The Great Meatball Migration

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Photo: Hannah Whitaker/New York Magazine

Chef groupies who track such things might have noticed a recent eastward migration we’ll call the A16 diaspora. Within the span of five months, three new restaurants will have opened in downtown Manhattan, each with a chef who was at one time connected to San Francisco’s popular Southern Italian restaurant and pizzeria, A16. First, founding chef-partner Christophe Hille opened Northern Spy Food Co. in November (as partner, not chef). Next month — March 9, to be precise — Hille’s onetime sous-chef and eventual successor, Nate Appleman, opens Pulino’s Bar and Pizzeria. And this week, as reported in the magazine, Daniel Holzman, who briefly joined Appleman as co-executive chef at SPQR, A16’s Roman spinoff, unveils the Meatball Shop on the Lower East Side.

And here’s where things really get interesting: At his specialized new spot, Holzman is making his beef meatballs with prosciutto and ricotta, then roasting them in the oven and braising them in sauce — a recipe and technique reminiscent of the one practiced at A16, where Meatball Mondays became a local phenomenon. That renowned meatball recipe is published in the A16: Food + Wine cookbook, co-written by Appleman and his then-partner, Shelley Lindgren, and was developed, according to Appleman, as a way to use meat scraps from in-house butchering. Everything was passed through the grinder — including prosciutto rinds, says Hille, for their “wonderful rich, buttery flavor.” More recently, as private chef for Annie Leibovitz and her family, Hille expanded upon his meatball mastery, devising a kid-friendly recipe using ground turkey and leftover hot-dog buns.

It remains to be seen whether Appleman will serve the dish at Pulino’s — “I doubt it,” he tells us — but Northern Spy Food Co. has been running its version as a special. Chef Nathan Foot uses pork leg from Fleisher’s, and seasons it with spices like star anise, cloves, allspice, fennel seed, and coriander, for an oven-roasted, sauce-braised ball that Hille deems “maybe better than the A16 meatball.” Foot doesn’t mind the comparison. “People know us partly through Christophe,” he says. “How could I not tap into what he learned or did at A16?” For his part, Hille relishes the competition. “It’s battle meatball on the Lower East Side,” he says. “I don’t want it to seem like we’re entering the fray. At the same time, I’m not going to cede any ground.”