Friday, February 11, 2011

The Meatball Shop: Having a ball with variations on a theme

The Meatball Shop (84 Stanton St., Lower East Side)

Yellow tulips on each tabletop.  An Executive Chef who was cooking at Le Bernardin even before he was of legal driving age, leaving only to attend the Culinary Institute of America on full scholarship from the James Beard Foundation.  The General Manager, childhood friend of aforementioned Chef and an honors graduate of the French Culinary Institute.  Premium meats sourced primarily from acclaimed purveyors.  Sound like the makings of fancy, elite four-star NYC establishment?  Not exactly, although the food is arguably as delicious if not exponentially more satisfying on levels of comfort and nostalgia.

Conceived and owned by Daniel Holzman (Executive Chef) and Michael Chernow (General Manager), The Meatball shop is a refreshingly straightforward chow palace, with a menu focused primarily on a few variations of one main dish... meatballs.  The meat is ground in-house, the shop some days reportedly cranking out literally thousands.  Though a few staples remain continuously on the menu (the classic beef meatball, for example) there are upwards of nearly thirty different meatballs in rotation (bolognese balls, chicken cordon bleu balls, buffalo chicken balls, Mediterranean lamb, chile relleno balls, reuben balls...) as well as a chalkboard showcasing the seasonal offerings of risotto, salads, greens and veggies.  They even have a permanent veggie meatball, ironically resulting in a rather loyal vegetarian following.

A friendly staff is eager to induct first-timers, though the customizable menu is extremely user-friendly and pretty straightforward.  Wipe-board menus are pre-set at each table, alongside a jar of dry erase markers.  Meatballs are available a la carte as Naked Balls (4 for $7), Sliders ($3), Heroes (with a side salad for $9), as a Smash (on brioche with a salad for $8), or in a salad ($8).  All sides are $4, and can be served on the side or underneath the meatballs (rigatoni, spaghetti, polenta, as well as seasonal greens...)  You can even add Family Jewels (a fried egg for $1).  And yes, the ball jokes are nearly impossible to resist.  These little orbs of supreme Italian deliciousness are more filling than you might think, and you can always order more.  We opted to try a few sliders to sample a variety of combinations without filling up too much.

NERDY SIDE NOTE: Though it's a simple menu, there are literally hundreds of potential meatball combinations.  Consider five daily balls with five different sauces.  That's 25 options alone, just if you order them "Naked".  But considering the various sandwich, salad, and pasta offerings under or over your meatball, you could easily create well over 300 possible combinations of just one dish.  Factor in adding stuff on the side like veggies, dessert, and beverages, and you could eat at The Meatball Shop every day for the next several years and never have the same meal twice!

The classic beef meatball with classic tomato sauce was... well... classic.  Naturally the most popular meatball on the menu, it seemed a necessary choice.  Because the balls are baked, they are extremely tender and moist, lacking a crisp outer coating achieved by sauteing.  And though this little guy was quite tasty and classic, I'd recommend skipping it for the more unique options.  You can get a decent beef meatball many places in the city.  But some of The Meatball Shop's more inventive offerings are one-of-a-kind finds that will turn you into a raving fanatic.

My absolute favorite of the day was the spicy pork slider with parmesan cream.  Jazzed up with pickled cherry peppers, it was the most delicious meatball I have tasted in years, and made me instantly wish I had ordered a whole plateful over rigatoni.  The parmesan cream is described on the menu as "alfredo sauce on steroids" and that pretty much sums it up.  Think decadent, creamy cheese sauce on spicy minced peppered pork on a mini-brioche.  Probably the yummiest bite-sized sandwich I have ever tasted.

The classic beef meatball was wonderfully transformed by the mushroom gravy, creating something of a mini stroganoff sandwich.

My second favorite ball of the day was this juicy little chicken ball on a bed of vibrant pesto.  Herbed chicken rarely tastes this delicious, the perfect harmony of barn and garden.  It was light, bursting with flavor, and simply exceptional.

Though the sandwiches are fantastic, I simply can't overcome the craving for pasta that always inevitably accompanies my affinity for meatballs.  Pictured above was one of the most multi-layered flavor explosions to ever land in a pasta bowl.  The meatballs were the specialty of the day, Jambalaya, with ground andouille sausage, shrimp, chicken, and rice.  They were like N'awlins in a golf ball-sized bite, and the most unique meatball I could imagine.  I loved the textures of the different meats with the occasional surprise of a tender little grain of rice  And we topped it all with the spicy meat sauce, an exceptional bolognese.  With a little fried egg yamulke sitting on the back of the dish and a generous dusting of shaved cheese, this was a real WOW plate.

No where else in the city are you likely to get such delicious risotto for $4.  The daily recipe was simply saffron, which was the perfect accompaniment to our flavor-loaded meatball selections.  Too often risotto is masked by its garnishes, and this was a classic, creamy, al dente boat of the perfect rendition.

Who doesn't love a good old-fashioned ice cream sandwich, especially when the ice cream and cookies are made fresh on the premises?  You can even choose a different cookie for the top and the bottom if you want, with options ranging from thin meringues, to peanut butter, brownie, or ginger snap. We decided to keep it simple, with chocolate chip cookies and mint ice cream.  The cookies were thin, chewy, and laced with mini milk chocolate morsels.  And the mint ice cream was a first for me, classic vanilla speckled with actual flakes of natural mint; the most refreshing sweet ending I could have wanted.

Though I enjoyed a sparkling mint lemonade, The Meatball Shop actually offers bar seating in addition to the tables, featuring a reasonably priced wine and beer selection, even including sangria and P.B.R. ($3).  They also serve iced sweet apple tea, as well as Abita Root Beer on tap, which you can also use to make an ice cream float.

We were seated immediately in the early afternoon on a Wednesday, but lines have been known to approach wait times of well over an hour or more. Serving until 4AM on the weekends, I can only imagine what that line must look like when the bars begin to spill out.  You can find out the current wait time by calling (212) 982-8895.

Check out this great clip about The Meatball Shop on The Cooking Channel:

The Meatball Shop on Urbanspoon

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