Best Meatballs in America
Frikadeller. Polpette. Köfte. Albóndiga. Whatever you call it, the meatball turns up in nearly every culture.
“There are something like 168 words or names for meatballs,” says Daniel Holzman, chef and co-owner of New York’s Meatball Shop. The enterprise, which now has six locations, wasn’t originally meant to be dedicated exclusively to meatballs. “We were going to serve meatballs out of a side window,” Holzman explains. But the meatballs were so popular, they became the concept instead of a side business.
The appeal of meatballs is indeed universal, whether they are all-beef with gravy, as at Houston’s Underbelly restaurant, or less traditional like the Mexico-by-way-of-the-Middle East balls at Brooklyn’s Xixa, which blend lamb, pork, corn bread, pumpkin seeds, and Cotija cheese.
While there’s nothing new about meatballs, there has been a proliferation of meatballs on the menu as of late. In Boston, Joanne Chang’s skewered pork balls with fresh herbs, lettuce wraps, and dipping sauce are a modern interpretation of a classic Vietnamese dish. In Boulder, CO, you can order a trio of polpettine with walnut pesto at Pizzeria Locale. And in Vegas, you can get your meatballs with an appropriately decadent sherry–foie gras cream.
Nose-to-tail eating has certainly had some impact on the current meatball madness—meatballs are a great way to utilize bits of meat that are not the prime cuts. But the trend is also suggestive of the way we want to eat now. Fancy French food and tasting menus still have their place, but these days, many Americans crave good, wholesome, comforting food—like what you’d make for yourself if you had time. Or like those meatballs that Grandma (or Bubbe or Nonna or Mormor) used to make.
Get your fill at these meatball destinations across America.
The Meatball Shop, New York City
This meatball-centric spot has six locations in Manhattan and Brooklyn serving five different types of house-ground balls, basically any way you like: naked, sauced, on a roll, on pasta, and so on. Purists should make for the original Lower East Side location and order the classic beef with classic tomato sauce. We’re also fans of the spicy pork balls, which pair well with spicy meat sauce—and of the Chelsea outpost, which sits above Underballs, a subterranean drinkery that lets you mix and match your own cocktails with indie spirits like Brooklyn Republic vodka.
Rx Boiler Room, Las Vegas
A staple on the menu since Rx Boiler Room opened in July 2013, Rick Moonen’s Squid-e-os transform a ho-hum kid’s dish into something truly spectacular. In lieu of SpaghettiOs there are calamari rings; squid ink tomato sauce is the grown-up riff on classic red sauce; and merguez meatballs, made with lamb and pork and spiced with cumin and chili pepper, take the place of your run-of-the-mill version.
Herbsaint, New Orleans
N’awlins cuisine isn’t exactly known for its subtlety, but the chicken meatballs at Donald Link’s St. Charles Avenue bistro are an exercise in restraint. The brainchild of chef de cuisine Rebecca Wilcomb, this is a simple, elegant riff on a homey chicken-and-rice dish—with meatballs made with organic locally sourced chicken and bound with fried chicken skins rather than bread. Lemon, parsley, and black pepper add brightness and a bit of heat.
Chef Chris Shepherd believes in using the whole animal, which means some form of meatball is always on Underbelly’s menu. Variations include bánh mì meatballs, pho meatballs, vindaloo meatballs, gyro meatballs, BBQ meatballs, and mole meatballs. Right now, he’s all about Grandma’s meatballs with beef neck bone gravy. Indeed inspired by his grandma’s recipe, they’re made with Angus beef, fennel seed, basil, and red chile flakes, and served in a cast-iron skillet.
The Bachelor Farmer, Minneapolis
While the menu is constantly changing at this New Nordic spot, you will always find some kind of memorable meatball. For fall 2014, it’s chicken meatballs with fried eggplant, first-of-the-season apples, and maple-cider vinaigrette. Previous incarnations have included duck meatballs in garlic broth with toasted whole-wheat bread and more traditional Swedish frikadeller with mashed potatoes, lingonberries, and pickled cucumber.
A-Frame, Los Angeles
Roy Choi, a pioneer of the food truck movement, put down roots with A-Frame, a light-filled, ski-chalet-inspired restaurant that makes fantastic lamb meatball skewers. Marinaded in sesame-shoyu and served with garlic yogurt, salsa verde, and citrus gremolata salad, the balls are described by Choi as shawarma meets Korean BBQ meets Ensenada meets Middle East meets the Valley meets K-town meets Venice. In short, he says, “I wanted to create a dish that felt like how I like to eat all on one plate.”
Pizzeria Stella, Philadelphia
Restaurateur Stephen Starr’s pizzeria makes meatballs that stand out from the pack for two reasons. The ingredients—Berkshire pork, local veal and beef, Italian sheep’s milk ricotta, house-made bread, and fresh herbs—are of the highest quality. And the way they’re cooked. The polpette are roasted in a wood-fired oven to seal in the juices and give the outside a slight char, then finished in a simple sauce of San Marzano tomatoes and Sicilian olive oil. Mangia!
