Culinary cage match: meatballs

Stomachs, let's get ready to rumble!

In an old blues song made famous by Josh White, a poor hungry guy had only fifteen cents, and as he scoured a menu, he realized all he could afford was “One Meatball” (“and you get no bread with that”). Well, times have changed, especially if that poor guy is you, and you’re perusing the menu at DeVito South Beach, a relative newcomer on sizzling Ocean Drive. Now the music’s not bad, not just your corny old Frank Sinatra/Dean Martin/Rat Pack claptrap; some ’60s gems, some obscure Beatles songs (I think I heard “Happiness is a Warm Gun”). The place is gigantic and loud, just like your Uncle Johnny (and unlike the diminutive owner, who’s merely loud); and the service, well, they’ll even bring you bread for your One Meatball. The menu listing says Jumbo House Meatball, Whipped Ricotta, San Marzano Sauce, $17. Meatball. Singular. $17. This meatball better be able to do the dishes and park your car. It IS big, I’ll give it that. But the presentation of this humble dish makes the whole thing seem even more grandiose and pretentious, as your server pirouettes around the table, delicately proffering slices of the baseball-sized sphere to each diner, with a floweriness that seems oddly ostentatious, especially for a damn meatball. The meatball itself isn’t bad, tender and moist (a little too delicate perhaps), and the tomato sauce and smooth ricotta have some depth. I’d like it much better if they just popped the thing on your plate, gave you a hunk of bread, and said, “Dig in.”

Kind of how it goes at North Miami’s Laurenzo’s, where a darkly aromatic restaurant is hidden within this huge Italian grocery and wine store, which has been open for 55 years. There are some interesting items, like the 40-plus varieties of olives, and some bizarre ones, like the $800 bottle of Krug Champagne (1995 must have been a VERY good year). You can even buy big meatballs to cook at home, which cost about $1.25 each for a big five-ouncer made from beef, pork and veal, lightly coated with bread crumbs, from the Bronx-guy behind the meat counter. Or you can step over to the cafe’s inner sanctum, where you push your flimsy plastic tray along the rails cafeteria-style, in front of a bursting steam table filled with stuffed artichokes, Spaghetti alla Caruso (chicken livers and sherry wine sauce, in case you were wondering what the great tenor ate), and the meatballs, of course, which I like to get smothered in a muscular tomato sauce, which may or may not be San Marzano’s, but are strong and tasty enough to do battle with the ‘ball. The meatball has all the bite you need, and almost tastes like an elegant mini-meatloaf in every bite. They’re made in-house from the same raw ones you can buy at the meat counter. At $1.25 each, you still probably won’t be able to eat more than a few. And there’ll be no sharing.

And that’s just one of the differences between Ocean Drive and West Dixie Highway.

Published: 4/08