No new restaurant captures The Moment, the now, better than The Meatball Shop. In a hundred years, restaurant archaeologists might pick this place as the apogee of dining in the Great Recession. If there’s a time capsule, The Meatball Shop has to be in it.
In a tiny package, The Meatball Shop touches all the bases, with its homespun menu founded on hearty recipes mamma would serve, a classically trained chef sourcing ingredients from artisanal farms, and everything made in house. Naturally, there are no reservations, and the room is dominated by a long communal table and food served at the bar.
And it’s a big hit, with manager Michael Chernow telling Eater.com that the wait on Saturday evenings at 8:00 p.m. stretches to 2½ hours. For meatballs. I expected to get in easily at 6:30, but it was already full. Luckily, we arrived just in time to get a table after about five minutes. We heard 25 minutes, and later 45 minutes, quoted to several other parties that arrived after us.
For a restaurant that serves only meatballs, there are many options to consider. There are five kinds of balls (beef, pork, chicken, vegetable, and “special”) and four kinds of sauces (tomato, spicy meat, mushroom gravy, and parmesan cream). They’re offered four different ways: in a bowl, sliders, heroes, and a “meatball smash” (two balls on a toasted brioche bun).
It begins to sound like “Colonel Mustard in the Libary with the Lead Pipe.” To avoid confusion, you mark your choices with a dry-erase marker on the laminated menu, which the server carries back to the kitchen. After they’ve got your order, they wipe the menu clean and it goes to another table.
The weekly special was goat, which my son and I both tried. He had the meatball smash ($8; above left) with parmesan cream sauce and mozzarella cheese. I had four meatballs in a bowl ($7; above right) with the spicy meat sauce. The goat was much more tender than I expected, full of flavor and not at all gamey.
There are six sides and six salads available ($4 ea.), including what must surely be the city’s best four-dollar risotto (above left). My son loved the meatballs so much that he ordered a slider by itself ($3; above right).
The desserts are as simple as can be, but wonderful for what they are: ice cream sandwiched by two cookies ($4). I think I had the the caramel ice cream and walnut meringue cookies (above right); I’ve forgotten what flavors my son had.
For such a busy place, the service was friendly and reasonably attentive. You can see why this place is popular. Dinner for two, including lemonade and two glasses of sangria, was just $49 before tip.
The Meatball Shop (84 Stanton St. between Allen & Orchard Sts., Lower East Side)