If there’s a better metaphor for Washington right now than a meat grinder, I can’t think of one. Each new allegation of White House incompetence or campaign wrongdoing seems to stuff another official into the machinery like so much low-grade beef.
Now we have a restaurant to serve as the city’s unofficial mascot. It’s called the Meatball Shop, and it’s an import from New York City, where a pair of culinary school graduates, Daniel Holzman and Michael Chernow, opened their first location in 2010 as a kind of exercise in nostalgia for something you may have never experienced in the first place. One of the shop’s recurring motifs is a simple, hand-cranked meat grinder. Its silhouette is stitched onto ballcaps, and the tool itself is mounted repeatedly in the restaurant, almost geometrically, like three-dimensional wallpaper.
The grinder, like the Meatball Shop itself, recalls a different era — before KitchenAids with grinder attachments, before chefs looked to Thailand and Oaxaca for inspiration, before anatomical jokes were widely considered a form of sexual harassment. As the Meatball Shop begins its inevitable march into new markets — the D.C. location is its first outside New York — the chain has apparently decided to downplay its barely concealed affection for Beavis and Butt-Head humor. The crotch humor is, more or less, limited to a few items that scream the word BALLS in all caps. Somewhere in Brooklyn, a bro must be crying into his Four Loko.
Despite its roll in nostalgia, the Meatball Shop is a deceptively modern concept. It’s a fast-casual operation cloaked in old-timey, sepia-toned family portraits and mama’s Old World red sauce. You can match your preferred meatball with one of six or so sauces, which you can then plop into a bowl with your pick of seasonal sides. There are a lot of decisions to make, and, as with any fast-casual, the quality of your meal will largely depend on your ability to pair flavors in your head before the dish actually arrives. Fortunately, the gracious bartenders and floor staff are there to assist, though not always there to steer you away from bad decisions.
The menu has been copied almost verbatim from New York, although the chain did engineer a crab-cake ball for the D.C. shop (which has since migrated to the other stores), probably because Mayor Muriel E. Bowser would have vetoed any attempt to create a chicken-wing ball with mumbo sauce. The crab ball appetizer is forgettable, a handful of fried rounds stuffed with shredded meat and sealed with a salty potato-chip crust, as thick as a bank vault. The seasonal risotto balls are a far better starter: On my visit, the rice balls (more like blocks, really) concealed a gooey cache of mozzarella, a creamy counterpoint to its gently tart tomato sauce.
The classic tomato sauce is your best friend at the Meatball Shop. The chain’s culinary team has devised a gravy that leans to the brighter, more acidic side of the red-sauce spectrum. Purists might consider this a failure of patience: The chefs, they would suggest, don’t simmer the sauce long enough to discover the sweetness at the end of the cook. But I think the tartness serves a purpose. It elevates a dish that could easily sink under the weight of its own fat. The single best meal I had here was a bowl of classic pork-and beef balls smothered in classic sauce and surrounded by braised kale and semi-chewy tubes of rigatoni. Everything clicked into place like tumblers on a lock.
The only thing the classic sauce couldn’t improve were the veggie balls. The veggie “baller plate” pairs the meatless rounds, each coated in red sauce, with broccoli, mushrooms and a soft, super-luxuriant polenta. My baller plate would have actually been better without the balls, these strangely crunchy orbs formed with lentils, mushrooms, carrots, walnuts and more. When you bite into them, these balls bite back: They reveal a tooth-rattling center, which reminds me of undercooked legumes — or fossilized Hershey’s Kisses.
If the essence of Italian cooking — as the late Marcella Hazan taught us all those years ago — is a few fresh ingredients, simply prepared, then the Meatball Shop could use some remedial classes. Too often, the kitchen goes for baroque (sorry) in its quest for originality. The lobster melt squishes a trio of shellfish balls (bound with brioche bread) inside a spongy baguette and drapes the flattened orbs with white cheddar cheese, Parmesan cream sauce, lettuce and serious chutzpah. The thing is a crime against crustaceans. Chicken pot pie meatballs were a special one night, and when covered in mushroom gravy and paired with mashed potatoes, they tasted as if someone had scraped Thanksgiving leftovers into a bowl — all the Thanksgiving leftovers.
Some mistakes occur on the diner’s side of the table, of course. One evening, I ordered the (mildly) spicy heritage pork meatballs, which arrived partially submerged in that quicksand of polenta, the whole thing slathered with Parmesan cream sauce. Individually, the elements provided everything you could possibly want; together, they were a yacht-club party of excess. You might be tempted to wash down such a misbegotten meal with a Pie-Sexual cocktail — a fruity libation with rye whiskey as its base — but you’d only be sugarcoating your mistake.
The Meatball Shop even adopts an open-ended approach with its dessert menu: You can sandwich your preferred Moorenko’s ice cream between your choice of cookie. I pressed a thick scoop of salted caramel with pralines between a pair of chocolate chip cookies — the bartender’s suggestion — and loved each of the two bites I could muster before the whole creamy concoction melted into an off-white pool, with two half-eaten cookies. I picked up my spoon and finished the dessert, mumbling to myself about life in the meat grinder of Washington.
1720 14th St. NW, 202-684-8564, themeatballshop.com .
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to midnight Sunday through Tuesday; 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. Wednesday and Thursday; 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday.
Nearest Metro: U Street/African American Civil War Memorial/Cardozo, with a 0.4-mile walk to the restaurant.
Prices: $7 to $16 for starters and salads; $10.50 to $24 for meatballs, bowls, plates and sandwiches.