The Meatball Shop, 84 Stanton St, LES
Rating: 3 out of 5 L’s
The Meatball Shop on the Lower East Side serves one thing and one thing only, but unlike this city’s many pizza joints and dumpling stands, it’s not due to the restaurant’s size. Its open kitchen is big, a flurry of activity with executive Chef Daniel Holzman and his associates rushing around, trying to fill the onslaught of orders.
People sure do love their meatballs. I came in on a Tuesday for lunch and it was full of svelte Euros and the business class on break. Friday was a different story: every seat taken, with the boisterous crowd dressed to the nines—stilettos, freshly pressed collared shirts—a scene that seemed strangely incongruous with the food being served. The dining room is beautifully appointed, more trattoria than meatball sub shack, with vintage black and white photographs in antique frames, polished hardwood floors and wine bottles stacked neatly behind the subway-tiled bar.
You order off laminated menus with a pen, marking off exactly what you want: beef, pork, chicken or veggie meatballs topped with tomato, spicy meat, mushroom or parmesan cream sauce. The sliders, one ball to a bun, might seem attractive for variety’s sake, but the tiny brioche bun isn’t a very good delivery system for the tasty meatball inside. It stands too separate, too firm. To achieve true meaty oneness, look to the hero, served on an Il Forno baguette. The inside of the bread soaks up the meat juices and sauce, the outside stays crunchy, and you stay eating until your stomach is about to explode.
Stick with the beef meatballs, tangy and airy golf ball-sized servings of Creekstone Farm beef, or the pork meatballs, a sweeter and spicier version made with Heritage Breed pigs. There are a few sides—market vegetables, polenta and the like—but nothing to write home about. That, perhaps, is what’s most confounding about this place. You would think that an accomplished, classically trained chef in a sizeable kitchen could put together a few good pasta dishes or a handful of other entrees, and the fact that he doesn’t gives the restaurant an air of gimmickry.
No matter. People love it nonetheless and whether or not it is a “serious” restaurant, it at least gives people a chance to dress up, order a $9 sandwich, an affordable bottle of wine (average price: $30) or a $5 pint, and have a nice night out with plenty of cash leftover for the cab ride home.