So, “whose got the Best Balls in Boca?” That’s what a select panel of food writers (including your Boca Raton Restaurant Examiner) wanted to find out. Orchestrated by Shana Overhulser of BocaLocals.com, we set out on a mission -- to find the area’s best meatballs. And over the next five weeks, we tasted, tested, evaluated, and rated meatballs from 16 top local restaurants. The renditions spanned the culinary gamut -- from traditional Italian, to crazy compilations more likely to appear on an episode of “Chopped” than a standard menu. And not unlike a Chopped competition, the contestants were judged on several criteria, including taste, texture, presentation, and originality. Although not part of the official judging, we also noted some intangible impressions of the overall dining experience, especially the quality and attentiveness of servers and management, as well as the restaurant’s general atmosphere and attitude. And after all the scores were tallied, the results were announced…
AND THE WINNER IS….
Congratulations to our Grand Prize winner, TwentyTwenty Grille. This new foodcentric, chef-driven bistro in Royal Palm Place is not Italian -- and doesn’t even have meatballs on its regular menu, but Chef/Co-owner Ron Weisheit scored some serious culinary cred, exemplifying how even the humble meatball can be rethought into a gustatory masterpiece. His winning creation was comprised of duck confit, chicken confit, foie gras, and subtle seasonings, forming an amazing “meatball.” But an even bigger surprise awaited within, as a reconstituted dried tart cherry revealed itself hidden inside. And no standard red sauce for these beauties – instead the Chef presented them atop a puddle of brown butter, roasted tomato, and port wine reduction, sided by a landing strip of finely crushed crispy duck skin cracklings. (Try ordering that at your local pizzeria!). TwentyTwenty Grille will be presented a special plaque, to be presented at its special celebration party on Tuesday, April 22! SEE BELOW FOR MORE INFO.
Second Place was a tie, between Trattoria Romana on E. Palmetto Park Road, and its next-door neighbor 13 American Table. Trattoria Romana served its signature Polpetonne, a ginormous all-beef globe, encompassing a center treasure cove of prosciutto, onions, sweet red peppers, fresh mushrooms, and mozzarella cheese, all swimming in Trattoria’s authentic Italian tomato sauce. Chef/Owner Arturo Gismondi created the dish based upon his nona’s Roman recipe, and then added his own inspirited touches. This was my own personal favorite: The tender meatball exhibited delicious taste and a perfect consistency, and the interior components each lent their own distinct flavor and texture. We also loved how the separate components were not just ground up with the meat, but left in sizeable enough pieces so you can actually see and taste each separate component (or even pick them out, if you don’t want them).
Meanwhile, at 13 American Table, Chef Anthony Fiorini served a sumptuous veal & pork meatball. The creative chef then gave it a special “steakhouse” treatment: Set atop a plate-licking good bleu cheese fondue highlighted with a red wine reduction, accompanied by savory arugula salad and thick-cut homemade potato chips. The meatball itself was outstanding, but the rich bleu cheese, bold red wine redcution, slightly peppery freshness of the arugula, and crispy-salty body of the chips all worked in perfect unison to elevate the experience even higher. Of special note: 13 American Table served an outstanding red blend called “Saved.” Although not part of the official judging, this won our unanimous vote as the absolute best wine we had at any of the restaurants. It’s worth a visit just for this wine alone!
Paradiso Ristorante of Lake Worth took home the bronze. Chef/Owner Angelo Romano created a special all-veal meatball for this competition, with very little other seasonings or fillers, allowing the pure veal goodness to shine. Even more surprising, the Chef did not fry or bake these tender babies, but rather poached them in a special broth, further enhancing their supple, melt-in-your-mouth tenderness. They were presented magnificently atop a silky cloud of Buffalo Ricotta Cheese. These huge, perfectly spherical orbs were a treat to the eyes as well -- and won the Best Presentation award.
Fourth Place was also a tie, between Segreto in Royal Palm Place and Delray’s Solita. Famed Chef Angelo Morinelli of Segreto created a Meatball Caprese appetizer, combining the best of both dishes by layering an outstanding beef meatball with fresh mozzarella, vine-ripened tomatoes, and fresh basil on a seasoned crostini. Solita served its signature beef/veal/pork classic, lightly fried and slow-simmered with pork shoulder for 4+ hours, while Solita’s San Marino tomato sauce lent a supporting role.
Terra Fiamma (in the Delray Marketplace) came in a very close 5th place. Terra Fiamma presented four separate versions, all appearing on its “Meatball Board” menu: Zippy Buffalo Chicken Meatball with gorgonzola cheese, bleu cheese & celery; a succulent Veal Meatball in marsala mushroom sauce (the Judges’ favorite); classic "Old Fashion" with marinara and whipped ricotta; and a unique Spicy Pork version with hot cherry tomatoes and caramelized onions. (Good job, Wendy!)
But wait, there’s more!. In addition to the above Overall awards, we also rated the contenders by individual criteria: Taste, Texture, Presentation, and Originality. And the “Best of Show” category winners are:
Taste: 1: Trattoria Romana and Twenty-Twenty Grille (tie). 2: Paradiso. 3: Henry’s
Texture: 1: Trattoria Romana. 2: Paradiso. 3: Segreto
Presentation: 1: Paradiso. 2: Meatball Room. 3: TwentyTwenty Grille and Vic & Angelo's (tie)
Originality: 1: Twenty-Twenty Grille (not surprising!). 2: La Stella’s. 3: Segreto and Trattoria Romana (tie)
Other Contenders included:
Café Med (Deerfield Beach): Chef Tulio’s use of milk-soaked breadcrumbs helped maintain moisture and consistency. The housemade sauce with authentic Italian plum tomatoes was excellent.
