Grandma's Bowl at Fork and Balls on Las Olas.
Grandma’s Bowl at Fork & Balls on Las Olas. (Melanie Bell)

When restaurateur Tim Petrillo and his partners were trying to come up with a name for their new meatball restaurant, they tried one out on a focus group—with disastrous results.

“We tried Bolas, which means balls in Spanish, but it has the negative connotation,” Petrillo joked. “When we tested that in the Latin community, people were saying, are you crazy?”

After going through 200 names—including the runner-up Meatball Kitchen and Bar—Petrillo’s company, The Restaurant People, settled on Fork & Balls. The restaurant, which opened three weeks ago in Fort Lauderdale, is the first in South Florida to capitalize on the latest trend to take the restaurant industry by storm: meatballs.

“We’re seeing this all over the place—Seattle, New York,” said Petrillo, whose company also owns the popular Tarpon Bend and YOLO in Fort Lauderdale. “It’s how burgers were very popular 10 years ago and became a gourmet thing. In all of our restaurants, we had meatballs, and it’s one of those comfort foods people enjoy.”

With a plethora of eateries crowding the western part of Las Olas Boulevard, Fork & Balls is one of several new restaurants popping up on the east side to attract power lunchers looking for new options. The restaurant at 1301 E. Las Olas Blvd. joins popular recent additions Rocco’s Tacos and Luigi’s Coal Oven Pizza.

While the restaurant has already exploded on the nighttime scene with nightly waits for tables, Petrillo is slowly building the lunch business and said he’s confident the hundreds of lawyers and businesspeople with West Las Olas offices will get in their cars and drive over.

“I remember when Houston’s was the only place to really go on Federal Highway—people had no problem driving there,” he said. “We’re already starting to see lunch get busy. We had a 20-minute wait yesterday.”

Take Your Pick

Fork & Balls has a rustic, open feel, with brick walls, wood floors, red-and-white checkered napkins and leather booths. A large bar occupies the center, offering five specialty cocktails plus a rotating selection of craft beer on tap and 20 wines. The Restaurant People spent $1.4 million designing the interior.

But it’s the meatballs that draw the crowds. Diners can order a specialty item off the menu, such as The Texan, which consists of classic beef balls, slow-cooked chili, aged cheddar and corn tortillas, or The Sicilian, featuring beef balls, tomato sauce, mozzarella and sweet and hot peppers. Or, they can create their own meal, mixing and matching three meatballs—selecting from the classic, the chicken, spicy pork or veggie ball—and pairing them with the sauce of their choosing: spicy tomato sauce, herb pesto, mushroom or parmesan cream. That’s what I chose on a recent lunchtime visit.

My three lunchtime companions and I began the meal with mozzarella tomato salad, a tasty and fresh blend of grape tomatoes, red onion, marinated ciliegini mozzarella, basil, olive oil and balsamic vinegar. We also sampled herb polenta fries served with spicy tomato sauce and brussel sprouts tossed with a toasted garlic tomato sauce, bacon and parmesan.

I tried the chicken, veggie and traditional meatballs with various sauces. The traditional was clearly the winner; I probably would avoid the veggie ball next time. (What’s in a veggie ball anyway?) The sauces were quite spicy, and the spices stayed with me for quite awhile that day.

One of my companions, Ivan Reich, a partner at GrayRobinson, ordered The Western and pronounced it a winner.

“The quality of the food is good here, and I like the diversity of the menu,” he said. “The portions are not overly large either. And the service was quite good.”

Reich particularly enjoyed the rhythm and blues background music, quipping, “I’m old-school.”

Plans To Grow

Tom Loffredo, managing partner of GrayRobinson’s Fort Lauderdale office, also joined us. He ordered the Spicy Italian—spicy pork balls, creamy polenta, roasted tomato sauce, ricotta, sweet and hot peppers—and labeled it “fantastic.” That’s high praise from Loffredo, who makes his own meatballs using a family recipe handed down through the generations.

“It exceeded my expectations,” said Loffredo, who was unable to finish his meal after the appetizers.

Lunching at the front table were partners from Krupnick Campbell Malone Buser Slama Hancock Liberman in Fort Lauderdale. The same group of partners lunch together every day at different restaurants, including YOLO, Tarpon Bend and 401 Grille. They’ve already been to Fork & Balls several times.

“It’s wonderful,” said partner Kelly Hancock, who also has taken his family to Fork & Balls for dinner. “The food is excellent, I like the atmosphere. I enjoy the chicken and meat balls with tomato sauce. I’m a pretty simple guy.”

Petrillo hopes to expand the restaurant concept throughout South Florida, following in the footsteps of the famed Meatball Shop in Manhattan, which some say started the trend. The Meatball Shop now has five locations in the city, and hungry diners have waited several hours for tables.

“That’s the goal,” Petrillo said. “We’d love to grow it. We think it’s a unique opportunity. But you have to walk before you can run. We’ve only been open for three weeks, after all.”

Check out Fork & Balls menu (pdf)