Don't confuse the Meatball Shoppe with the Meatball Shop in New York City. Isabella Morgia di Vicari and Jeff Morgia's Lake Underhill eatery is remarkably similar in concept to that baller Gotham franchise, but if the Meatball Shop is Batman, its Orlando counterpart is more like Captain Subtraction. Yes, less is more here – less seats, less atmo and less balls – and that's not an altogether bad thing. What the Meatball Shoppe lacks in big-city swank, it makes up for with genuine warmth and hospitality, and the friendly folks here are more than willing to explain the meal-building process, which, for the sake of first-timers, is a good idea. After perusing the menu, walk up to the counter and commence building your meal in three steps:
Pick a ball, any ball (everything from traditional Italian and spicy pork to sausage and lamb).
Choose how you want them served (on top of a side, smashed in a sandwich, or alone).
Select a sauce.
Get through that and you can take a seat, assuming there's one available. On entering, we looked over the menu while occupying a table, but when we got up to place our order at the counter, a family swooped in and grabbed our seats. Yeah, it's like that in Azalea Park.
As far as the food is concerned, we really didn't like the fact that food is served in plastic to-go containers. For the love of mama, use plates! Cheap plates from IKEA, even! Anyway, said containers have a section for the meatballs; another for a wee portion of "shoppe" salad with arugula, corn, feta and tomatoes; and another for a square of focaccia. We ordered the spicy pork ($8.75), coated in roasted tomato sauce, on top of a white bean ragout. There was a very nice, yet subtle, kick to these meatballs, and the ragout wasn't mushy in the least. The focaccia was served cold (a disappointment), and being served only three meatballs (by comparison, you get four meatballs for $8 at NYC's Meatball Shop) will leave many diners feeling not quite satisfied. Traditional Italian meatballs ($8.95) smashed into a remarkable ciabatta roll made the sandwich format a true highlight. I just wish the sandwich were a little bigger as it, too, left you wanting more. A side of creamy polenta ($4) helped fill a bit of the void. We also sampled Australian lamb meatballs ($9.25) "alone," which ended up being served over a bed of arugula salad dolloped with tzatziki and sided with pita bread. The lamb was supremely moist and juicy, and seemed to be a popular choice among the restaurant's Muslim patrons. Seems the halal meat store next door supplies the Meatball Shoppe with some meats, allowing them to cater to the area's diverse community.
- Rob Bartlett
Note: You can't mix and match meatballs, except on Tuesdays, when they run the "Tuesday Trio" special. Dessert offerings amount to gelato fashioned by local maker Muse, and mini cannoli ($3 for 1) that were nice, but a tad pricey. (According to a fact-checking call after our visit, the Shoppe's prices are in flux at the moment.) Jeff and Isabella also run Isabella's Bella Cucina Catering, and we were told that they're considering making the Meatball Shoppe a takeout-only operation. Whatever they decide to do, it appears that they have a franchise in the making.