It's no surprise that the author of a cookbook called Italian, My Way would be opinionated about meatballs; Jonathan Waxman, chef-owner of Barbuto, is certainly that. Having noted the explosion of meaty orbs in recent years, we enlisted Waxman to taste-test some notable balls around town, at Corsino, Frankie's 570 Spuntino, Co., Donatella, the Meatball Shop, and the little owl. Though Waxman doesn't keep meatballs on Barbuto's regular menu ("It's a little bit clich"), he'll occasionally serve them as a special "maybe once a month; it doesn't have to be the same mixture all the time." And as we toured, Waxman proved his meatball connoisseurship: "The marriage of the sauce and the meatball is the most important thing, because it really is a braised dish, almost a stew," he explained. "A meatball sounds simple," he continued, "but then you get into the science of it." To Waxman, that means flavor, moisture, how it's cooked, and yes, size matters, too: "Golf ball is the perfect size." We asked Waxman to rate the various balls on a scale of one to five, and while "we never found our five" (as the toque lamented), we did have a clear winner. See our slideshow to learn which ball prevailed.
Corsino: Heritage brisket meatballs, $15
The flavor's good. It's a little dry, a little on the dense side. I don't think it has that fluffiness. They could be cooked a little better. It's well represented, but the rocket ship hasn't taken off.
TOTAL POINTS: 3
Co.: Meatballs, $10
"Value-wise, they're kind of a 4, but everything else is a 3.5. I don't love the sauce; it's a little soupy. I like the size of these — these are a little bit more Northern Italian; they're really tender. [The garlic] is something I'd detract points on. And you have a bread guy, you get a lot of bread."
TOTAL POINTS: 3.5
The Meatball Shop: Classic beef meatballs in classic tomato sauce, $7
"These are very good. I like the size; they don't feel like they're perfectly round. They're not trying to be fancy. They're not trying to reinvent the wheel. They get kudos for value. The sauce is the least attractive part."
TOTAL POINTS: 4
Donatella: Spicy Meatballs, $13
"Good aroma. This is the kind of size I love the most. These are very good; I like the spice. It has a silkiness I like, but I want the silkiness coupled with more meaty flavor. This seems very machine-made."
TOTAL POINTS: 4
Frankie's 570 Spuntino: Meatballs with pine nuts and raisins, $12
"These are definitely saucy balls ... A little too much raw garlic for me. The sauce is good. The meatballs are tender, they have more of a homemade feel. I think they could be a little smaller, but I know what they're going for."
TOTAL POINTS: 4
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