When my teenage sons were younger, I worked a recurring theme into the meals I cooked for them. I called it the Meatball of the Month Club. The idea is just what you’d imagine. The fun of it was in tracking down meatball recipes from different cultures in cookbooks and recipe sites, and then using them as the centerpiece for meals that introduced my family to new cuisines.
Years later, I realized that I could have made things a lot easier on myself by holding Meatball of the Month Club meetings in restaurants. New York has to be one of the best cities in the world for meatball collectors.
Or, instead, you could go to Queens to pick your favorite lion’s head. Typically, a lion’s head meatball is so big there’s almost no room for broth in the soup bowl it’s served in. My current choice is the Langzhou-inspired one at CheLi in downtown Flushing (there’s also a location in the East Village), although I remember thinking that the ones at Shanghai You Garden, nearby, might be better than the soup dumplings that the place is known for.
In Long Island City, you can investigate the Mexican albondigas that the chef Cosme Aguilar stews in a smoke-drenched chipotle sauce at his restaurant, Casa Enrique. Each meatball contains a hard-cooked egg, which raises interesting philosophical questions, such as: Is a Scotch egg a meatball?
Meatballs that roll, and meatballs that don’t
What about kofte? It’s ground, seasoned meat like any other meatball, yet throughout the Eastern Mediterranean kofte are often molded on to a skewer. But not always: The kofte I ate the other night at Shukette, in Chelsea, were tender little orbs of lamb and beef mixed with fresh herbs, and served on an emerald-green pool of sauce made from arugula and pistachios.
In Japanese restaurants, tsukune are almost invariably molded into fat sausages and cooked on skewers. Still, everybody calls them chicken meatballs. Glazed with tare sauce and grilled, they’re usually delicious, whether they’re enriched by foie gras at the Lobster Club in Midtown or prepared more classically at Kono, the rarefied yakitori counter in Chinatown.
Kebab aur Sharab, an ornate Upper West Side Indian restaurant, cooks almost everything on a skewer, but not its venison meatballs. The size of large olives, the meatballs are cooked in a fiercely spicy dry curry inspired by the city of Mangalore.
On top of spaghetti
Of course, New York has countless Italian restaurants where the meatballs are made in the classic shape — so round that, if somebody sneezes, they will roll off the table and on to the floor. The ones I like best are big and fluffy from a generous addition of bread crumbs. This is how you get them at Cafe Spaghetti in Brooklyn, Carbone in Manhattan, and (let’s cross the Hudson River for one second) Razza in Jersey City, where they are roasted in a wood-burning pizza oven. The polpette I had this week at Via Carota are in the big-and-fluffy school, too, but they also contain raisins and pine-nuts, Sicilian-style.
Many more Italian meatballs are stuffed into bread at pizzerias and sandwich shops, including the excellent heroes at Parm and the sliders at Stretch Pizza. Denino’s Pizzeria and Tavern in Staten Island augments their meatball heroes with pieces of sausage but lets the meatballs dominate, which is how the sandwich came to be known as the 60/40 Hero. For some reason, it’s not on the menu of their branch in Greenwich Village.
New York has big meatballs and small meatballs. Spicy meatballs and mild meatballs. Expensive meatballs and cheap meatballs. For the excellent Swedish meatballs served in the Scandinavian-modern barroom at Aquavit in Midtown, you will pay $38. You’ll also get some lovely puréed potatoes along with lingonberries and shaved, lightly pickled cucumbers. Substitute some other vegetables for the pickles and there you have the Swedish meatball plate at Ikea in Red Hook, Brooklyn. The price is $5.99.