Located on the Lower East Side, the Meatball Shop has quickly become the place to go for the ultimate meatball experience. As such, it's also become quite crowded, to the point that you can call ahead to see what the current wait time is. I planned to go for a late lunch, at 2:00, and since I was going alone, I didn't think being seated would be much of an issue. And although the place was nearly full when I arrived, I was still able to immediately get a seat at the bar.
The space is small but really comfortable and cozy. With a long communal table in the middle, antique fixtures and pictures everywhere, and great classic rock songs playing over the speakers, the vibe was hip but relaxed.
With a such a niche product, co-owners Daniel Holzman and Michael Chernow needed to come up with a unique concept, which they have. Sick of menus dictating the dishes, Holzman and Chernow let their customers do the picking. So once I was comfortably seated at the bar, I was given a laminated menu and a dry erase marker. The bartender explained all of my options briefly. Basically first you pick what medium you want for your meatballs. You can have them "naked" with just sauce and a piece of focaccia bread. You can have them as sliders or in a hero or crushed up like a sloppy joe. Or you can have them over the chef's selection of greenmarket veggies and salad. So once you've picked your medium, you pick your meat. Always on the menu is beef, spicy pork, chicken, vegetable, and a special which changes daily. Their special Mediterranean lamb meatball with mint, raisins, and walnuts is supposedly exceptional. Once you've picked your meatballs, you pick sauce: classic tomato, spicy meat, mushroom gravy, parmesan cream, or pesto. If you choose "naked" balls you also have choices of sides, which you can get on the side or served under your meatballs, such as pasta, mashed potatoes, beans, or risotto.
My book was my lunch date. And there's the menu on the right.
I ordered a glass of red sangria (which was good but a little heavy on the lime) and quickly made my decisions. Since I'm such a sandwich girl, especially at lunch time, I went with the meatball hero. I chose classic beef meatballs with spicy meat sauce, and since I was getting a hero, I also got to choose my cheese (provolone) and sub roll (white). Served alongside the hero was a small green salad, and although I really wanted to try the special side of the day, collard greens with garlic, I resisted knowing that would be way too much food. And in no time at all, my lunch arrived.
I started with a bite of the salad, which was delicious and simple. Just arugula and apple slices dressed with apple cider vinaigrette, although it could have used a little salt and pepper. I quickly dug into my sandwich and immediately wished I had more than one napkin. And with a sandwich with tomato sauce, that's always a good sign.
The bread was nice and soft, although it got just a little soggy in some places where there was more sauce than meatball. But I always think a soft bread is better than a bread that's so crusty it makes the roof of your mouth raw. Obviously all the meatballs are not made to order, so it was even more impressive that they were still nice and tender and moist, not at all dried out. They were flavorful on their own, but were especially delicious covered in their "spicy meat sauce." Everything blended and was balanced so well together that it was hard to discern individual flavors, although I didn't find the sauce particularly spicy or meaty, which was OK with me since it was still delicious. The provolone was nice and light and had melted right into the bread. On the one hand, it wasn't overpowering, but on the other, I almost couldn't even tell it was there.
I really wanted to eat every bite of this sandwich, but halfway through I was already feeling full. Please don't think that stopped me from diving right into the second half though, which I made it about halfway through, sort of deconstructing it as I went. Finally I was nearing defeat. But not before dessert: your choice of homemade ice cream put between two cookies or served as a float with cream soda or rootbeer. I thought about doing a chocolate ice cream sandwich with 1 chocolate chip cookie and 1 peanut butter, but the special ice cream of the day was too tempting. So I ordered a chocolate chip ice cream sandwich with their special, brown sugar ice cream.
You may not be able to tell from the picture, but this sandwich was really big, which I was surprisingly disappointed by. I was sort of looking forward to picking this up and eating it like a true ice cream sandwich, but it was way too big and I had already made enough of a mess eating my sandwich. Instead, I took bites of the cookie and spoonfuls of ice cream together and separately. The cookie was OK, but very chewy and since the cookies were a little on the thinner side, this made them a little tough, not the good chewy kind that are soft and thick. There also didn't seem to be a lot of chocolate in them. The ice cream, on the other hand, was the perfect temperature and texture, and had a distinct brown sugar flavor, but was a little too sweet for me, which is saying something. I think a little salt would have gone a long way for both the cookie and the ice cream.
This is a place I would definitely return to. It would be tough to go with more than one or two other people since space is limited, but I can see why a wait would be worth it. Plus, I'd have to bring someone else so we could order a bunch of sliders in different meat and sauce combinations and I could sample them all!