New Haven Meatball House
1180 Chapel St., New Haven, (203) 772-3360, nhmeatballhouse.com
Mon – Thurs open at 5 p.m., Fri – Sun open at 11:30 a.m., Happy Hour: Mon-Fri 5-7p.m., Sat-Sun 2 - 5p.m.
The up-scaling of comfort food in New Haven has already produced slick outposts like the Caseus truck, so it's hardly surprising that meatballs are among the latest targets for re-branding. New Haven Meatball House is the newest venture from Bob Potter, the owner of Prime 16 and C.O. Jones, and the House follows in their footsteps. The three have common priorities: a competent take on casual food, backed up by a dedicated, craft-oriented bar.
From the entrance on Chapel Street, a large wooden door opens into a shotgun-style room. The bar, well-stocked with wine and liquor on high shelves, is on the left, opposite a single-file row of tables. In keeping with Meatball House's gastro-pub identity, there's a small fleet of craft beers — and craft beers alone — on tap. IPAs predominate, but there is a wide range of strengths and flavors, from easygoing Allagash White, a wheat beer, to the formidable He'Brew Lenny Bruce, an Imperial Rye IPA packing 10 percent abv and boldly contradictory notes. All but the heaviest hitters are eligible for half-off Happy Hour pricing. A small but growing wine selection and mostly top-shelf liquor round out the bar.
If the drink menu can seem a little much for the uninitiated, the meatball selection is warm and reassuring. Choosing a meal is combo-based and streamlined. You can get your four meatballs (choice of beef, pork, chicken, vegetarian) piled on a bed of starch (spaghetti, rigatoni, mashed potatoes, mac and cheese), topped with a choice of sauce (tomato, parmesan, spinach pesto, mushroom), and paired with a thick slice of bread ($7). Or you can opt for a sandwich, which nets you a side salad and your choice of cheese (mozzarella, smoked mozzarella, provolone) as well as a sauce ($9). The best way to get acquainted with the menu is to mix and match ball/sauce combinations in the form of sliders, single meatballs served on tiny brioche buns for three dollars a pop.
This week's special appetizer, a NY-Style pretzel with IPA cheese sauce ($3), did a good job of blunting our hunger. The pretzel is clearly prefab, but in all fairness, that's true to form. The American/provolone cheese sauce, spiked with ale, is a solid companion.
The sliders showcase Meatball House's commitment to the goods. Each meatball is mixed with a dab of ricotta, and breadcrumbs, grandma's old standby, are kept to a minimum. The beef balls are mildly seasoned and satisfying, and pair well with tomato sauce for a traditional slider. Pork is more of a wildcard: denser and richer, with some added heat from the cherry peppers mixed in. Mushroom sauce compliments them. The standout sauce, though, is the pesto, fresh and powerful. While it's cut with spinach, there's no skimping out on its other ingredients.
A sandwich of chocolate chip cookies and espresso ice cream is good for a nostalgic rush: part sugar high, part jitters, part childhood memories. The ice cream is the real deal, full of flavor and mined with chocolate covered espresso beans.
If you're looking to get back to basics without going back to the school cafeteria, look no further.