes for the future of South Philly. He is looking forward to the renovation of the Brush Factory on 12th and Jackson Street. He attended the community meetings regarding the plans for the abandoned factory and didn’t sympathize with some of the neighbors’ concerns about the lack of parking and the transient renters.
“The people coming in are not like you who have four kids and three cars,” he told them. “These are hipsters, they don’t have kids, they don’t have cars. They’re going to want to stay and they’re going to buy property in the neighborhood.”
He focused on the fact that the Brush Factory location is central to the city. “It’s one block away from Broad Street, people can take the subway to the Navy Yard or to Center City.” He also envisions development for the Bell Telephone building on Broad Street as well as the stores that line Broad and Jackson. He welcomes the new clientele to his old stomping grounds. He wants to keep the neighborhood desirable, including people with jobs who are productive. “Twenty years from now we’ll look at our old neighborhood and say, wow, thank God.”
Now Michael and his family call Cherry Hill their home. As much as he loved growing up in South Philly, he wouldn’t want to raise his kids there now. “It was the best place to be at the time that we were there. We want to be nostalgic, but it’s not the way it was. You don’t see kids hanging out. We walked in packs, like friggin gangs,” Michael remembered. “I don’t think any place is like that anymore. I wanted my kids to have a yard, a pool around the corner, trees and grass and be able to ride their bike. I’m only eight miles from the city.”
Michael remembers that growing up in South Philly in the eighties and nineties was cool. Kids walked around wearing jackets with their corner logo embroidered on it. “When we went to Wildwood other kids wanted to be us, we were the mecca of cool back then. They wanted the high hair, they wanted to date us and to come to our neighborhood.” He wants to move back to the city once his children are grown. “I love walking around to the restaurants. That’s why I kept my house there.”