Editor's note: Please welcome new SE contributor Madison Priest, who'll be checking in each week with a look at one of New York's ever-growing number of street food carts. Take it away, MP!
Donatella's Meatball Wagon is adorable— slick lipstick red nestled underneath black iron stairs, it is maybe four feet tall and five feet wide. Four flimsy bicycle tires would propel it if it actually needed to go anywhere, but I don't get the idea Donatella's Meatball Wagon ever leaves the front stoop of its progenitor Donatella Arpaia's restaurant Mia Dona.
Nor could it: this is not a stand-alone operation. The meatballs, arugula, and potato-ricotta focaccia arrive on a crisp, white plate, pre-assembled by Mia Dona's kitchen. The wagon chef then simply adds spicy or non-spicy ragu according to the customer's preference, melts the gooey caciocavallo cheese, and panini-presses the sandwich.
To that point, don't go to Donatella's Meatball Wagon if you're looking for variety—the options are neither extensive nor complex: spicy or mild, sandwich ($7) or plate o' meatballs ($5). (Or, for that matter, if you're looking quantity. Though I found that one sandwich left me just on the right side of the satisfied/comatose line, my boyfriend complained of hunger a few hours later.)
I tried both the spicy and the mild sandwiches, and spicy is definitely the way to go when it comes to Donatella's meatballs. The additional punch of heirloom habaneros against the acidity of the tomatoes further intensifies a dish that otherwise comes off a little monochromatic.
That's not to say that Donatella's version of spiciness is that gratuitous, milk-or-die sort of spiciness from which other meatball subs (and their consumers) can suffer. Though lesser meatballs can sometimes use a good kick in the pants, these are emphatically not lesser meatballs. They are wonderfully moist, with a near-perfect meat to bread ratio. Braised in the ragu beforehand and seasoned well but simply, they practically melt in your mouth, and I mean that in a good way.
As a result, however, the process of enjoying this sandwich should not be taken lightly. Do not wear a white shirt; find a table as opposed to a bench if at all possible; and remember, you will need all the napkins they give you. Hoard them. This endeavor becomes all the more tricky because the focaccia, though it starts out with those delightfully crisp and brown panini lines, begins to get noticeably soggy within a few minutes. This wouldn't be all that awful except that, in the virtual absence of greens, the crunch becomes all the more important as a counterpoint to those fall-apart-in-your-mouth meatballs. The two arugula leaves that made their way into my sub were unnecessary at best, and gone before I had really even noticed their presence.
In short, it's worth it to make sure you eat Donatella's concoction at it's most delicious: hot off the press.
Donatella's Meatball Cart at Mia Dona
This post may contain links to Amazon or other partners; your purchases via these links can benefit Serious Eats. Read more about our affiliate linking policy.