First Bites

The Meatball Joint Rolls Up Short

The cool thing about focusing on one food is that you get to prepare it just right. Like the Meatball Shop on Stanton Street in New York City. Two guys -- one of whom, Daniel Hotzman, has been cooking since a four-year stint at Le Bernardin starting at age 15 -- came up with a great meatball and built a restaurant around it (now three restaurants). Last month, Bernie Matz (the Café at Books & Books, Bernie's L.A. Café) rolled out the same concept next door to his L.A. Café on Alton Road in South Beach. It's called the Meatball Joint, and it mimics almost every aspect of the New York shop, including the style and content of the menu.

Only thing is, the Meatball Joint doesn't get it just right.

Diners are handed a laminated menu that serves as a customized order form; there are colored markers on the table. You choose your ball, your sauce, and your presentation -- on top of spaghetti or other sides, in a sandwich ($10), in a slider ($3 each), or "smashed" on focaccia with sauce and mozzarella cheese ($9). Sort of like ordering dim sum or like ordering meatballs at the Meatball Shop.

The "classic Italian" meatball is culled from beef and pork, with Parmesan and herbs as flavorful filler. Whether you choose them, the turkey meatballs ("South Beach"), or eggplant and Parmesan balls (those aren't meatballs!), it's four spheres for $8. Sauce selection is "drunken mushroom," "fredo," and "fire-roasted tomato marinara." I sampled the marinara with the classic meatball on a baguette sandwich. The four meatballs were tender and tasty, if a bit heavy on the garlic. The marinara was fine, and the bread was crusty. It's a good sandwich, with a routine romaine/shredded carrot salad on the side.

The turkey meatball had a pleasant flavor but was on the tough side. And it was small -- dwarfed by the challah mini-slider bun it was served on. I tried the "fredo," which is a thin and horrid Parmesan sauce.

A special lamb burger, which I also tried as a slider, seemed little as well, but it packed nice lamb taste and, when slathered with tzatziki sauce, made for a satisfying bite. Actually, more like two bites. It came with a cup of quinoa tabbouleh, which is one of numerous menu sides. The flavor was more or less like that of straight quinoa. Ugh.

I should note there's a nice list of craft beers and microbrews on tap ($5).

Service here is sincere but typically untrained. The waiter made no mention of specials; I noticed them written on a board after I placed the original order. The online menu lists ice-cream sandwiches (just like the Meatball Shop), but no mention was made of dessert, no dessert menu was handed out, and none was written on any board. If there are indeed desserts served, that's poor service.

And that's what I mean by things not being done just right. Sure, you can get a decent meatball sub here for $10. But that's not what a specialty shop is all about.

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Miami New Times' restaurant reviewer for the past decade, and the world's indisputable master of disguise.
Contact: Lee Klein