Henry’s (Jog Rd., Delray): Henry's certainly deserves the “best variety” award, providing a selection of 4 unique entries. A tender Lamb Meatball was the judges’ favorite (winning third place in Taste), which Chef Ben sears, sautés, and braises, before submerging them in savory sauce. Chef Ben also presented a unique Meatball Flatbread, made with chicken meatballs, mozzarella, basil, and tomato; followed by a tasty Meatball Soup made with turkey balls swimming in Henry's escarole and mirepoix-enriched stock. Next came a traditional Italian meatball, but made with all chicken.
La Stella’s (E. Palmetto Park Rd, Boca): Chef/Owner Jamie Barlow also gave us a variety: First came her classic old-school Italian version enhanced with fresh tomato puree and herbs. A delicious all-chicken meatball followed, surrounded by a beautiful pepper and onion sauce and crowned with a sprig of fresh thyme. Then we savored La Stella's "Mexican" meatball with bold seasonings and unique sauce – plus an unexpected hard-boiled egg filling inside.
Meatball Room (Regency Court): Meatball Room proved that good things remain good, presenting its traditional old-school beef/veal/pork meatball, with wonderful taste and texture, served with homemade tomato sauce and whipped ricotta cheese. Of special note, Meatball Room definitely gets the “Most Hospitable” award, as owner John, Chef Louie, and servers all made us feel truly welcome, and even treated us to other delicacies (including a sensational Zuppa Di Pesce and homemade desserts). We could only judge the meatballs for this particular competition, but we all were very impressed with Meatball Room, and would readily recommend it to anyone!
South Shores Tavern (Lake Worth): A very unique Four Cheese & Bacon version Arancini made with risotto and applewood smoked bacon, plus bleu, parmesan, and cheddar cheeses, all topped with jalapeño pepper slice.
Table 42 (Royal Palm Place): Served its classic Italian beef/pork/veal meatball with San Marzano tomato
sauce and whipped ricotta. The meatballs tasted good, but unfortunately were served cold (NOT a good idea when presenting to a panel of judges!). Also the service was disappointing, with practically no attention from the management. Perhaps we just caught them on a bad night?. . .
Tucci’s Fire & Coal Pizza (NE1st Ave): Although known for its signature coal-fired pizza, Tucci’s proved it has the chops to go outside the take-home box. Tucci’s all-beef meatball was definitely delicious, with some other seasonings accompanying the beef (I detected garlic, parsley, Parmesan). And rather than being pan-fried, these balls get to enjoy a carefully timed visit to the coal oven, imbuing its wonderful earthy characteristics. The accompanying sauce and bread (also made in the coal oven) were also excellent. I personally loved Tucci’s coal-fired version, and personally rate them among the very best Italian version we tried.
V&S Deli (N. Federal Hwy, Boca): V&S’ meatballs are made with all beef, plus some Pecorino Romano, garlic, and parsley, then baked with genuine TLC, served with homemade red sauce and fresh grated Parmesan. Next came some tasty Arancini (“rice balls”), with slow-cooked Risotto stuffed with fresh peas and mozzarella, cooked up crispy and served with a savory Marinara. V&S may be “just a deli” hidden on N. Federal Hwy, but these meatballs would be at home on any restaurant menu.
Vic & Angelo’s (Atlantic Ave, Delray): A high-end version starring real Kobe beef, veal, and pork, all served piping hot in an individual pan and topped with Ricotta and Parmesan cheese. Be advised these balls are big! – enough for 4 people to share as an appetizer.
"The competition was fierce and the overall scoring was extremely close," says Shana Overhulser, "I was thrilled to have such wonderful restaurant participation in our first annual BocaLocals meatball competition and looking forward to March 2015!"
To celebrate the victory, Twenty-Twenty Grille will be awarded with a commemorative plaque, along with bragging rights related thereto – and YOU are invited! The restaurant and BocaLocals.com will host a special award dinner on Tuesday, April 22, from 6:00-8:00pm, where guests may sample the award-winning entry in person along with select wines, for only $20. Twenty –Twenty Grille is located at located at 141 Via Naranjas in downtown Boca in Royal Palm Place. To order tickets in advance, just visit: BocaLocals.com. or contact Shana Overhulser at Shana@pageonegraphics.com
One final thought: I'd just like to add a personal note of appreciation, and heart-felt THANK YOU (from all of us) to all the fine restaurants, chefs, and staff who made this event so memorable. We had to pick the winners -- but there was not a single loser among them all!
READ THE JUDGES REVIEWS:
Kenny Spahn: http://www.examiner.com/restaurant-in-west-palm-beach/kenny-spahn
Denise Righetti: Bocafoodfinds.blogspot.com,
Deby Goldfarb; steppingoutflorida.com,
Holli Lapes: thesoflasage.com,
Stevette Ballog: www.forknotes.com,
Tracy and Wayne Augustin: www.2forksandacork.com,
Shaina Wizov: www.takeabiteoutofboca.com