BUCHAREST, Romania (AP _ Meatballs are not taken lightly in the Balkans. Recipes are prized. Favorite restaurants and chefs are endlessly debated. The merits of regional variations can fuel an argument as sizzling hot as a grill itself.
But only one man in Romania was known as "the Meatball King" _ Ion Oita _ and his death has left a swath of mourners far beyond the small confines of "The Hunchback," his eatery in northern Bucharest.
Brazilian best-selling author Paulo Coelho, Romanian soprano Mariana Nicolaesco and President Traian Basescu are among those who have eaten at his nondescript restaurant. All were drawn by its hefty claim to fame: some of the best meatballs in the Balkans.
Co-owner Oita, after years of welcoming politicians, writers and fashionistas through his doors, was found hanged in a restaurant annex Dec. 5 at age 64. Oita allegedly killed himself over the outcome of a court case involving his son, who has used a wheelchair ever since a car accident. His death was top news across Romania.
"His death hit us all," said his partner Sandu Andrei, the charismatic chef known as "the Hunchback," a reference to the stoop he gained from 40 years of standing over the grill. "He is an irreplaceable loss, but the restaurant will go on."
Andrei met Oita, a shrewd businessman, in 1975 when he was grilling in a small town in southern Romania and Oita persuaded him to go into the meatball business. In 1996 they opened "the Hunchback" together _ and they never looked back.
"He was special. He knew how to get on with everyone, those at the bottom and those at the top," Andrei said Thursday, his eyes misting with tears. "There are some staff here who have been here for 15 years. He helped everyone."
Nearby, another staff member openly wept.
But life _ and lunch _ goes on. Trade was brisk Thursday and the restaurant was bustling with diners ordering spicy meatballs with runny mustard and roast pepper salads washed down with beer. Expensive cars parked on the potholed street outside, their owners tucking into meals next to tables full of workers in overalls.
"Romanians and foreigners come, the poor and the rich," Andrei said.
Fans confirmed his words.
"'The Hunchback'" is not a stuck-up restaurant," said Theodor Oltean, a dentist who lives in Germany but is also a former restaurant owner. "You'll find workers, bankers and doctors eating there every day."
Oltean, who spoke by telephone, dines at "The Hunchback" every time he returns to Romania.
"They use the freshest ingredients and the French fries are made in the kitchen, not frozen and shipped in from Amsterdam," he said.
Andrei said the key was using the freshest pork and beef, laced with the right herbs and spices _ but don't even bother asking for the secret recipe. Meatballs sell for 3.2 lei (euro.75, about one dollar).
Technically, meatballs are not even traditional Romanian cuisine, but originated in Turkey during the days of the Ottoman Empire. They are a culinary staple across the Balkans, with local adaptations in each country.
For Andrei, it's not just a meatball, it's a legacy to his former partner.
"(He) was, is and will remain the Meatball Emperor of the world," he declared.