"We're not trying to compete with Grandma," said owner Bob Potter. "…But we'll give her a run for her money."
New Haven Meatball House debuted in August, the latest opening for the Elm City restaurateur known for Mexican tequila bar c.o. jones and Prime 16, a burger bar and tap house. Following a trend of niche eateries specializing in particular comfort foods, the Chapel Street spot zeroes in on meatballs: "four types of balls, four sauces and three ways to eat them."
The simple, streamlined menu is just that: beef, pork, chicken and vegetable meatballs. Diners choose a sauce (traditional tomato, creamy Parmesan, spinach pesto, mushroom) and then a presentation.
You can enjoy your meatballs in a bowl with sauce and bread ($7), or served atop a starch (add $3): black garlic mashed potatoes, spaghetti, rigatoni or macaroni and cheese. Brioche sliders are $3 apiece, one ball atop a mini roll with a choice of sauce. Larger brioche sandwiches ($9), with two balls per sandwich, are served with your choice of sauce, cheese (mozzarella, smoked mozzarella, provolone) and a side salad.
The golf-ball sized meatballs are made fresh from scratch daily, Potter said. Beef with tomato sauce is the best-selling combination, but the vegetable balls – an intricate recipe with at least 13 ingredients, including lentils, onions, mushrooms and garbanzo beans – are the owner's favorite. The pork meatballs get a "nice little zip" from hot cherry peppers, added general manager Jeff Horton.
The menu regularly offers a weekly special meatball, with past highlights including a Bolognese recipe (beef and mortadella) and a popular buffalo chicken ball with bleu cheese and hot sauce. Other specials include pretzels, pizzas and market salads.
Rounding out the items: fresh-made sides (Tuscan kale, roasted sweet potatoes) and salads with housemade dressings. All are available to add on for $4.
Potter was inspired by similar concepts in New York City, he said. (The Meatball Shop, with three locations in Manhattan and Brooklyn, is the most visible and successful.) His New Haven location works well because of the city's culinary-forward reputation and the restaurant's proximity to Yale University, he added.
"I don't think there are many places in Connecticut where this would work," he said." You couldn't open this in a suburban area. It's really geared toward the college kids, so you have to be in a university setting where there's good foot traffic."
As it was, Potter said some early customers assumed the name "Meatball House" denoted an everyday "grinder place." "People were thinking it was an Italian place that does subs," he said. "[But they] walk in the door and they're surprised; it's a full service restaurant with a full bar."
New Haven Meatball House serves an assortment of boutique liquors, a wine list with several Italian varietals and a newly expanded lineup of draft beers. Seeing the success he'd had with craft beer at Prime 16, Potter recently decided to double his taps from six offerings to 12.
For a wave of childhood nostalgia, try the ice cream cookie sandwiches for dessert ($4), with your choice of cookie and Ashley's Ice Cream flavor. But the "spiked floats" are adults-only, like the "Double Barrel" with Elijah Craig bourbon, root beer and vanilla ice cream; and the "Dark and Frozen" with vanilla ice cream, Gosling's Black Seal rum and Fever-Tree ginger beer.
Happy hour runs Monday through Friday from 5 to 7 p.m., and Saturdays from 2 to 5 p.m. Specials include half-priced draft beer, pizzas and select wines. The restaurant also features free wine tastings Monday and free beer tastings Tuesday, each held from 5 to 6 p.m.
In its first few months, the restaurant has seen a varied crowd of students, university faculty and employees, neighborhood residents and intrigued diners from around the state, Potter said.
"It's just different. The curiosity factor [helps]…it's just a fun concept."
>>New Haven Meatball House is at 1180 Chapel St. in New Haven. It's open Monday through Thursday from 5 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. and Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Information: 203-772-3360 and nhmeatballhouse.com.
>>G-Zen, 2 E. Main St., Branford, launches its "Buddha Brunch @ Soulful Saturdays" on Dec. 1. The restaurant will serve an all-vegan brunch and lunch menu on Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
The meatless choices include organic French toast with Vermont maple syrup and tempeh "bacon"; a breakfast burrito with scrambled tofu, salsa and Daiya cheese; a scrambled tofu platter with vegan "hollandaise"; an organic acai berry bowl with raw granola. Lunch will feature the restaurant's Zen veggie burger, vegan grilled cheese and a black bean burrito, along with soups and fresh salads. Information: 203-208-0443 and g-zen.com.