America is a melting pot of different cultures, which leads to an interesting approach to food and restaurants, especially in a city like New York, where there are hundred of different cultures all mixed together. What's also interesting in New York is that foods from other countries and cultures get adopted and then taken as their own. Of course this is true in many countries, there something unique about the way New Yorkers adapt food and grow its popularity. This can be seen with all sorts of food, most notably Pizza, but I also noticed that the humble Meatball also gets the New York treatment.
When wandering around New York, I kept finding Meatballs on the menu of many restaurants, and in fact found a restaurant chain dedicated to the humble fare. Many countries have a variant of the meatball, countries like China are made with pork and usually steamed, while Danish meatballs are a mix of pork and beef and are often fried. Many European countries have their own types of meatballs and each lay claim to having the original meatball, but the style of meatball most common in New York closely align with Italian Meatballs.
In the United States, meatballs are most commonly associated with spaghetti, as in spaghetti and meatballs. There was a large number of Italian migrants that entered the country in the early 19th century, who assimilated the humble meatball dish (along with Pizza) into what is now known as Italian American cuisine. I managed to get to a few restaurants in New York where Spaghetti and Meatballs were the focus and found that while there were similarities in the dishes, there were some very different approaches to this almost ubiquitous food.
The Meatball Shop - http://www.themeatballshop.com/
When you tell people you are going to New York, everyone who has been has their list of things to do and one of the most common things on the lists I saw for food was The Meatball Shop. Like many popular restaurants in New York, we were advised that the very popular The Meatball Shop could take some getting into, in fact wait times of up to two hours are not unheard of. With this information to hand, we did our usual trick of just turning up really early and hoping to get a seat. We were really early for our visit and turned up at 5pm and were amazed the place was already jammed packed, but we were lucky enough to score a seat.
The Meatball Shop owners Daniel and Michael wanted to take a unique approach to their restaurant and went for a 'choose your own adventure' style menu that is fairly unique. The menus are laminated, with check boxes and there are wax pencils on the table. From there it's simply a matter of choosing the meat for your meatball (they do cater for vegetarians), pick the sauce you want and then the sides to go along with your meal. Simple, right? No, there were a lot of fabulous looking options available, so just picking a meal was harder than it looked.
For my first visit I decided to go classic all the way, with classic beef and a classic tomato sauce all accompanied by spaghetti. You get four meatballs for $7 dollars, so its really cheap too. My meatballs were delivered sitting atop of a pile of spaghetti and then covered in slowly melting cheese. The star of the show was the meatballs, which were lovely and moist and full of beefy goodness but even the star needs a sidekick and the tomato sauce was rich and slightly sweet and matched perfectly with the meat. For me, the spaghetti was just average and there really wasn't too much of it, but I quickly forgot about the spaghetti every time I took a mouthful of the wonderful beefy meatballs.
The Meatball Shop is one of those places that is really cool without trying too hard to be. We visited the Lower East Side and Chelsea Meatball Shops and both had great vibes with friendly and hip wait staff. We found the service at the Lower East Side shop much better than Chelsea, which seemed to take quite a while for us to be served and get our drinks.
Aria Wine Bar - https://plus.google.com/107377698198539934135/about?gl=au&hl=en
We spent quite a bit of time in Chelsea while we were in New York and much of that time was taken up with exploring the streets around Chelsea, the Meatpacking District and Greenwich Village. There are lots of hidden delights and shops and restaurants in the streets in these areas and it was always great to come across something unexpected. On a day where we had planned to go to The Spotted Pig, we came across a little wine bar that was packed and buzzing and made a mental note to head back and try it out. The restaurant was the Aria Wine Bar and looked to have the cheapest food menu we had seen for some time. Little did I know at the time that I would have the best meatballs and spaghetti of my life in this quaint little wine bar.
The night we went to the Aria Wine Bar was a stinking hot night and by the time we arrived at the restaurant, we were both hot and sweaty. We were welcomed with somewhat "open arms" by the owner when we went into the restaurant, but I couldn't tell if he was friendly or rude with his grunts of greeting. In any event, we were seated and had some cold water delivered quickly. The inside of Aria was really cool, with an open bar that wrapped around one wall and where customers seemed to sit on both sides of the bar. It was a little dark, a little edgy and a really comfortable place to hang out.
The menu was exclusively Italian cuisine and was fairly extensive, with lots of interesting looking morsels to try. The best thing about the menu was the prices, nothing was over $12 dollars! With so many lovely looking items on the menu I surprised myself for going for the spaghetti e polpette, traditional spaghetti and meatballs. The meatballs were a mix of beef and pork and once I took my first bite, I knew that I had scored big time. There was a sweetness to the meatballs that was hard to describe, but it was extremely delicious. The tomato sauce that came with the meatballs was also lovely and sweet and was an incredibly perfect match for the meatballs. Unlike the Meatball Shop where the spaghetti didn't quite match the meatballs, the spaghetti here was al dente and divine tasting. Overall these were not only the best meatballs I had in New York, they were the best I have ever had!
Carmine's - http://www.carminesnyc.com/
There are so many restaurants in New York it's staggering. One of the most popular spots in New York for tourists is Times Square and as you would imagine, there are a heap of restaurants around Times Square to capitalise on all those tourists. We wanted to get along to one of these restaurants to get a feel for a rushed and touristy meal and Carmine's was a name that kept coming up in the tourist books as a must visit restaurant. We hadn't really seen the fabled American sized meals in our travels, so thought that it would be interesting to see if a touristy place like Carmine's would deliver on the promise.
Carmine's prides itself as a family restaurant that offers exceptional value to its guests with dishes from Southern Italy. The whole idea of Carmine's is to provide huge meals at a reasonable price that have the 'wow' factor of a southern Italian wedding feast. The few times we had walked past Carmine's it was ridiculously busy with huge queues but we did manage to get in one evening without any wait at all, score! Carmine's on W44th street is massive, it's one of the biggest restaurants I have come across and we were seated upstairs at a window with a great view of the street below.
The menu at Carmine's is huge with so many options that you get a sense of analysis paralysis just trying to narrow down the options. Once I saw the option of meatballs, I was convinced we needed to try them. I had a little convincing to do with SC as she really didn't want the meatballs, but we compromised on the pasta that accompanied them with angel hair pasta (one of about 5 pasta options). The really friendly waiter advised us that one dish would easily be enough for the two of us, so we took him at his word and just ordered the meatballs (no entree either).
When the dish was delivered we were both speechless. In front of us was the biggest plate of food we had ever seen, there was enough pasta and meatballs on the dish to serve a family of eight. The plate was about 70 centimeters long and was piled high with meatballs and pasta. Our waiter did the serving for us and piled on a number of meatballs and a heap of pasta onto our side plates and by the time he finished we had huge plates of food, but the main plate looked hardly touched! Lucky the meatballs were succulent and delicious otherwise we would have left too much food behind. The tomato based sauce that came with the dish was lovely and rich, but there was just not enough of it on the plate to cover all the pasta. As it turned out we ate about a quarter of the dish and were completely stuffed. I was completely full and happy that the food was tasty, but felt bad because we wasted so much.
We didn't visit any other Meatball restaurants, although a heap of other restaurants we visited had meatballs on the menu. The thing about visiting New York is that there are so many different options and different cuisines to try that you could never get through them all. I really enjoyed the meatballs that we had in New York and now have a bigger appetite for the humble meatball. I'll have to find a good meatball place back in Brisbane.....