If you haven't been paying attention, conventional restaurants continue to be edged out by gimmicky concepts that focus more on customization than quality. Every day, it seems, we learn of a new build-your-own [insert popular food item here] place that puts the diner squarely in control of his or her culinary destiny. It's a clever conceit that often diverts one's attention away from the main event and to the toppings and trappings, in much the same way a magician employs misdirection.
At first blush, Rocky River's Polpetta appears to be yet another interpretation of the B-Y-O trope. Replace tacos, burritos, hot dogs or poke bowls with meatballs and you pretty much know the drill. Or so I presumed. Sure, the format feels familiar, with guests charting a course by selecting from a catalogue of balls, sauces and sides. But in the hands of talented chef-owners — as opposed to, say, a lab-coated corporate culinary specialist in another state — the results can be staggeringly good.
What sets Polpetta apart from run-of-the-mill custom shops, in my opinion, is that you're not simply eating different versions of the same food. A hot dog topped with chili, cheese and hot sauce, rather than one slicked with peanut butter and pickle relish, is still a hot dog. But the concoctions exiting the kitchen here often look, taste and present as entirely unique dishes. The lamb meatballs on a bed of tzatziki sauce with panzanella salad, for example, has more in common with a sauce-dripping gyro than it does a plate of spag and balls. Likewise, the chicken meatballs with paprikash gravy and spaetzle is a genre-busting treasure that arrives from Hungary via Italy.
In the hands of chef-owners Adam Bostwick and Brian Okin, the team behind the now-closed restaurants Graffiti and Cork and Cleaver, the cheeky artifice gives way to imaginative, creative and well-executed fare that often sidesteps culinary borders. Of course, the concept was not gifted to them by an apparition in a dream; it was lifted from the popular Meatball Shop in New York. But that was just the starting point for these guys, who ended up doubling the number of ball varieties, quadrupling the sauces, and offering twice as many sides.
For many, variety and paralysis are two sides of the same coin. Given the number of balls, sauces and sides, there are literally thousands of possible dinner combinations. Lucky for us, the menu also offers a convenient list of chefs' picks, thoughtfully composed items that strip the mixing and matching from the equation. The term "side" can be slightly misleading as most belong squarely under the balls, like the al dente spaghetti that arrives beneath a trio of beef meatballs and a ladle of bright pomodoro in the Sunday Supper ($14). In the Mandy ($14), porridge-soft polenta props up sausage-and-pepper balls in a luxurious tomato cream sauce. I can't say enough good things about that gyro-themed arrangement, dubbed the Curtis ($14), which does a masterful job of impersonating the genuine article.
Servers estimate that diners are pretty equally split between those who pick a chef's choice and folks who go rogue. Given that there are 10 different balls, I expected duds to appear along the way, but even wildcards like the lobster and crab were good enough to build an entire meal around. In addition to the plates, balls can be ordered as sliders, subs or family-style, which nets a large platter weighed down with a dozen balls (three different types), sauces and sides.
The pepperoni bread ($6) is nothing to write home about, but the spinach and meatball dip ($10) is a great place to start. Order this appetizer and you'll be dunking warm, oven-fresh pita into a heavenly pool of mini beef balls, roasted tomatoes and spinach in a savory bechamel sauce. A trio of salads offers an adequate range of options, including a standard and well-made Caesar ($8).
Polpetta is doing brisk take-out business, but the balls are only one of the reasons people have been flocking to this Rocky River restaurant. In place of a banal, blindingly bright fast-casual eatery, where customers are pushed out the door with plastic and paper, guests enjoy a full-service (and family friendly) establishment with a professional service and bar staff. An impressive bourbon selection seduces whiskey fans from open shelving, while bartenders properly prepare classics like Sazeracs and Manhattans, but also Mai Tais and Painkillers, a nod to partner (and Porco owner) Stefan Was. A sizeable list of sparkling, pink, white and red wines by the glass starts at $7, and more than a few local and regional breweries are represented.
There are a lot of silly ideas in food out there these days, but Polpetta has figured out a way to make meatballs creative, delicious and fun.