Polpette Napoletane at Motorino ($9)
They're classic Italian meatballs with a good amount of nutty-tangy parmesan simmered in a rich and savory tomato sauce. They're a good size, too—large enough that they cook gently and stay velvety and tender throughout, but small enough that you can eat one in a bite or two. You can order them on your pizza, which chef-owner Mathieu Palombino describes as "pizza, if your grandmother made it on Sundays."
Helga's Meatballs ($15) at Red Rooster
Polpettine al Limone at Bar Stuzzichini ($8)
We didn't know that we wanted meatballs to have a crust until we tried the Polpettine at Bar Stuzzichini, with a browned, salty shell that encases them fully. Your knife slides through the thin shell with an audible crunch before the ball starts gushing meaty juices (beef, pork, and lamb). They're minimally dressed with olive oil and lemon—the better to appreciate the meat action. And they're appropriately sized as an appetizer portion, too.
Meatballs at Frankie's Spuntino ($11)
"We pretty much have built our reputation on making f*cking meatballs," Frank Castronovo once told us. (There are worse ways to build a reputation.) These meatballs are tender and supremely juicy, light but meaty, with pine nuts, raisins, and a good sprinkle of sharp Pecorino. (Get the recipe!)
Cesaroni at Salumeria Rosi ($12)
Any day is a good day to go to Salumeria Rosi to sample a plate of the twenty-seven types of salume sold in house. But, if you can, stop by on a Friday when meatballs are the daily special. We adored the Cesaroni, a duo of beef and pancetta meatballs made from owner Cesare Casella's grandmother’s recipe. These meatballs were incredibly moist and above all, tasted like quality meat. The light breading surprised us by enhancing the dish; it provided a nice herby, rosemary flavor. The meatballs come topped with an unctuous pork ragù and sit on a bed of creamy polenta. But the best part is the surprise filling: each meatball is stuffed with oozing, gooey mozzarella.
Duck Meatballs at Perilla ($14)
We love Harold Dieterle's take on Thai food at Kin Shop, but Southeast Asian flavors have been playing a subtle role on the menu at his first restaurant, nearby Perilla for years. Take his Spicy Duck Meatballs. Tender and meaty, they're seasoned with basil and spicy sambal oelek and come simmered in a rich mint and thyme-scented duck broth with a handful of mint cavatelli. A blanket of parmesan cheese comes on top, with a raw quail egg yolk for stirring into the broth.
Lamb Meatball Sliders at Locanda Verde ($12)
Take delicate, intensely lamb-y little meatballs, plop 'em on buns with a pleasingly meaty-tasting tomato sauce, and add creamy Caprino, an Italian goat's milk cheese: you've got our favorite meatball sliders in town. (Yes, we preferred these to the Little Owl's). The question you're faced with at Locanda Verde: do you order these, or the sheeps' milk ricotta? We recommend both.
Meatball Sub at Best Pizza ($8)
"That bread is perfect for a meatball sandwich," Ed said. And it really is. Plenty flavorful, it's crisp-chewy on the outside with a tender crumb whose open hole structure licks up any tomato sauce that might otherwise spill out the sides. It's the same sauce used on Best's grandma pie, made with crushed tomatoes, garlic, and finely chopped anchovies, all reduced to a thick, savory sandwich-worthy condiment. The meatballs themselves are a mixture of Pat La Frieda short rib, spices and herbs that Best would not specify, some pecorino Romano, and a little ricotta. And, get this: They're blasted in the wood-fired oven, giving them a slightly chewy sear with a little bit of charring, with the rendered fat poured back on after the meatballs are nestled in the bread.
Best Pizza: 33 Havemeyer Street, Brooklyn, NY 11211 (map); 718-599-2210
Meatballs at Apizz ($23)
The meatballs at Apizz are so good that the chef John LaFemina's cookbook is named for them. Made from equal parts pork, veal, and beef, these juicy giants are baked in tomato sauce in the restaurant's giant woodburning oven. They're amazingly tender and moist, with a hint of fresh basil and oregano, and a little divot filled with ricotta. At $23, they're pricey, but they're some of the best meatballs we've tasted in the city.
Roasted Meatballs ($8) and Spaghetti Alla Chitarra ($12) at Rubirosa
The meatballs are killer—tender and meaty with plenty of parmigiano in the mix. Just as good, though, is the incredible Spaghetti alla Chitarra. It's got the rough texture and al dente chew of hand rolled pasta—perfect for helping the chunky tomato sauce stick to each strand.
Rubirosa: 235 Mulberry Street, New York, NY 10012 (map); (212) 965-0500
Veal Ricotta Meatballs at Craftbar ($21)
Meatball lineage gets complicated in this town; these meatballs first graced the Craftbar menu under chef Marco Canora, who then went on to bring veal-ricotta meatballs to Terroir, where they've earned even more praise. But on a recent visit to Craftbar, the meatballs were still superlative: cloud-light and beautifully tender, as delicate as an orb of meat could be, in a simple buttery-tasting tomato sauce that doesn't overwhelm the veal. (Optional spaghetti is properly cooked but otherwise unremarkable.)
Meatballs at Co.
While we had a hard time finding veal meatballs we loved, the meatballs at Co. (once just on their pizza, now also a dish) blew us away: soft and fine-textured but not mushy in the slightest, and tasting intensely of veal, rather than (as we found with many veal meatballs) tasting of nothing. The light, fresh-tasting tomato sauce really lets the meatballs shine.
Albondigas at Tulcingo Restaurant
Albondigas are delicious things, and we've yet to find a version we like more than those at Tulcingo (where they're a frequent off-the-menu special). In central and southern Mexico, albondigas are large and dense—usually bathed in a thick chipotle tomato sauce. At Tulcingo Restaurant in Elmhurst, Queens, they're large spheres of meat garnished with three thickly cut rings of raw onion, a crisp and sharp counter to the spicy and very rich chipotle sauce; even better, these are stuffed with hard-boiled egg.
Tulcingo Restaurant: 40-11 82nd Street, Elmhurst NY 11373 (map); 718-205-3134
Meatballs at Esposito's ($2.25)
Esposito's Pork Store, which has been on Court Street since 1922, just looks like the type of place that'd sell meatballs an Italian grandmother could love—and, thankfully, they do. The cramped butcher shop (with a welcoming pig statue out front) sells the veal-pork-beef blend balls for $2.25 each. They're swimming in a thin red sauce in a tray behind the glass counter where you'll also find fresh mozzarella, sausage, and arancini. Meaty, fluffy, and nicely flavored with the typical Italian spices (hello, oregano), they're baseball-sized and plenty filling.
Esposito's: 357 Court Street, Brooklyn, NY 11231 (map); (718) 875-6863
Honorable Mention: Meatball Sub at Lorimer Market ($6.50)
Meaty and garlicky and peppery in all the right ways, the meatballs from Lorimer Market have an awful lot going for them. They’re soft and fine-grained with just a little bounce when you bite ‘em; the sauce is bright-tasting and sweet with onion. Sure, there’s the occasional little bread chunk in the meatballs, but they’re more than tasty enough to keep you biting again and again. Of the old-school sandwich shop meatballs we tried, these were among the best--and, at just $6.50 for this enormous meatball sub, it rated pretty high on the delicious-to-dollars ranking.
Lorimer Market: 620 Lorimer Street, Brooklyn, NY 11211 (map); (718) 389-2691