It takes cojones to open your first restaurant at the age of 26. For a female chef who lost her hearing when she was seven and now lip-reads instructions from her kitchen staff, it’s even more of an achievement. When I meet the bright-eyed Australian Bonny Porter at Balls & Company in Soho, London, it turns out she’s more than happy to let her balls do the talking.
“When I came to London a couple of years ago, I got really frustrated with eating out,” she tells me a few days before opening. (Her kitchen partner, Cassie Delves, is preparing our lunch in the open kitchen but otherwise the place is surprisingly serene.) “I felt you either had amazing food that was really expensive or it was horrible and cheap. I just didn’t understand why you had to pay so much for an enjoyable experience. It made me really miss the food culture of Australia: the service, the way things are presented, the sort of respect people pay to the ingredients.”
As she pondered how best to bring that culture to Britain, she hit upon the humble meatball. In line with the conceptual restaurants springing up all over Soho — specialising in ramen, grilled cheese sandwiches or (in the case of Bubbledogs) hots dogs and champagne — Balls & Company is content to do one thing well. Porter’s ambition is take a low-born staple and raise it to rarefied heights. As she points out: “There aren’t many people who don’t like a meatball.” And there’s always a quinoa, beetroot and feta ball for those who don’t.
Porter is well known in Australia, having appeared on their version ofMasterChef: The Professionals in 2013. (Apparently it makes BritishMasterChef look like the Open University.) When the producers approached her and Delves she was 23, a couple of years into working at Rockpool Bar & Grill in Sydney, a “fine diner” run by the Australian kitchen legend Neil Perry.
Perry persuaded them to put aside their reservations about the show, believing it would be a valuable learning experience. It was, in a sense. Although Porter won admiration for overcoming her deafness — “It’s always been more of a challenge than a hindrance,” she says — it’s clear that she found the emotional manipulations of the show deeply frustrating. Delves complains that it was “twice as hard” for women.
However, Porter did make the final (she came fifth) and got to meet Marco Pierre White, a judge on the show. White inspired her to come to London. After a couple of years at the Arts Club and Village East, she had raised enough funding from friends and family in Australia to launch her own concept.
As Porter says, there’s no point in doing meatballs unless you do the best meatballs. Hers come in five varieties: beef, pork, chicken, salmon and veggie. You can order each with pesto, ragu, béchamel or romesco (that heavenly Spanish combination of red peppers and nuts). Sides include polenta chips, cauliflower mash and spaghetti and there are deep-fried arancini (risotto balls) by way of variation.
The approach owes less to rigid regional traditions and more to the fast food menus pioneered by the likes of McDonald’s — only with a much more appealing space (as bright and airy as a health food shop) and far superior ingredients.
The beef meatballs are made from notably good value Japanese-style wagyu beef, reared in Scotland, with four balls for £8. The mix-and-match approach is typical of her homeland, she says. “We Australians are so blessed with our food culture. The country is so geographically large we have this bounty of produce. We have the tropics, the hills, the deserts and we’re right next door to Asia too. We’ve been able to take lots of food cultures and remake them into our own.”
She isn’t the only chef to hit on the meatball as way to democratise eating out. Russell Norman, the restaurateur behind the Polpo group — which includes some of the most influential restaurants in London — has always made Italian-style meatballs, polpette, central to his menus. (The pork and fennel seed has its own small cult.)
He sees them as the classic classless dish. “They feel blue-collar to me, not refined at all,” he says. “That’s what I like best: simple, unreconstructed food that isn’t dreamt up by a chef but has come through a tradition. They’re wholesome, comforting nursery food.”
Norman reckons the finest that he has tried are the deep-fried veal balls served at Cà d’Oro alla Vedova in Venice, of which his head chef recently created a “cover” version. “They simply serve them ascicchette [snacks], no sauce required: the softest veal imaginable, a few breadcrumbs, a little salt, quite noticeable white pepper, then coated in polenta and deep-fried. They must get through a thousand or so each day.”
Other avowed meatball champions are Livio and Lorenzo Belpassi, aka the Belpassi Bros: two Anglo-Italian twins shortly to launch their own street food business in Spitalfields Market, selling meatballs from an old Fiat lorry they found rusting in a barnyard in Reggio-Emilia.
Their epiphany came in Rome. “Everything came from these incredible meatballs we had at this hole-in-the-wall place called Da Enzo in Trastevere,” Livio Belpassi tells me. “It was such an amazing little place. Everything was sourced from within 30 kilometres of the restaurant so you really felt that you were biting into Rome itself. It’s such honest food.” After careful study, he believes the key lies in the classic Italian combination of pork and beef, copious seasoning and a high fat content. “People are scared of fat but it’s where the taste is.”
Still, if Italy is the heartland of the meatball, part of its appeal is that every country has its own version. There’s the cricket ball-sized Danish frikadeller and the mini Swedish köttbullar: traditionally a blend of pork and beef, served in an unctuous cream sauce with lingonberry jam (and bought from the freezers on the way out of Ikea as compensation for many lost weekends).
