Sunny with a Chance of Meatballs

This week I've been on a mission to pile on the food blogger scrum - Motorino, Num Pang, Shake Shack - all of which are absolute hits, and relatively inexpensive ones at that. Last night I added The Meatball Shop to the mix. At this point I'm sure the buzz of this Lower East Side storefront has hit your radar, as it did mine, so I won't bore you with a four page review, especially when the menu is really only made up of two items - meatballs and chipwiches. Okay, a salad was thrown on for good measure, but that's like ordering a veggie burger at a steakhouse - purely for looks. And while we're on the topic, I'd like to throw a flag for the Meatball Shop having a veggie meatball on the menu. Don't get me wrong - I have nothing against vegetarians, but I find it poor logic that one would choose to eat at a place that prides itself on pan-fried animal products. Don't yell at me please.

That being said, my official review of The Meatball Shop is this (queue trumpets): there are better balls out there, most notably at Frankie Spuntino's down the block, but I guess it's a fun, casual spot if you're in the neighborhood. So, don't all you Upper East Siders jump on the 6 train just yet - there are plenty of good meatballs right where you are (Ottomanelli's). Please just stay where you belong.

All joking aside, I enjoyed the less traditional options the most - like the special of the night, lamb with mint and raisins as well as their chicken meatballs. But, more so because they were just different than kick-your-chair-out delicious (it's happened). The Meatball Shop is a fun stop for a quick bite at the bar. Try all their meatball combinations with a plate of their sliders and wash them down with a Brooklyn Lager or a glass of wine from their short and sweet list. However, the unfortunate thing is that the place is so perpetually jammed thanks to people like me who can't keep their damn mouth shut, that a timely experience is rare. We waited an hour on a Tuesday night, though our food only took 10 minutes to come out, and were then rushed to relinquish our seats 15 minutes later. My advice is to give it a few months - maybe in July when the beautiful people migrate West you'll be able to eat your balls in peace.

Speaking of migrating West, some of the best meatballs I've ever eaten are about halfway between NYC and the Hamptons, in the lovely town of Northport.  Maroni's is a gem of a restaurant, seating only about 20 and offering an exclusive tasting menu at $110/person - not exactly an easy or cheap way to satisfy your hankering, but I found a loophole or two. The first is the discovery that they will run over a pot (literally) of their famous meatballs to the neighboring, but unrelated Wine Bar. It comes steaming and aromatic in a keepsake hotpot loaded with 16 meatballs for $27 - amazing. The other loophole being their recipe, which I just discovered on Bobby Flay's Meatball Throwdown and subsequently posted on the Food Network website. I'll be giving this recipe a test run - perhaps only making one small change - reducing the garlic. Though I enjoyed the meatballs tremendously, I didn't enjoy the severe dragon breath it anointed me and my party with. Comfort in numbers I guess.
My favorite recipe for meatballs, however, comes from my favorite Italian Nonna, whom I've written about before, Lidia Bastianich. I have made these at least a half dozen times. The process is not quick, but it is easy. And it is a tried and true favorite. There are two meatballs recipes: Turkey Meatballs with Pine Nuts and Golden Raisins OR Sausage Meatballs with Fresh Fennel and Orange. Both are pan fried to form a crust that will hold the ball together and then added to a long-cooking Sugo. The recipe for the sugo is the same for either meatballs, except one ingredient - if making the turkey meatballs, add a cinnamon stick to the sauce. If making the sausage, a few tablespoons of orange zest will give it a little somethin' somethin' that'll keep you comin' back for more. Mangia!

Long-Cooked Sugo and Meatballs (adapted from Lidia's Family Table)
Makes a boatload - 2 quarts of Sugo and 3 dozen meatballs!

For the Sofritto: (this is a cinch in a food processor)
  • 6T. extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 medium onions, minced
  • 3 plump shallots, minced
  • 2 fat garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 large carrot, minced
  • 2 large stalks of celery, minced
  • 5 fresh bay leaves (or 3 dried)
  • 1/4 tomato paste

For the Sugo:
  • One 35oz can San Marzano plum tomatoes and juices, sieved or passed thru a food mill
  • 8-12 cups broth or hot water (Lidia uses Turkey - I used Chicken)
  • 1/2t. salt, plus more to taste
  • 1 cinnamon stick or 2T. finely grated orange zest depending on meatball type
  • 1T. fresh thyme leaves
  • 1/4t. hot red pepper flakes (peperoncino), or to taste

