The Meatball and Wine Bar's rugged good looks. Photo: Eddie Jim
Somewhere, surely, economists are studying the correlation between meatball consumption and consumer confidence. Polpette, kofte, faggots, frikadeller, rissoles - call them what you will, but in tough times, people crave comfort and nostalgia. And nothing ticks the boxes better than meatballs.
A year ago, film and TV producer Matteo Bruno punted on a meatball-led recovery, opening the Meatball and Wine Bar in Flinders Lane. It's his Down Under take on the Meatball Shop, a chain of restaurants that has gone, well, ballistic in New York City.
Bruno's second outlet, in Richmond, opened in May and negotiations are under way for a third in Windsor.
Go-to dish: Pork meatballs with polenta. Photo: Eddie Jim
The Swan Street iteration, which Bruno dubs ''RichBalls'', takes over the corner site previously occupied by Bess. It shares the rugged good looks of the city M&WB, with pale walls hung with wine racks, seating at a combination of banquettes, bistro chairs and high stools, and chequerboard floors. Decorative touches include the seemingly obligatory butcher's diagram dividing a steer into cuts and a neon sign declaring "I'm a baller, baby".
"Ball" puns are endemic, from the menu offering "something for your balls to sit on", to cheeky banter from waiters. If you're a diner with delicate sensibilities: wrong way, go back.
But I'm made of sterner stuff. Lobbing at RichBalls with two teenagers in train, I'm met by a staff member who says tersely: ''The wait will be an hour and a half.'' But we're willing to sit at that empty table outside, I squeak. ''No, it's been raining and it wouldn't be comfortable.'' End of story.
Crestfallen, we head elsewhere. But returning to the car an hour later, we can't help but notice a group happily carousing at the same apparently uncomfortable table. Huh?
(Later, I learn they have an over-18s policy because ''we're a wine bar… loud music with sometimes offensive language playing and… prams are a trip hazard for staff''.)
I'm back the next night, sans enfants, and the welcome's warmer. There's a short wait, I'm told, but we'll take your name and number and call you when the table's free. I lurk outside, watching people in football scarves streaming towards the MCG and others swimming against the tide, entering RichBalls and exiting a minute later, rueing the length of the waiting list.
But 20 minutes later, I'm at a corner table surrounded by shiny, happy and frankly rowdy thirtysomethings, a waiter at my elbow offering to run me though the concept.
It's pretty simple. I'm almost certain I could figure it out by reading the menu. But it's part of the theatre to let staff rehearse their lines. He explains there are charcuterie and cheese boards, then we can choose one of five kinds of balls, a sauce (red, white or green) and ''something to rest your balls on''.
Charcuterie - capocollo, fennel salami, truffle salami and prosciutto - comes arranged on a board with batons of focaccia, and a "Booze" list offers a short, likeable selection of Italian wines, cocktails and digestives.
But we're here for the balls. From pork, beef, chicken, fish and vegetable, we've picked pork meatballs with creamy polenta and red (Italian tomato) sauce, and chicken meatballs with ''Super MB potato smash'' and green sauce (pesto). On each dish, three orbs just bigger than golf balls nestle on starchy bases, draped with sauce and speckled with grated parmesan. The pork balls, made with finely minced Kurobuta meat, according to the menu, are gently lifted by a touch of sage, fennel seed and orange rind.
The Lilydale free-range chicken balls are flavoured with pistachio, parmesan and muscatels, plated on a chunky mash and generously daubed with garlicky pesto. They're excellent. Conversation slows to a satisfied murmur. It's comfort by the bowlful.
A side of finely sliced fennel with orange and caramelised honey walnuts is the only disappointment, although the lack of dressing and scantness of the orange pieces render it merely meh, rather than awful. I'm sated but greedily proceed to dessert. Like the NY original, customised ice-cream sandwiches (or whoopie macs, as they're known) provide the finale. Choose a biscuit, choose an ice-cream, and dessert's up. The shortbread-like ginger biscuits are a touch soft but the house-made caramel ice-cream is agreeably luscious. Across the table, my friend is wishing he'd been braver: the seed-flecked vanilla ice-cream provides too little flavour contrast to the crisp pistachio meringue biscuits.
Rollicking, good value and on-trend, Meatball and Wine Bar delivers Gen-Y appeal in spades. Trust me, if you fit the demographic, you'll have a ball.
The best bit The meatballs
The worst bit The over-18s policy
Go-to dish Pork meatballs with pesto on creamy polenta
Roslyn Grundy is co-editor of The Age Good Food Guide 2014.
- 03 9428 3339
- Cuisine - Italian
- Prices - Typical entree $24; main $18; dessert $11.50
- Features - Gluten-free options, Outdoor seating, Licensed
- Chef(s) - Brendon Jones, Pat Chitdi
- Owners - Matteo Bruno
- Cards accepted - AMEX, Mastercard, Visa, EFTPOS
- Opening Hours - Mon-Fri, 11am-late, Sat-Sat, 8am-late
- Other Branches - 135 Flinders Lane, Melbourne, 03 9654 7545
- Author - Roslyn Grundy