There are Spanish albondigas and Russian kotlety. You can travel east via all manner of Turkish kofte to Chinese “lion head” meatballs, which can use an unholy combination of shrimp and pork (meatballs frequently involve interspecies hybrids). Our own version, the faggot, is surely worth a revival in itself.
However, it’s in the New World where meatballs are perhaps most central to the culture. As Norman points out, the American-diner staple of spaghetti with meatballs is a corruption. In Italy, families serve polpette in a big bowl with a tomato ragu, perhaps with a little tagliatelle, polenta or even a little bread on the side. “You have to say ‘spaghetti with meatballs’ in a silly accent to make it work,” he says. It’s the bestselling item on his children’s menus.
In New York, Meatball Mondays became a recession-era hit: restaurants of all kinds would come up with their spin on the homely classic to encourage trade on the quietest night of the week. Meanwhile, the heart of the “meatball scene” (New Yorkers refer to food trends as if they were dance-music genres or artistic movements) is the Meatball Shop on Stanton Street on the Lower East Side, which has since rolled out its formula across a number of locations. And it is very much a formula: you are encouraged to order by pencil and paper, specifying your particular ball, sauce, carbs and side, a model Porter has given what she calls a “feminine” spin.
This transnational, high-concept, low-formality style is very much where restaurants are heading. I speak to Adam Hyman, a restaurant trend-watcher who runs the CODE Bulletin, a news source for the catering trade. “It’s the way we’re eating now,” he says. “Very casual, very trend-focused. It caters to the time-poor and the impulsive. With most of these concept restaurants, whether they’re selling ramen, grilled cheese or meatballs, you don’t spend a couple of hours in there. You can pop in on your own, hopefully get change for £20 and not feel too self-conscious.”
They’re restaurants that work well in the smartphone era, when a Google search might call up “best ramen in London” as opposed to a list of restaurants serving many versions of the same dishes. “They also only really work in areas with a lot of footfall, where they form one of a number of options; these places aren’t neighbourhood destinations. And when you’re so trend-focused, you need to be sure that your trend isn’t going to expire soon.”
From the queues outside Balls & Company in the opening week, it would appear that meatballs have found an audience. I’m pleased to note that Porter has an innuendo policy to guard against the novelty factor.
“If my mum came and sat down and some kid came up to her, cracking out the ball jokes, she would hate it,” she explains. So there has been a conscious decision not to ram poor taste innuendos down people’s throats. “The fact is, you don’t really need to give people a nudge. Why insult people’s intelligence with a lot of hashtags and innuendos? People can make their own jokes up themselves.” Balls to that.
Extract taken from Polpo: a Venetian Cookbook (of Sorts)by Russell Norman (Bloomsbury, £25)
Pork and beef polpette
Who doesn’t like meatballs? A good meatball has texture and flavour and it’s comforting and fun. We often think of it as an American invention. For as long as I can remember, New York has been in the grip of a meatball craze, a sort of revival of the working-class, Depression-era staple that is cheap, easy to make, nutritious and tasty. You can, after all, pretty much mince anything as long as you flavour it with enough salt, pepper and herbs, but meatballs are, of course, as Italian as spaghetti. In Italy they call them polpette.
Talking of spaghetti, you could serve these meatballs with any pasta but they go particularly well with linguine. Make sure you are generous with the tomato sauce and grate plenty of parmesan over individual servings. We make and serve 25,000 polpette a year at Polpo. The classic pork and beef is our most popular variety.
For 30 balls (3-5 per person)
1kg minced pork
500g minced beef
3 medium free-range eggs
Scant ½ tbsp fine salt
1 tsp black pepper
Small pinch of dried chilli flakes
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
½ handful of flat-leaf parsley leaves, chopped
1½ litres tomato sauce, see below
1. Preheat the oven to 220C/Gas 7. Combine all the ingredients except the tomato sauce, massage thoroughly and roll into 45g spheres, like large golf balls. Place the balls on a greased baking tray and roast in the oven for 10 minutes, turning once, until they start to brown.
2. Poach in the tomato sauce in a covered saucepan for 10 minutes. Serve 3-5 balls per person with some lightly toasted focaccia to mop up the juices.
Basic tomato sauce
For 1½ litres
100ml extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, finely sliced
1 garlic clove, chopped
Scant ½ tbsp fine salt
¾ tsp black pepper
Small pinch of chilli flakes
750g fresh tomatoes, quartered
3×400g cans chopped tomatoes
Small handful of oregano, chopped
Caster sugar, if necessary
1. Heat half the oil in a saucepan on a medium-low flame and in it sweat the onion, garlic, salt, pepper and chilli for 15 minutes. When the onions are glossy and transparent, add the fresh tomatoes and the rest of the oil and cook gently for a further 15 minutes.
2. Add the tinned tomatoes, bring to a gentle bubble then simmer on a very low heat for 1 hour. Take the pan off the heat and add the chopped oregano. You can season the sauce with a little sugar, to taste — it will depend on how sweet your tomatoes are.
3. Transfer to a food blender or use a hand-blender to blitz for a few minutes. If you like, pass through a fine sieve.