For Turkey Meatballs:
  • 1.5T olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 1/2t. salt
  • 4 slices white bread from a sandwich or big loaf
  • 1-2 cups of milk
  • 3lbs ground turkey meat
  • 3 large eggs, beaten with a pinch of salt
  • 2T. chopped fresh Italian parsley
  • 1.5T. porcini powder
  • 1/2t. freshly ground black pepper
  • 3/4 cup golden raisins, plumed in warm water and drained
  • 3/4 cup pine nuts, toasted in a dry skillet

For Sausage Meatballs:
  • 2T. olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, minced
  • 1/3 of a small fennel, minced (about 2/3 cup)
  • 2 fat garlic cloves, minced
  • 3/4t. salt
  • 3lbs. Sweet Italian Sausage (w/o fennel seeds)
  • 3 large eggs, beaten with a pinch of salt
  • 3T chopped fresh Italian parsley
  • 1/2t. fresh thyme leaves
  • 1 heaping cup fine dry bread crumbs

For cooking both kinds of meatballs:
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 cups vegetable oil 
  • Salt for sprinkling
  • Spread the flour about 1/4 inch deep in the center of a baking sheet

Directions for Frying the Soffritto and Starting the Sugo:
  1. Pour oil in a 12-inch heavy-bottomed pan or Dutch oven with 8qt. capacity and drop in onions, shallots. Set over med-high heat for 1-2 minutes, until onions sizzle.
  2. Drop garlic, carrots, celery and bay leaves and cook for 4 minutes. Lower heat to prevent burning.
  3. Add tomato paste to an empty spot and 'toast' for a minute. Stir in plum tomatoes and their juices, raise heat and bring the sauce to a quick boil for 5 minutes until it thickens.
  4. Pour in 4 cups of the hot broth and take note of the liquid level - try and maintain that level throughout cooking by adding more broth or water throughout simmering process.
  5. Submerge cinnamon stick or add orange zest at this time, depending on which balls you're making.
  6. Cover and let cook for at least an hour, checking the pot every 20min. It should be reducing steadily, adding broth to maintain the level you want.
Making the Meatballs while your Sugo simmers:

  1. Pour olive oil in medium skillet and drop in minced onions, sprinkle with salt and set over med-high heat until they sizzle. Lower heat and cook for 5min., stirring occasionally until they are wilted and slightly dry, but not colored. Set aside.
  2. Break up bread slices into rough inch long pieces and submerge in milk. When fully saturated, remove and squeeze out excess milk with your hands. You should have about 1 cup densely packed bread.
  3. Loosen turkey meat and add to a large mixing bowl with beaten eggs, raisins, pine nuts, wilted onions, bread, parsley, porcini powder, salt and freshly ground pepper. Fold and squeeze the ingredients together and form into balls, flouring the outside of the balls lightly.
  1. Pour olive oil in med skillet, drop in minced onion and fennel over med-high heat. Cook for 2min then add garlic for another minute. Sprinkle on half the salt, stir and reduce heat, cooking for 5 more minutes, being careful not to burn. Remove from pan and let cool.
  2. Take sausage out of casing if packed in links, crumble in mixing bowl and add eggs, parsley, salt, pepper, orange zest, thyme leaves and cooled fennel, onions, garlic and the bread crumbs. Fold and form meatballs, dusting with flour.
Frying the Meatballs and Adding to Sugo:
  1. Pour vegetable oil in med skillet about 1/3 inch and set over high heat until oil begins to ripple. Transfer meatballs to skillet with tongs, being careful to leave enough room between each ball so they don't touch and allow to cook for a minute or two until they begin to brown. Brown them on all sides and remove to a paper towel to drain.
  2. Add meatballs slowly to your sugo with a slotted spoon, placing a few on the bottom with room between each, more on top, creating layers of spaced out meatballs, so you can carefully stir the sauce later. Bring back to a simmer and cook for an additional 40 minutes for golf ball sized meatballs - longer if larger.
  3. Turn off the heat and allow to cool so the meatballs absorb more of the flavor of the sugo. Carefully remove meatballs and return your sauce to a boil to thicken it to whatever consistency you prefer. Add salt and pepper to taste and serve!
When storing, make sure to use enough sauce to cover the meatballs completely. 

My other favorite Meatballs - a must see:
- The Heat


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