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10 Flavor Upgrades: Meatballs Belle of the Ball

In Dallas, Clark Food & Wine Co.’s brisket meatballs are accented with a balsamic glaze and blue cheese.
PHOTO CREDIT: nocredit

In Dallas, Clark Food & Wine Co.’s brisket meatballs are accented with a balsamic glaze and blue cheese. Meatballs are rolling onto menus nationwide. Consumers gravitate toward this familiar, well-loved comfort food, and meatballs provide endless back-of-house versatility. These mini flavor bombs can be made with almost any ground or chopped meat, seafood, poultry, vegetables, grains or beans. Meatballs offer the least-threatening entry point into a multitude of sustaining trends—bar bites, shareables, snacks, global mash-ups and, of course, comfort food.

1. Stuffed
If a meatball is delicious, then a stuffed meatball adds even more craveability. The simple addition of a tasty filling inside a handful of ground meat makes this a quick path to menu differentiation.
Try this:

  • Experiment with different kinds of cheese, from delicate ricotta to distinctive feta.
  • Stuff a meatball with macaroni and cheese for a doubly pleasing kids’ menu item or for creative comfort on the bar bites menu.

Menu Examples:
Polpetta Napoletana: Meatball stuffed with ham, peas and mozzarella in tomato sauce — Bella Tuscany, Windemere, Fla.
Spaghetaboudit Meatball: Classic meatball stuffed with three cheeses and fusilli pasta, topped with marinara, shaved Parmesan and garnished with ricotta — The Meatball Room, Boca Raton, Fla.

2. Lamb
Nothing says Greek or the Mediterranean better than lamb—whether you call your meatballs keftedes or not. Yogurt and fragrant spices add to the flavor mystique.
Try this:

  • Skewer small lamb meatballs and pair with hummus or tzatziki for a different bar snack.
  • Shape the meat mixture into lozenges and fold into a pita or lavash, or mix with bulgur wheat and spices to create Lebanese-style kibbeh.

Menu Examples:
Lamb Meatballs, fresh mint chimichurri, yogurt sauce  — Mud Hen Tavern, Los Angeles
Soutzoukakia: Grilled lamb meatballs with spiced tomato sauce and Greek yogurt — Kokkari, San Francisco

3. Asian
Thrifty Asian cooks have a history of meatball-making: Think Vietnamese pho noodle soup with meatballs, brisket and rare beef, or the Chinese Lion’s Head dish of large pork meatballs stewed or steamed with cabbage, or tsukune, a Japanese meatball rolled in soy.
Try this:

  • Take inspiration from the Japanese tradition of tako yaki (deep fried octopus balls), or fried balls of chopped shrimp, drizzled with katsu sauce and/or Kewpie mayonnaise.
  • Add small meatballs to any Asian-style soup or even ramen.

Menu Examples:
Pork Meatball Spring Rolls: Steamed rice paper wrapped around pork meatballs, pickled carrots and vermicelli, served with peanut sauce — Pho Bistro, Malden, Mass.
Tsukune: Japanese-style chicken meatball, served by the piece with a choice of flavorings, including teriyaki, spicy miso, yuzu, daikon, kori kori, goma, kimchi, curry and cheese and fondue — Tsukuneya Robata Grill, Honolulu

4. Floating
Soups and stews that incorporate meatballs as the protein gain soothing flavor and texture when the meatballs are braised or cooked right in the liquid.
Try this:

  • Tap into global meatball soup and stew recipes, such as Mexican (sopa de albondigas) or hearty Bavarian meatball soup.
  • Classic braises like Swedish meatballs and Italian meatball stew are ripe for comfort-food reinvention.

Menu Examples:
Chickpea Stew with Meatballs and Shrimp: Chickpea stew with garlic spinach, sautéed shrimp, meatballs and seasoned basmati rice — Pasha Cafe, Arlington, Va.
Steamed Pork Meatball Soup with crispy garlic, bok choy shoots and black soy sauce — Kin Shop, New York City, N.Y.

5. Vegetarian/Vegan
Meat alternatives in meatball form also have a place at the table. Vegetarian and vegan customers will appreciate the added option, especially if you ramp up the flavor factor with spices and other seasonings, or add satisfying texture by frying.
Try this:

  • Try a mushroom “meat” ball, made with cultivated white mushrooms or more exotic porcini, providing umami and heft without the meat.
  • Grind cooked potato, carrots and peas, or white beans with sautéed minced onions and garlic, season and roll in breadcrumbs.

