HOW THE ETERNAL LOVE FOR MEATBALLS FUELED A NOW SIX-LOCATION CITY ENTERPRISE, WITH ITS CULINARY TESTBED IN WILLIAMSBURG
BY MATT SCANLON • PHOTOS BY LIZ CLAYMAN
When Daniel Holtzman and Michael Chernow founded The Meatball Shop at 84 Stanton Street in the East Village in 2010, the neighborhood was just beginning to take stock of the effects of 20 years of gentrification. A casual visitor might have thought it was still the bohemian, squatter friendly enclave of the ’70s and ’80s—as most of its modest apartment buildings appeared unchanged, but rents had tripled in the years since Mayor Giuliani took office, and the landscape of once affordable meals was strained by $12 artisianal soups and molecular cocktails.
The longtime friends, both with deep restaurant pedigrees, decided that the time was right for an enterprise notably lacking in pretention (which, let’s face it, the East Village had an abundance even before the arrival of trust fund hordes) one devoted to both favor and thrift, and in tribute to a preparation that, if not everyone had experienced, everyone wanted: homemade meatballs.
“There is just something about a perfectly toasted, cheesy, saucy hot hero that makes the hair on my neck tense with anticipation,” said Holtzman, who attended the Culinary Institute of America with a full scholarship from the James Beard Foundation and is a veteran of restaurants Palladin, Napa, and Aqua. “I think a perfectly made meatball hero is one of the single best foods known to humankind.”
From the start, the partners’ menu expanded beyond that savory circular wonder to include sliders, sandwiches, a kids’ menu, cookies, and cocktails. But, like protons and neutrons circling a nucleus, inspiration never strayed far from the business’s namesake item, the potential revenue power of which was made clear to Holtzman even before his doors were open.
One night, during one of our investor dinners, we were serving three wealthy guys, each from very different back grounds,” he recalled. “I was shocked to hear all of them bonding over their grandmas making meatball how universally loved they are. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, how much money you have, or what you believe in.”
Within a year, a Williamsburg location had made its appearance one of six currently (the others in the West Village, Chelsea, the Upper East Side, and Hell’s Kitchen).
“We opened on Bedford and North 7th arguably one of the best locations outside of Manhattan you can land,” Holtzman explained. “We introduced our first full liquor menu there, which was a major innovation for our brand at the time. Over the years, we’ve used our Bedford Avenue shop as a testing ground for many initiatives that have either found their way into all of the other shops…or not.”
When we asked the secrets to a perfect meatball fully expecting a demure, “I can’t give away recipes” reply, we were greeted with full throated detailing from the smiling co-owner.
“Oh, I’m always happy to share a recipe, but it’s probably better to give you some of the golden rules,” he said. “First, it’s not all about the meat. Meatballs are influenced as much by filler…bread, herbs, spices. The biggest mistake people make is using too much meat. Yours should be somewhere around 50% meat, 50% filler; more meat equals firmer, more bread makes things fulfiller, and fat means moist mouth feel. For me the perfect ratio is one egg and a half cup of breadcrumbs and one teaspoon of salt for every pound of meat.”
These formulas may be a starting point, and are virtually gospel for the chefs, but innovation is also coin of the realm.
“We craft balls based on the seasons,” Holtzman added. ‘ is winter, since it’s been so cold, we’ve added Ramen Balls and Grilled Cheese Balls to our menu, both served over soup. People are crazy about them!”
The Meatball Shop
170 Bedford Avenue / 718.551.0520 /