A Venture into the Balls Business

New Haven Meatball House has a deceptively simple name. Yes, the new restaurant on the corner of Chapel and Park streets, does serve the mediocre, vaguely comforting plate of pasta and meatballs you know, love and will probably order. Don’t. Meatball House’s strength lies instead in its variations on that large, juicy glob of protein — whether alone, in sliders, sauces, or sandwiches — that are infinitely more satisfying than the standard fare.

The restaurant’s menu reads like a taxonomic chart built around five categories: balls with sauce ($7), sliders ($3 each), brioche sandwiches ($9), sides and salads (both $4). A list of variations unfolds under each option. The most important choices are the type of meat (beef, chicken, pork or vegetarian) and type of sauce (tomato, parmesan, pesto, or mushroom). Placing your order feels a little like filling out a word problem.

The key to a good meal, however, is not trying to find the right answer. An order of beef balls with tomato sauce over spaghetti, for instance, gets you spaghetti and meatballs, but the overcooked product doesn’t stand a chance against a well-thought-out recipe from an actual Italian, or rather Italian-American, restaurant. The balls are fine and the sauce is fine, but there’s no reason other than tradition to bring them together.

The more inventive your order, however, the more rewarding it is. Who knew that crisp, salty pesto would pair so well in a buttery slider with hunk of pork? Someone, probably, but at least for a night you get to claim that creation for your own. The same goes for chicken balls in mushroom sauce, or the jambalaya slider special, which the waitress recommended, but you (yes you, good job!) ordered.

The sides and salads offer opportunities for even more transgressive fun. You can have meatballs in your salad, with dressing! — sorry vegetarians. The sides range from down-to-earth fare to more inventive options. A solid rendition of mac and cheese is a highlight, but kale or edamame are on the docket.

The desserts offer similar twists on comfort food. “Spiked” floats put a dash of bourbon or rum into your ’50s sitcom-friendly beverage. The number of available options for the make-your-own ice cream sandwiches, which combine Ashley’s ice cream with Libby’s cookies, is sure to give you stress flashbacks to the entrée menu.

The fun inherent in crafting an order at Meatball House, and getting to say “balls” so many times in a mock-serious setting, is all part of the restaurant’s design. Bob Potter, the owner, envisioned his newest venture as a casual step down from Prime 16, his chain of high-end, high-quality burger joints. The difference is clear. Meatball House features more communal tables, a toned-down bar and a rustic design scheme, mostly wood panels and exposed surfaces.

Meatball House’s vibe, however, ultimately prevents it from establishing a niche. It’s purposefully too lowbrow for a formal dinner, but too high-concept for a gathering with friends. The pricing aims to bring in people for something less formal than a date, but there aren’t a lot of other plausible occasions; maybe when you “grab a meal sometime,” but how often does that happen and, more importantly, what message does inviting someone out for meatballs actually send? It’s a mystery that can only be solved at New Haven Meatball House.

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