RATING |

IT WAS AN IDEA born out of a post-Thanksgiving get-together and a spouse thinking the other half needed to get the ball rolling, so to speak.

The Marabella family grew a small, regional empire in the '80s with eight restaurants. They later sold all except for the original location in Stone Harbor, N.J.

Today, Judy Marabella, husband Gabe Sr. and their grown son Gabe Jr. have come full circle and find themselves back in the restaurant business.

"It was time my husband found something to do," Judy Marabella said. "We'd always have a big meatball party the day after Thanksgiving, so that led me to this idea to do a simpler restaurant without having to do full service or have a liquor license."

Here's the concept: You can mix and match four meatballs (beef, pork, chicken and vegetarian) with four sauces (tomato, marinara, mushroom and Alfredo) and opt for four cheeses (aged provolone, fontina, Piave vecchio or Gorgonzola). You also have to choose if you want just meatballs, a sandwich or pasta (spaghetti, rigatoni, penne or farfalle).

There is no dessert menu, but a short walk will get you to Capogiro Gelato, Philly Cupcake or Naked Chocolate. A walk around the block after dinner will help keep you from becoming as round as a meatball, anyway.

The pasta dishes ($9) include two meatballs with your choice of sauce and locatelli cheese.

In our recent visits, the Pork Meatball with Mushroom Sauce just wasn't up to snuff. The white sauce (which also serves as the Alfredo) was gummy and the mushrooms were barely cooked.

My kid taster did well with the spaghetti platter with beef meatballs and a well-developed tomato sauce. If you have a kid with a smaller appetite or just want a nibble yourself, there are meatball sliders ($3.25 or three for $9).

If you are curious about the balls, a Meatball Sampler ($9.50) lets you try one of each with a sauce and a side of toasted bread. The marinara sauce was judged too watery and could have been cooked down a little more.

My tasters and I found the chicken meatball to be the best. It has a light texture, holds its shape without being doughy and was a great vehicle for the sauces.

We liked the concept and the taste of the vegetarian ball, but it does fall apart. Judy Marabella notes that's the trade-off for its light texture.

The pork and beef meatballs were fairly predictable, but the pork meatball had a huge wad of bread in it. Apparently, the bread-and-egg mixture binding the meat didn't fully incorporate.

There are also a variety of sandwiches, or you can construct your own with a variety of toppings. A Traditional sub roll with four meatballs ($8.50) or a round-roll Nonni ($6.75) can be dressed with extra toppings or sauce for an additional charge.

Liscio breads were specifically chosen to be soft enough that a bite would not eject the meatballs out the backside of the bread. That said, I tried the Nonni with Pork and found that the meatballs didn't cover the circumference of the roll. I had several bread bites with no meatball.

Also, if I'm in for a full-sandwich calorie count, I'm in for a roast pork. But even with the olive tapenade and Piave vecchio cheese, the Pork Meatball paled in comparison to the typical sliced-meat version.

There are several side options. I tried the Broccoli Rabe ($4) twice. The first time it was a soggy mess, cooked beyond repair. The second time it was much better, with some texture left and a perfect ratio of garlic and hot-pepper flakes.

While the Caesar Salad ($7) had one of the best house-made Caesar dressings I've had in a while, the salad had more croutons than romaine, which made this a very expensive bowl of day-old bread. I mentioned this to Judy Marabella, who said that shouldn't have been the case.

All of which leads me to believe that Marabella Meatball Co. needs to get squarely situated with its execution. The concept is a viable one, but overcooked vegetables, salads with hardly any lettuce and meatballs with bread wads indicate the kitchen isn't following the carefully developed specs.

Also, some three decades after the Marabellas' first venture, their customers have a more experienced palate. The Italian focus here is about as stale as day-old bread.

Fairmount restaurant London Grill has been featuring Meatball Mondays for years. And not just a variation on grandma's Sunday best, but shrimp with red curry-coconut sauce, beef with Bordelaise sauce, artichoke with pecorino and lemon aioli, and even duck with foie gras.

Marabella needn't be quite so ingenious, but how about some international variations, such as Danish frikadeller, Mexican albondigas or German Konigsberger klopse?

M.M. Co. is only three months out of the gate, but if it's going to take the ball and run with it, let's see some more innovative options and attention to detail. The concept is a good one and there are fans already, including the couple who came in, covered their table with a cloth, lit a candelabra and opened a bottle of wine with their order.

When meatball is your name, meatball is your game.