Somehow the humble meatball has become a breakout star of one of the best food cities in the world, and there's some satisfaction in that. Meatballs just ooze comfort (although really, all ground, bound and formed food items do). On the Upper West Side, several restaurants are doing these soulful spheres justice.
If you like your late-night snacks with a side of artistic showmanship, look no further than the tapas menu at Jesús Núñez's Gastroarte (f.k.a. Graffit before Jehangir Mehta made a fuss). The gussied up albondigas de la abuela ($14) are a family recipe run through the gauntlet of the chef's playful tricks. Here, fork-tender, bite-sized beef meatballs sit in a chunky tomato sauce thickened with cubes of sweet potato and topped with purple potato confit and crisp sweet potato and purple potato chips. The flavors are homespun, the presentation is not. For dramatic effect (and only dramatic effect), dollops of sweet potato cream snake their way down a swipe of purple potato puree affectedly brushed across the bowl's rim. The hat-trick of tubers ground the dish with their starch and sweet, and the crispness from the chips provide another layer of textural contrast.
Even better than a bowl of Osteria Cotta's pork and veal offerings—seen bobbing in a thick, herb-rich tomato sauce—is finding the fluffy orbs crumbled up and spread out across the surface of a nicely charred meatball pizza ($13). Morsels of ball are casually tossed amidst islands of mozzarella and fresh Parmigiano-Reggiano shavings, and the use of a wood-burning oven makes all the difference here, imparting an earthy bite and ensuring that temperatures get hot enough to brown the meat. It's a fine Neapolitan-American-style pie with a pliant crust that cradles the richness from both meat and cheese. The doughy round easily feeds two, and also makes for killer leftovers if you're unable to finish a whole pie in one sitting.
Not all meatballs are created equal, and many even omit meat from their recipes entirely, as is the case with Tolani's vegetarian "spaghetti and meatballs" ($17). It's easy to be skeptical of dishes that utilize quotation marks as part of their titles, but the confluence of flavors and textures in the dish make for vegetarian plate that far exceeds the insults of that scourge of vegetarians everywhere, the "grilled vegetable plate". Here, a heaping mound of sweet, roasted spaghetti squash mingles with slow-cooked confit Roma tomatoes and a blanket of shredded Parmesan, all sitting in a pool of Parmesan broth. The focus of the plate are the crispy eggplant balls, breaded and fried to a crackle with a luscious, croquette-like interior. Any sharpness the cheese contributes is tempered by the sweetness of the vegetables—they make a great case for meatless balls as a genre.
Who can say why ball-shaped foods are so popular? As long as they keep tasting this good, that question need not ever be answered.