Meatballs are a classic winter comfort food: warm, filling, and unpretentious. And lately meatball-themed restaurants have become something of a micro trend in the New York dining scene. The Meatball Shop (84 Stanton St., at Allen Street), co-owned by chef Daniel Holzman and manager Michael Chernow, opened its doors on the Lower East Side two years ago and has since expanded to Williamsburg and the West Village. Meanwhile, newcomer The Meatball Factory (231 Second Ave., between 14th and 15th streets) just opened in the East Village under the leadership of former “Top Chef” contestant Dave Martin.
Both restaurants take a mix-and-match approach to their menus. But while The Meatball Shop sticks to the red-sauce classics, The Meatball Factory puts a more adventurous spin on its food.
Customers at The Meatball Shop risk a long wait, but a clever text-message alert system allows diners to walk around the neighborhood without fear of losing out on a table. Seats often open up quicker than expected—a party quoted a two-hour wait might instead be seated in 45 minutes. Once seated in the crowded and cozy dining room, orders are placed using dry-erase markers to check off preferred balls, sauces, and sides.
The Meatball Shop gives diners the choice of having their meatballs plain ($7), in a hero ($9), or “smashed” onto a brioche bun ($8). For first-timers, plain proves the easiest for sharing and sampling the most ball-sauce combinations. The classic beef and marinara is a sure bet, and the spicy pork meatball has a pleasant warmth without being mouth-scorching. The real stars of the menu, however, are the specials, which have included pear lemonade, turkey and stuffing balls with gravy and cranberry sauce, and Mediterranean lamb balls . The ice cream sandwich with freshly baked cookies ($5) is large enough to split and ends the meal on a high note—don’t miss the chewy, chocolatey brownie cookie.
The Meatball Factory, meanwhile, offers more exotic varieties of its namesake dish, including the Latin Stallion, which is made with chorizo and potato, and the Meattza Meattza—a blend of buffalo, steak, and short rib. Like The Meatball Shop, The Meatball Factory gives customers the option of having their meatballs served stand-alone with a single sauce ($9) or in a sandwich ($11-12).
Again, diners would be better served going for the option that allows as many combinations as possible: the sauce sampler ($4). Try the Pepper Monkey, a smoky take on barbecue sauce, and Truffle Time.
Although the menu offers sides like pasta, pizza, and even poutine (fries with cheese curds and gravy), diners at The Meatball Factory are best served by sticking to the basics, with the notable exception of the heart-stoppingly-rich black truffle mac ‘n’ cheese ($11). A meal at The Meatball Factory is more unusual than one at The Meatball Shop, but the menu at times spreads itself thin, and some of the meatballs are hit or miss. The chick-and-apple-sausage Cluck, Cluck balls, for example, proved dry and unappetizing.
Diners dig into their The Meatball Factory meals in a spacious, dimly lit dining room with an expansive bar, creating something of a gastropub-meets-sports-bar atmosphere.
Ultimately, The Meatball Shop nails the down-home vibe that a casual meatball joint calls for and displays a greater mastery of the basics. Nonetheless, The Meatball Factory is a great choice for gourmands craving an updated version of a classic dish. Head to The Meatball Shop for a laid-back but trendy dinner with friends and save The Meatball Factory for a more experimental experience.