Cúrate, Asheville, NC
There’s plenty to recommend this quirky mountain town, but the fact that there’s an El Bulli alum in Asheville is enough to inspire foodies to plan a visit—stat. Scientist-turned-chef Katie Button runs one of the country’s best tapas restaurants, preparing everything from patatas bravas to warm octopus to the albóndigas con jamon, meatballs inspired by her Spanish mother-in-law, Pepa. “The only change,” says Button, “is that we use ground jamon, which gives them this rich flavor and fall-apart-in-your-mouth texture.” Her husband, Felix, gives the final product his nod of approval—and so do we.
Myers + Chang, Boston
Chef Joanne Chang’s Thai lemongrass and pork meatball skewers (mu la lat) have been on the menu of this South End diner since opening day. They come with butter lettuce, fresh herbs, and a spicy dipping nuoc cham. Chef suggests taking the meatballs off the skewer, dunking in the sauce, and wrapping in lettuce with mint, cilantro, and Thai basil—but they’re delicious however you choose to eat them.
The Meatball Shop’s Daniel Holzman praises Israeli-born chef Michael Solomonov’s Zahav for “köfte at their best.” The Bulgarian-style meatballs are made with equal parts beef and lamb, cooked over charcoal, and served with pepper compote and stewed white beans. What makes them really special, though, is sugar for a hint of sweetness, and baking soda, which gives the balls their super-tender texture.
Comal, Berkeley, CA
Chef Matt Gandin, formerly of Delfina, does Mexican food very, very well at Comal in Berkeley’s Arts District. The menu, inspired primarily by Oaxacan cuisine, changes seasonally, but thankfully albóndigas en adobo are a constant. The meatballs—a blend of pork and beef, plus ricotta, pecorino, panko, and eggs in a spicy, smoky ancho chile broth—have San Franciscans flocking to the East Bay.
Xixa, Brooklyn, NY
Jason Marcus made a name for himself at Traif, his ode to all things unkosher. His latest spot, Xixa, opened quietly in Williamsburg in 2012 and is vaguely Mexican, with a whole host of other influences—from Thai to Greek—thrown in. Somehow it works, often exceptionally well. Case in point: the Mexico-meets-the-Middle East meatballs, which pair ground lamb and pork with eclectic ingredients like corn bread, pumpkin seeds, currants, Worcestershire sauce, and Cotija cheese. The grilled garlic cheese bread is ideal for dipping into the sweet-spicy-sour sauce, inspired by Marcus’s bubbe.
Nico Osteria, Chicago
This Italian newcomer earned two James Beard nominations within its first year: one for best new restaurant and one for best chef. And Erling Wu-Bower’s Neapolitan ragù has already become Nico Osteria’s signature dish. A hearty tomato-and-veal-stock gravy is the base for roasted pork belly, sartù di riso (essentially, rectangular-shaped stuffed rice balls), and a dense but surprisingly delicate swordfish and pork meatball.
Carson Kitchen, Las Vegas
This Fremont East newcomer from celeb chef Kerry Simon is yet another sign that the food scene is migrating from the Strip to downtown. This is still Vegas, however, which means you can expect decadent menu items like bacon jam, beef Wellington empanadas—and veal meatballs with sherry–foie gras cream sauce. Simon’s goal was to have the best meatballs in town, and it’s quite possible he’s succeeded. You’ll have to dine here and at Rx Boiler Room to decide for yourself.
Tosca, San Francisco
April Bloomfield opened her first non–New York restaurant in North Beach, and in deference to the location and 92-year-old interior (formerly a dive bar), she went for Italian cuisine and kept the red leather banquettes, linoleum tile floors, and muraled walls. There is a brand-new open kitchen, however, and it turns out pig tails, house-made pastas, and roast chicken for two. But those who know order Tosca’s off-the-menu braised meatballs. Made with pork shoulder, beef short rib, and guanciale, they took Bloomfield and chef de cuisine Josh Even two months to get just right.
Nappi’s, Medford, MA
Run by husband-and-wife team Anna and Joe, Nappi’s opened in 2011 but feels as if it’s been around much longer. This cash-only, reservations-essential, homespun restaurant doesn’t have a menu. But we’ll make it easy for you: order at least two meatballs. Anna uses a combination of house-ground pork and veal, plus all sorts of spices, Parmesan, eggs, bread crumbs, and a secret ingredient. The balls are then browned in a frying pan and finished in tomato sauce.
Pizzeria Locale, Boulder, CO
The much-ordered lamb, veal, and bacon meatballs aren’t on the menu anymore at Frasca Food & Wine. But they’re the inspiration for these polpettine at Frasca’s Neapolitan-style offshoot. You’ll want to try at least one of the trio of miniature pork meatballs topped with walnut pesto and Parmesan cheese. Follow them up with a classic margherita pizza—or just more meatballs.