When I first stumbled across The Meatball Shop in New York’s Lower East Side back in 2011, it had barely been open for a year, but the owners were already preparing to expand to two more locations – and, five years later, they now sit in six locations across Manhattan and Brooklyn. Things move pretty fast in New York.
In a February 2011 interview with New York Eater, the pair behind the now famous restaurant – Michael Chernow and Daniel Holzman – said they had already seen copycats of their concept travel all over the USA. Their attitude? “There are plenty of towns to put a meatball shop in… (We) just want everybody to know that we did it first.”
Little did they know that this seeming invitation to take their inspiration and run with it would travel all the way to Australia, with Matteo Bruno opening The Meatball & Wine Bar on Melbourne’s Flinders Lane in 2012. Though the branding and basic concept – a focus on meatballs – are not far removed from the New York original, Bruno was trying to do anything but create a carbon copy of the famed Shop.
With his concept restaurant and bar catching fire (there are now three locations in Melbourne and surrounds, with a fourth not far behind), I sat down with Bruno last month and enjoyed a lunch at his original Flinders Lane location, with its beautifully exposed brick and warm atmosphere, to discuss his menu, plans for the future, and the inspirations for launching the concept in Australia.
In reflecting on the origins of the bar, Bruno, who comes into the food scene off the back of extensive work in food television, says, “I was looking for somewhere I could go with a buddy, sit at a bar, eat nice, comfortable food and drink wine. The idea of singular offering restaurants definitely came from New York, but it stemmed from my time in Italy, when I was filming a series there, and I attended a festival that was dedicated to a particular type of lettuce. And you have Nonnas coming in from everywhere to cook one dish that incorporated this Radicchio, or present things like a beer infused with this bitter note of Radicchio.”
“And then we saw festivals dedicated to a particular type of salami or a bean, and so it was the passion and inspiration from the treatment of one singular ingredient – and then researching what was happening in the States really showed me that running a restaurant like this could be sustainable and commercial. Melbourne felt like the right place to launch my take on that, and with my family’s background in cattle farms, the focus on meat came naturally.”
On a quick glance at the menu, it’s inarguable that Bruno has made this concept his own. Though the New York brand thrives on customisation – each guest given a laminated menu to write on and design their ultimate meatball dish – Bruno’s menu mixes this up with both customisable options and set items, with inspired additions like ribs, cured meats and Mozzarella, specialities like meatball salads or the giant meatball with gnocchi, set alongside classics like the Spaghetti and Meatballs. Bruno says these additions are often the result of a past special being so popular it has since entered their menu permanently.
And these set options expand into areas that you may not expect, with a new breakfast menu featuring toasties with crushed meatballs, among many other options (where customers are reminded to “grab breakfast by the balls”), at their Flinders Lane location. Elsewhere, diners have the choice between five types of balls, two types of sauses and a “sotto palle” for the balls to sit on – be they polenta, beans, pasta, vegetables or a potato smash. And they have been sure to also borrow New York’s customisable dessert option: an ice cream sandwich with your choice of both cookies and the ice cream.
Looking elsewhere on the menu, we find how the “ball” concept has helped inspire even the meats and cheeses on the menu. Take the mouthwatering Burrata (pictured above), a soft mozzarella pouch stuffed with fresh cream and served with Pangrattato (bread crumbs) to provide a beautiful crunch, and accompanied with fresh warm bread. Expanding the concept is hardly a stretch, with both vegetarian and seafood balls an option in both countries. But playing around with the idea on cheeses and charcuterie is very much Bruno’s own, and expands on his desire to offer an authentic Italian experience.
“Moving away from the American approach, all our recipes are Northern Italian inspired, which is where my Mum’s from,” says Matteo, “all the cured meats and Mozzarellas were additions that have always been on the menu, the wines are exclusively Italian. If they’re made locally, they’re Italian varietals and the recipes for the meatballs haven’t changed since day one. That was my interpretation on doing a restaurant that focused on meat and wine.”
But if we’re going to come to a place with Meatball in the name, you can’t leave without trying its namesake – which of course begins with the beef. We shared the Sliders, which comes in a trio of their perfect Angus Beef balls, red sauce (Italian tomato, or you can alternatively choose a creamy white or a pesto salsa verde green sauce), some cheese and a pickle, with a brioche bun. These are worth the visit alone, and as exciting as the menu is, if they didn’t get their namesake right, they needn’t have bothered at all. But thankfully they have achieved perfection here. Naturally, the beef balls are the most popular selection, followed by pork, chicken, fish and vegetable – which round out the five standard options.
He also plays with the Meatball in the singular, offering a giant pork and veal meatball, served in a lightly creamy red sauce with gnocchi, as one of their signature set items. The ball itself is beautiful – and makes the experience of eating the dish a unique one. Their house made chili olive oil sits on the table and is a necessary inclusion. I drenched the ball in it – but that approach may not suit everyone’s taste buds. It’s these sorts of one-of-a-kind dishes that seem to have given the Melbourne brand staying power. Their specials also change regularly. This week, for instance, a past favourite has returned – a Game of Thrones themed feast: Wild Boar Meatballs on Winter’s potato smash with lamb ribs and oxtail jus, pictured below.
And as the first Meatball focused eatery in Australia, it seems Bruno has a similar approach to the New York pair in terms of expansion and his attitude to competition. Other imitations have already come and gone since 2012, both in Melbourne and cities around the country. So what’s his secret? “I think it’s a combination of things. Location is one, and also I was really focused on keeping it what it is and not deviating from it. Not trying to appeal to everyone. You come here late at night and it’s really dark, it’s super loud… and that’s how I wanted it to be. Rough and tumble. Have as many drinks as you want and a lot of fun. But it’s not for everyone, and I think some of the other ones might have been trying to please everyone. I can’t say if that in itself is why they failed, but we’ve been what we’ve been from the very start.”
And much like in New York, it didn’t take long for word to spread, “It took off straight away… it was a gimmick at the start, and it was easy to make ball jokes and the rest. There was a bit of intrigue. The accessible price point, the ease of dining was all attractive.” And now they sell between 1500 and 2000 meatballs a day across their three locations. As they continue to expand around Victoria and the rest of the country, you can only begin to imagine how many balls they’ll be popping out in the years to come…
The Meatball & Wine Bar has three Melbourne locations, with a fourth not far away and national expansion plans imminent. The Game of Thrones dish is available now, and look out for other specials across the locations – including $10 spaghetti and meatballs at the Collingwood and Richmond locations on Wednesday nights. Also look out for upcoming special events, including a meatball degustation, showcasing recipes from Matteo’s book, Meatballs: The Ultimate Guide.
You can find the location I visited at 135 Flinders Lane. To take a look at the menu and find the location nearest you, visit their official website: http://meatballandwinebar.com.
Photos of the food by the author, except for the Game of Thrones dish. This photo and venue photos are submitted by the venue.