Menu Examples:
Sauer-Tot Balls: Potato and sauerkraut veggie balls served with lettuce and Dijon sauce on a hoagie — Barone Meatball Company, a food truck in Raleigh/Durham, N.C.
Quinoa “meatballs” and spaghetti squash, marinara, basil pesto — Vine Brook Tavern, Lexington, Mass.

6. Poultry
As a point of differentiation or a nod to health concerns, chicken and turkey represent an easy way to set a meatball apart. As for duck, it has the rich flavor and premium allure of the more traditional beef, pork or veal.

Try this:

  • Chicken or turkey meatballs are a great substitution for chicken breast in stir-fries, sweet-and-sour, General Tso and other Asian-style recipes.
  • Serve chicken meatballs Buffalo-style with a roll in hot sauce, accompanied by blue cheese dressing and celery and carrot sticks.

Menu Examples:
Turkey Meatball, onions, celery, and carrots served with cranberry jelly and a traditional gravy — Meatball Room, Boca Raton, Fla.
Chicken Meatballs seasoned with herbs and a hint of red pepper, sprinkled with Italian cheeses and served in a zesty marinara — Olive Garden, multiple locations

7. Upscale
While meatballs are known for low costs and familiarity, higher-end ingredients and presentation can turn them into a more distinctive variation on a whole-muscle protein item.
Try this:

  • Offer an ultra-luxe meatball stuffed with foie gras and minced truffle—or even chopped lobster or crabmeat for a “surf and turf” meatball.
  • Craft patties from a blend of meats like short rib, brisket and chuck, and menu a blended meatball that shouts “quality.”

Menu Examples:
Grilled Beef Meatballs with braised beet greens, sofrito, tomatoes — Bestia, Los Angeles
Duck Meatballs alla Toscana filled with Fontina, Parmesan and provolone, porcini mushrooms, whipped ricotta and mascarpone, sun-dried cherry port wine and veal reduction — Fresco by Scotto, New York City

8. Seafood
If fish or shellfish can be served as burgers, patties or cakes, then they can be formed into rounds and menued as a meatball variation that appeals to better-for-you diners.
Try this:

  • See what other cultures are doing with ground or minced seafood, such as French quenelles, Thai fish cakes and Chinese fish balls.
  • Ground fresh tuna is especially successful in an Italian-style meatball, like the Sicilian polpette di tonno, because of its meatiness.

Menu Examples:
Polpette di Pesce Spada: Baked swordfish meatballs simmered in a spicy homemade tartar sauce — Calabria Restaurant & Pizzeria, Livingston, N.J.
Oyster Room Meatball Sub: Pork-oyster meatballs, napa cabbage slaw, smoked oyster mayonnaise, ciabatta bread — Boone’s Fish House & Oyster Room, Portland, Maine

9. International
You can probably find traditional meatballs almost anywhere a spinning globe stops: kofte (Middle Eastern); bun cha (Vietnamese); frikadeller (Danish); bakso (Indonesian); klopsiki (Polish); kofta (India). Global spices and textures give off cultural cues.
Try this:

  • Mix ground pork, grated Manchego and pimentón, and serve on a toothpick with a roasted piquillo pepper sauce or saffron aïoli.
  • Offer a meatball du jour, or other rotating meatball special, inspired by global meatball recipes.

Menu Examples:
Albondigas, salsa verde, cotija, pine nut, fried egg, masa cake — Bar Amá, Los Angeles
Keftedes: Ground beef and Mediterranean-spice fried meatballs — Alchemy, San Diego

10. Spicy
In 1969, Alka-Seltzer famously based a commercial on the line: “Mama mia, that’s a spicy meatball!” But nowadays customers actually seek out higher spice levels. The heat-seeking flavor profile also invites interesting global variations.
Try this:

  • Chipotle peppers in adobo sauce add a smoky flavor, as well as heat, to the ground meat mixture and/or the sauce.
  • Consider using—and calling out—an on-trend condiment such as Sriracha or Korean gochujang to add both spice and story to your meatball offering.

Menu Examples:
Spicy Ricotta Meatballs: Beef, veal and ricotta meatball, caramelized onions, red chile — Romano’s Macaroni Grill, multiple locations
Chorizo Meatballs, roasted tomatoes, celery heart, onion, saffron, pecorino gratinée — Soya & Pomodoro, Miami

About The Author

Joan Lang

A freelance writer and editor living in the Portland, Maine, area, Joan Lang has been writing about food for more than 30 years, beginning her career in the financial and B2B press. She formed her own food and editorial consulting firm, Full Plate Communications, in 1989. She is a graduate of the New York Restaurant School and holds degrees in architecture and journalism.