Baltimore restaurants take the meatball trend beyond spaghetti

For The Baltimore Sun
There's more than a chance of meatballs in Baltimore's dining forecast.

Forget any comparison to the movie "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs." Baltimore's meatball forecast is sunny and bright.

In late February, 8 Ball Meatball opened a Fells Point restaurant specializing in an assortment of the golf-ball-size rounds. And a year ago, Meatballs, Etc. presented its own menu devoted to the food in Glen Burnie. The restaurant is planning to expand to another location this year and two more next year.

That's not to mention the other restaurants around town offering their own versions —albondigas, lamb meatballs, at Tapas Teatro in Station North; kofta, Indian veggie meatballs, at Cafe Spice in Cockeysville; and homemade Italian meatballs at Cafe Gia Ristorante in Little Italy.

"All cultures have a meatball," said Edward Kim, the owner of Mi and Yu Noodle Bar in Federal Hill. "It's comfort food."

Perhaps that's why the food research group Technomic predicts that meatballs will be a big trend in 2016. "Meatballs and sausages are proliferating — traditional, ethnic or nouveau, shaped from many types and combinations of meats," it reported.

At Mi and Yu, Kim makes his meatballs with 80 percent beef short ribs, 20 percent pork-belly fat and seasonings like ginger and lemongrass to serve with his ramen, udon or pho.

"Mi and Yu is not a traditional joint," he said about featuring meatballs at his noodle shop.

But not all meatballs have meat. Cafe Spice's veggie balls, for instance, are made with cauliflower, beans, carrots and corn. "It's minced vegetables all rolled together," said owner Girish Garg. "It's a very, very traditional Indian food. "

Paul Weitz, an owner of 8 Ball Meatball, wants to reinvent the meatball at his new restaurant. He devised a menu that allows diners to pick a type of meatball — which range from a classic beef, pork and veal combination to a specialty pepperoni-pizza sphere — plus a sauce and a style of preparation, like "bowl of balls," sliders or a meatball sub, from $3 to $12.

"We want to take the old-school, classic meatball and make it hip and cool," he said. "Meatballs are fun and approachable. People have eaten meatballs since they were little children."

While using components of the popular fast-casual restaurant concept, 8 Ball Meatball, which opened in the former Tapas Adela space, is a sit-down restaurant with servers. "The idea that customers design their own plates really caught my eye," Weitz said. "But it's not quick service."

Meatball, Etc., on the other hand, embraced the fast-casual idea. The new eatery is part of the Monte Restaurant Development Group, which operates Carpaccio Tuscan Kitchen and Wine Bar in Annapolis, 4 Seasons Grille in Gambrills and nine Squisito Pizza and Pasta spots, mostly in Anne Arundel County.

Monte principals Michele and Gennaro DiMeo have been in the restaurant business for more than 20 years. The idea of Meatball, Etc. has been blossoming for a while.

"We've been working on the concept for almost four years," Michele DiMeo said. "We wanted a create-your-own restaurant. My favorite dish was meatballs."

She points out that there are other Italian dishes on the menu, hence, the "Etc." part of the name, but the main focus is on the humble ball of meat.

"Who doesn't like a meatball?" she said. "Everyone loves meatballs."

Customers, who can watch the kitchen staff making meatballs in a glass-enclosed room, order at a counter. They pick a type of meatball, a preparation (from a pasta bowl to a piada, an Italian-style wrap), a sauce and a topping like roasted peppers, green peas or mozzarella. Prices range from $1.59 for a single meatball to $7.99 for a classic combination meal.

No one is really sure where or when the meatball came into existence. Some trace it to the Romans, others to the Persians, who were said to coat ground lamb balls with egg yolk and saffron.

To teach Americans about the Italian origins of foods like meatballs, Giulia Sereni of Towson and Sara Burro of Canton, who both relocated here from Milan because of their husbands' jobs, offer classes and blog about their homeland cuisine at flourrhapsody.com.

"In Italy, we have a simple tradition of meatballs," Burro said. "Most of the time, it's a leftover piece of meat. We don't waste anything. Then you have a meal for your family."

She said meatballs are made differently, depending on the region of Italy. Cooks in southern Italy, with access to the sea, often make fish balls, she said.

Burro adds Parmesan, eggs and bread crumbs to ground beef or veal, and then bakes the meatballs. She likes to serve them with peas.

"It is a very common, daily food," she said. "Now it is something that everyone can make themselves."

Gia Fracassetti, an owner of Cafe Gia and a first-generation Italian-American, remembers a traditional dish.

"We had authentic Italian meatballs at my family's dining room in Sicily, baked and wrapped in basil leaves," she said. "With pasta and sauce, it's been Americanized."

The "mamma mia" meatballs at Cafe Gia are made with bison and come with pasta. "It's a staple item," Fracassetti said.

At Ouzo Bay, executive chef Michael Everd, a Baltimore native, carries on the meatball's Greek heritage with keftedes sto fourno, meatballs made with 100 percent ground lamb and spices like cumin, oregano and garlic. He finishes the molded balls with tomato sauce and feta cheese.

"To me, it's a comfort food," he said. "And there are so many ways to play with it — with pork, turkey, chicken and spices."

Ikea stores may be more associated with furniture and accessories than food, but its Swedish kottbullar (meatballs) are a big seller. The company expects to sell 236 million meatballs in the U.S. by the end of August, marketwatch.com reported.

Ikea's bag of frozen meatballs suggests that you serve them "Swedish style" with potato mash, lingonberry jam and a cream sauce.

Whatever way you prepare them, meatballs look like they're here to stay, whether they're considered trendy or not.

"There's a nostalgic value to meatballs," Fracassetti said. "It brings people back to their youth."

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