By 9 on a Saturday night, the disco music in the bar is at full volume. The crowd is on their feet, and we're trying very hard to finish our meal so we can make a quick exit from this 1970s flashback.
But like watching sausage being made, we can't stop staring at the collection of characters who've come to eat and party at Meatball Room. Who is the hale and hearty guy with three diamond rings who brought his own bib to wear? What's with all the studded belts, glittery shoes and sparkling hair accessories? It's party time in suburban Boca Raton, and while this is not my kind of crowd, the assembled 50- to 70-year-olds couldn't care less.
I came to Meatball Room to eat, however, and as Italian restaurants go, this one delivers big portions at very good prices.
We started, for instance, with a huge appetizer serving of escarole and beans ($10). It's so often a stewlike dish, but here, it's a fresh saute with tomatoes and garlic that's great with the warm Italian bread used as scoop. Eggplant Caprese ($10) is served Napoleon-style with layers of tomato, fresh mozzarella, arugula and kale drizzled with balsamic glaze. There's an Anaheim pepper ($11) stuffed with sausage, beef, capers, garlic and onion. Italian nachos ($9) combine sweet sausage, pepperoni and hot cherry peppers topped with melted mozzarella.
Salads — among them, spinach ($7/$13), chopped ($7/$13) and beets ($8/$15) — come in small and large sizes, to which chicken ($5), salmon ($7), shrimp ($9) or salami and provolone ($4) can be added.
Since the place is called Meatball Room, you owe it to yourself to order one of the seven offerings (two for $11). The menu includes turkey with basil pesto; sweet and sour beef with pineapple and Triple Sec; and beef brisket with herbs and marinara. The Classic with veal, beef and pork was excellent, tender and loaded with herbs and garlic and served with fresh marina, fresh basil and whipped ricotta. Asian-style pork meatballs with veal demi-sauce were as weak as the Classic meatballs were strong. There was just a hint of ginger and soy sauce. Perhaps ground pork is best left to breakfast sausage.
Entree-wise, the crowd-pleasing menu offers sections devoted to pizza, chicken, veal, fish and pasta. Chicken Castronovo ($20) — that radio guy is everywhere — was the most generous entree I've been served in a long while. Three chicken breast cutlets are served in a mushroom wine reduction along with asparagus and fontina cheese. It's served with pennoni and marina. I had two leftover cutlets plus pasta to take home.
A very cheesy veal Parmesan ($24) is tender and spills over the dinner plate that shares space with a generous serving of spaghetti marinara. A bone-in, center-cut, 16-ounce veal chop ($42) gets stuffed with spinach and fontina cheese before hitting the grill. This most tender chop is topped with a mushroom demi-glaze and served with sauteed corn and purple potatoes. Snapper Livernese ($28), cooked in a fresh tomato sauce with capers, garlic, caramelized onions and Kalamata olives, is a lovely way for an Italian restaurant to honor a Florida catch.
And then, there's dessert. Chef Louie Zweifo, who owns Meatball Room with John Hanley and Lee Stein, most recently opened Sugar Factory American Brasserie at the Paris Hotel in Las Vegas. As its name implies, sweets are a big deal at Sugar Factory.
So instead of a palm-sized note card of a dessert menu, we got a list that includes seven ice cream sundaes, a half-dozen milkshakes, six ice cream sandwiches, six cakes, plus a whoopee pie, cheesecake, tiramisu, cannoli and zeppoles.
On the recommendation of our waitress, we settled on excellent New York-style cheesecake ($10), an individual creamy cake with graham-cracker crust. Not nearly as good was chocolate layer cake ($10), fudge cake with dark fudge frosting, that tasted like it was made in a commissary.
Service at Meatball Room, at least on disco night, is frazzled. Wait staff needs better trained backup help to clear dishes and refill water glasses. Suited managers and hostesses could also lend a hand because the 260-seat Meatball Room appears to be a hit.
Every night brings a theme, including (free) Meatball and ($5) Martinis Mondays and classic rock Fridays. I'm told the back room is quieter.
While it felt a bit like the setting for a rowdy wedding on the Saturday night we dined, Meatball Room must be filling an unmet need. It's quite a show.
3011 Yamato Road, Regency Court, Boca Raton
Hours: Lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday, dinner Sunday
Credit cards: AE, D, MC, V
Bar: Full service
Sound level: What?
Outside smoking: Yes
For kids: Highchairs, boosters, menu, kids eat free 5-7 p.m. Tuesdays
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Parking: Free lot