Story and Photos by Jeff Kronenfeld, July 2019 Issue.
Stefano Fabbri is proud of what’s in his balls.
His voice, complete with a thick Italian accent, becomes even more animated as he discusses the omega-3 profile of wild-catch versus farmed salmon. Though his recently opened meatball-centric restaurant, Meat the Ball, is a casual dining experience, the food, drinks and service are on par with even its swankiest Biltmore neighbors. True to its name, there’s pork, beef, chicken, and veal spheres of meat candy goodness, but also salmon and three vegetarian balls, including gluten-free, vegan, and even keto options.
Unlike Pomo Pizzerias, another pair of Fabbri restaurants, Meat the Ball isn’t intended to be an authentic Italian experience. Instead, it stirs up the melting pot of Americanized ethnic cuisine with fun fusions such as the BBQ pork balls rising, Gibraltar-like, from a serene sea of polenta or the spiced cauliflower stuffed with coconut curry and broccoli rice. With four pasta dishes and four salad options, any of which can be enhanced by the addition of meatballs, plus two sandwiches and eight appetizers, the small but colorful menu has something for everyone, even those who don’t love stuffing their mouths with round objects.
Though the meatball is ancient, with versions recorded in an ancient Roman cookbook known as the Apicius, the baseball-sized marinara-doused variety commonly found atop noodles today, like sweet and sour chicken, is the creation of immigrants to the U.S. combining the aspect of their homeland’s cuisine with New World ingredients and sensibilities.
Known as polpette in Italy, these traditional meatballs are not as large as their Americanized cousins, ranging in size from golf balls to marbles. They are not traditionally served on noodles, but rather are a course to themselves, sometimes doused in a thin gravy. Long a popular dish in Italian homes, polpette are a popular street food item today.
In fact, Fabbri was visiting a friend’s “polpetteria” in Milan, Italy when the idea for Meat the Ball came to him. Hunting for a new concept to add to his small but growing restaurant empire, which includes Mora Italian and Luna Gelateria, he realized Phoenix was ready for its own meatball purveyor. He reflected on how meatballs were consistently the most popular item at Pomo Pizzeria, after pizza. Fabbri decided to create a small, friendly and colorful restaurant that wasn’t afraid to experiment.
Nestled in the north end of Biltmore Fashion Park beside personal care and beauty store Sephora, Meat the Ball is little but lean. Though not much more than 800 square feet, the open kitchen and bar make it feel larger. However, on a nice day, I suggest sitting outside under the black and white stripes of the pergola’s canvas roof. With misters and heaters, it’ll be reasonably comfortable most of the year, save perhaps for the height of summer.
This slightly elevated perch is ideal for people watching while enjoying the 3-6 p.m. happy hour on weekdays. Then, cocktails are all only six dollars each and feature fun and flavorful takes on the classics. Despite my curiosity about the Go Figure Mule — made with Figenza Mediterranean Fig Vodka, lemon juice and Fentimans Ginger Beer — I elected for the Amaretto Sour, made with SerataAmaretto, lemon juice, syrup, and garnished with a lemon twist and a candied cherry. The drink was sweet with a subtle sourness and went down dangerously easy. I had three. My partner started with the Passion Fruit Mojito — made with Don Q Cristal Rum, Passoa Passion Liqueur, lime juice andRekorderlig Passionfruit Cider — which is a great summer day drink, or really any day when one’s been dealing with annoying people for work. Plus, the sprig of mint even makes it feel healthy.
As we watched a woman drop half a G for beauty products while holding a very well-behaved dog in her armpit, our appetizer arrived. The Mediterranean Shrimp came bathed in the most delectable cream sauce and accompanied by sautéed cherry tomatoes, olives, Fresno chili and dusted with a very fine crouton powder. The cheesy bisque-like sauce, an inspired choice, was a real winner with our party. In fact, it was so good we were still spooning little tastes until the waiter took the empty dish and brought our main courses.
Though I stared long and hard at The Meat the Ball Super-Hero, a gourmet meatball parm sandwich on house-made ciabatta, I felt an ethical obligation to try one of the 10 meatball dishes, which come with three meatballs and a special side. You can order the balls sans side, but why would you? I ordered the Spicy Sausage, composed of Neiman Ranch Pork, covered in a sweet BBQ sauce and healthy smattering of fried onions, with a tiny red pepper halo on top of each. The three meatballs, each weighing about three ounces, were filling and satisfying, as was the creamy polenta surrounding them.
Our second entre was a trifecta of Eggplant Parmigiana (vegetarian) meat balls stuffed with mozzarella and coated in tomato sauce. They were completed by a dollop of ricotta cheese, that looked a little like a French beret, and a tiny basil leaf, like an insouciant pompadour jutting to the side. My pescatarian companion admitted they were savory enough to satisfy the carnivorous cravings only sometimes admitted to. Think of these as something like a calorically less guilt-inducing eggplant parm sub, especially if you give the thick hunks of oily focaccia bread dusted with herbs and salt to a nearby scavenging reporter.
There are three desserts currently, all round or spherical, and we choose the MMM In A Jar, which is a mason jar filled with three layers — vanilla, pistachio, Nutella crema — separated by citrus ladyfingers and topped with pistachios and candied orange pieces. One layer was effervescent and tangy, another like a very creamy bread pudding and the third a smooth yet subtle chocolate and hazelnut mousse. The donut balls also looked very interesting, though we regrettably exercised self-control.
All in all, the service was swift and friendly without being overeager. The food was affordable yet quite tasty, and the surrounding ennui of bourgeoise retail therapy an enjoyable ambiance for afternoon drinking. With a second location slated to open in Scottsdale this fall, Meat the Ball and Fabbri seem set to continue sharing their unique palette into the future. “My meatball is not a normal meatball,” Fabbri exclaimed as he discussed each of his meat suppliers and explained why he serves — and himself eats — only grass-fed beef. Not the preachy type, Fabbri spreads his belief in the importance of knowing what you put in your body, like any good chef, through the food he serves. “If you want to have a normal meatball, I’m ok with that,” he adds with a shrug.