What’s a nice guy like Bernie Matz doing rolling meatballs in Miami Beach?
The affable chef has a knack for knowing what people in this town like. He created the popular sandwich and salad menu at Books & Books Café on Lincoln Road and then crafted a uniquely Latin American Café on Alton Road.
Right next door, he has opened what could be a real hit for the neighborhood. His formula goes something like this: Serve generous portions made with fresh ingredients at moderate prices to customers who are cost- and health-conscious.
Meatballs have taken off from coast to coast. I’ve had exceptional ones in Los Angeles at Mozza and in New York at Meatball Obsession and, most notably, The Meatball Shop, where Matz seems to have found inspiration.
He borrows the idea of a do-it-yourself dry-erase menu with a selection of markers on the butcher block, offering not just juicy, Italian pork and beef balls but also healthy versions including zero-carb turkey balls and eggplant balls made with a meaty vegetable-protein filler that had my vegetarian friends looking positively worried as they munched them. The specials board can be worth mining, especially for succulent, garlicky lamb balls and falafel.
If you order well, this will become your new favorite neighborhood spot for a cheap date or a quick lunch. If not, you may walk away wondering, “What was he thinking?”
The best combo we created was a sandwich with four Italian meatballs smashed onto a moist and salty focaccia bread, the salsa held together with a layer of melted mozzarella cheese.
I also liked a well-seasoned no-carb, low-fat turkey slider served on a griddled challah bun. The balls, all about two ounces and about as big as billiard balls, are uniformly juicy and well-seasoned.
An array of sides veers well off the Italian theme with waffle-cut sweet potato fries, cornflake-topped macaroni and cheese, roasted corn, grits, whole wheat spaghetti and quinoa tabouleh as well as sautéed kale. The green salad seems popped right out of a bag of prewashed mixed greens but is nicely dressed with a restrained balsamic vinaigrette.
Sauces, in tiny plastic takeout cups, are disappointing. The “freddo” is pasty in both texture and taste, while the “drunken mushroom” did not appear to have any zing or mushroom. Only the fire-roasted tomato, a lusty, chunky, smoky salsa-like dip, adds a nice nip of flavor. I longed for a real Italian Sunday gravy-style sauce with bright, sweet tomato zip.
Like the menu, service is uneven. Every other visit has included oversights and mistakes, from missing plates to double orders and overcharges. But the crew is uniformly pleasant and apologetic, so it is easy to be forgiving.
A budget selection of decent Italian reds by the glass and bottle is just right for this kind of joint. And a surprising list of ales and Orange Blossom Pilsner on tap as well as some nice microbrews were a treat.
The very best thing we had was a pair of still-warm, house-made macadamia nut cookies sandwiching a scoop of creamy vanilla ice cream capped with a twirl of whipped cream. Every night brings a choice of cookies or a slice of apple pie.
I’d come back for a quick, cheap meal with the kids before or after a movie with the hope that the ordering system and the help get a little upgrade.