Where there’s been meat, there have been meatballs. This global comfort food form was identified by Packaged Facts, Rockville, Maryland, as one of the Top 10 food trends for 2018. Processors and culinary professionals are not disappointing.

Think of global and next-generation meatballs as a spinoff of the hyper-creative, consumer-welcomed burger trend, according to David Sprinkle, research director at Packaged Facts.

Though meat is key to meatballs, often it’s all the other elements that goes into the mixture to make a complex flavor and texture that differentiates one product from the next, according to Daniel Sharp, director of culinary operations at The Meatball Shop, New York City. This six-store concept featuring a mix-and-match menu of meatballs, sauces and sides started a trend that is growing across the country.

“Simple cooking is my food philosophy and you can’t get simpler than a meatball. Some say we created a new dining category when we made meatballs the star of the plate,” says Daniel Holzman, co-owner and chef. “Based on our research, no meatball-centric restaurants existed before our original shop debuted in 2010. The mix-and-match factor of our menu really resonates with our millennial costumers. They can customize their meal and get it exactly how they want it, just like how they live the rest of their lives.”

Main Story 4The Meatball Shop offers a range of balls, including classic beef, spicy pork, chicken, veggie and rotating specials. They are served with choice of sauce, in a bowl, on a bun or with grains or veggies. There’s also a variety of starters – including a mini buffalo chicken ball side that comes with blue cheese dipping sauce.

This summer, Torrance, California-based Yoshinoya America added Asian BBQ Meatballs to its menu as a limited-time offering. These savory chicken and beef meatballs are cooked and then tossed in a sweet and mildly spicy Asian barbecue sauce topped with sesame seeds. One order is $4.99.

“Fresh, flavorful and affordable is just what we do,” says Angella Green, director of marketing. “Our commitment to delivering a flavorful and Japanese-influenced cuisine coupled with our desire to keep items affordable is what sets us apart.”

In early 2017, Maggiano’s Little Italy, Dallas, showed diners that meatballs are timeless and can be consumed in the morning daypart. The restaurant chain, known for its made-from-scratch Italian-American cuisine, started serving brunch and that menu includes Meatball Benedict. This entrée features a meatball on top of an English muffin, and smothered with a poached egg, oven-dried roma tomatoes and hollandaise sauce.

Chicago-based Francesca’s recently featured a trio of Italian-style meatballs (polpettes) to showcase how the recipe gains inspiration from the agriculture of the area it comes from. Polpettes typically start with a base of beef to which garlic, parsley, eggs and local ingredients are added or used as an accompaniment. Francesca’s meatball tour included three stops: Tuscany, Campania and Sicily.

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Tuscany is well-known for the simplicity of its cuisine, which includes legumes, bread, cheese and high-quality beef from the prized cattle of the Chiana Valley. The Polpette all ​a​ Toscana entrée is pan-roasted veal and ricotta meatballs served over braised escarole and cannellini beans.

​Campania is one of the largest producers and consumers of pasta in Italy, especially spaghetti. In the capital city of Naples, spaghetti is enjoyed with homemade tomato sauce, fresh cheese and polpette made from the meat of cattle raised near Campania’s volcanic mountains. The Polpette alla Napoli dish is beef and pork meatballs slowly roasted and simmered in rustic tomato sauce, served over linguine with shaved grana padana.

Sicily is known for its fertile soil due to the volcanic eruptions in the past and present. The local agriculture is also helped by the pleasant climate of the island and fruit and vegetable crops are abundant. The Polpette al Ragu di Verdure entrée is roasted eggplant meatballs with a vegetable ragu of asparagus, zucchini, mushrooms and peppers.

Not all restaurants have the resources to mix up meatballs. Opportunistic processors are doing it for them.

Maple Leaf Farms Inc., Leesburg, Indiana, is offering foodservice professionals the chance to get creative – and healthier – with new All Natural Duck Meatballs. This fresh take on an old favorite features rich duck breast meat, cheddar cheese and chili pepper spices combined for the perfect bite with a leaner profile.

Containing 45 percent less fat and 30 percent fewer calories than traditional beef or pork meatballs, these oven-roasted meatballs make for a healthier menu item without compromising on texture and flavor, according to the company. With less sodium and saturated fat than other meatballs, they are ideal paired with a signature sauce or served in a variety of applications.

“With their versatility, the duck meatballs are a perfect way for chefs to focus on creativity, while offering a healthier option,” says Cindy Turk, marketing director. “The meatballs bring a unique flavor profile to menus with endless possibilities.”

In response to consumers’ willingness to experience innovative meatball creations when dining out, Rosina Food Products Inc., Buffalo, New York, is rolling out a line of chef-inspired, boldly flavored gourmet meatballs for retail freezers so they can get creative at home. 

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New Oven Fired Artisan Meatballs come in three varieties: Pineapple Chorizo, Smoky Maple Bacon and Tuscan-Style Veal. The meatballs come in meal-portioned 2-oz. balls and appetizer-sized 0.5-ounce balls. Convenient and easy to prepare, these meatballs go from freezer to meal-ready in under 60 seconds.

The Pineapple Chorizo meatballs are made with fresh ground pork, serrano chili peppers and bits of pineapple. They’re designed for a quick breakfast taco, crumbled into a queso dip or grilled with a sweet chili sauce. Smoky Maple Bacon meatballs start with a base of premium quality pork. Applewood smoked bacon is added and the balls get finished with sweet maple. The company suggests trying them as a side dish for breakfast, paired with a honey mustard sauce on a slider or added to barbecue pizza.

The Tuscan-Style Veal meatballs are crafted with authentic Italian ingredients including veal, Parmesan and Romano cheeses, and basil and oregano spices. They go great with pasta or in a classic meatball sub. Smash the meatballs in a pita and top it with tzatziki for a new spin on gyro.

“Meatballs are traditionally thought of for authentic Italian meals or as appetizers. While we currently offer a full line of flavors that meet these needs, this new line of meatballs opens the door to endless possibilities on how to use meatballs not traditionally thought of,” says Chris Tirone, director of marketing. “We are encouraging consumers to be adventurous with this product and use meatballs in innovative ways.”