They’re closely associated with Italians and tomato sauce, yet they’re cross-cultural wonders that bob up in pho, are noshed on by Swedes and get stretched out into Middle Eastern kefta logs. Always inexpensive and versatile enough to be served as snacks, sides or entrees, they’re meatballs, and to watch someone eat one is to see them crave another.
But while all sorts of marvelous meatballs — aka orbs of pure comfort — are regularly consumed with fervor around Columbus, they’re infrequently discussed or written about. Seeking to amend that — and follow the lead of places like NYC’s wildly popular Meatball Shop, which allows soulful spheres to shine like the stars they really are — I bopped around some of our best, most fun and go-to reliable restaurants and found several exalted balls of meat (and meatless globes for herbivores) that will deliciously meet a wide range of dining needs.
Gallo’s House Pasta (half order) with Homemade Meatball, $11
Gallo’s Kitchen & Bar
2820 Nottingham Rd., Upper Arlington
On my first visit to Rome as a kid, a scoffing waiter taught me that spaghetti and meatballs are never eaten together in Italy. I mention this because, arguably, the best plate of spaghetti and meatballs in Columbus might have “pure” Italians reconsidering their resistance to our most beloved Italian-American creation. Gallo’s S&M is made with authentic-tasting, true Italian-style components — al dente pasta, a restrained splatter of bright, carrot-punctuated tomato sauce plus a beautifully pliant and succulent, baseball-sized, parsley-flecked meatball whose can’t-eat-this-fast-enough flavors emanate harmoniously from pork, beef, veal and Italian cheeses.
Spicy Chicken Meatballs, $12
Lavash (recurring special)
2985 N. High St., Clintonville
These might look like the expected blobs in red sauce, but they’re far from it. Whipped up by an elite Middle Eastern outfit, this light yet muscular dish will ignite your palate with spicy and uncommonly delicious flavors. Submerged in a wonderful, herby, oniony and chunky tomato base that’s earthily “veg-ed out” with mushrooms and potatoes are fresh and dense knobs of ground chicken fragrant with the kind of just-stinging chile pop I find addictive. To cool off some — and soak up that zesty sauce — it’s served with warm, puffy house bread, top-notch saffron rice garnished with toasted almond slivers, plus a mini-salad.
Balls on Wheels
Gatto’s meatballs, price varies
2928 N. High St., Clintonville
Homemade meatballs don’t get cheaper and more convenient — or more garlicky! — than the remarkably accessible biggie, moist and tender globes that’ve been hand-rolled in this old-school Clintonville pizza shop since the first Eisenhower administration (for the historically challenged, that would be 1953). Lazybone types (and we know who we are) can have Gatto’s beefy, black-pepper-and-red-chili-flake-kissed balls home-delivered in several forms. Insiders know to order them on pizzas ($12/large, with Gatto’s thin housemade crust and first-rate homemade sauce); they also star in a sub that rises above the competition ($5.50). Plus you can get ’em delivered a la carte ($1.75 apiece) along with Gatto’s killer (hell, chug-able) spaghetti sauce ($5/quart) and then dress your own home-cooked pasta up — but not bother telling any impressed dinner guests about the pesky details.
Malai Kofta, $10
2661 Federated Blvd., Northwest Side
Simply put, the Indian food at inexpensive little Reethika is just better. It’s also spicier. Take, for instance, Reethika’s sit-up-and-grin version of this “meatless meatball” classic. It’s fabricated with shredded carrot and potato that’s balled, lightly floured and fried, then dunked in a creamy and intense burnt sienna-colored curry sauce sweetened by ground cashews and scented with clove, turmeric, cinnamon and so on. The resultant soft and delicate orbs practically collapse upon contact with your mouth, at which point they become flavor grenades that explode with the volatile perfumes of the great subcontinent. Served with excellent basmati rice.
Braised Veal Meatball, $6.75
Menu-described — with a flagrant load of hyperbole — as “the eighth wonder of the world,” the most famous meatball in Columbus is ceremoniously trucked-out in a heavy-duty, lidded cast-iron pot. Frankly, I’m not sure why, because this super-tender delectable is light as a feather. Seriously, you needn’t even chew — just look at it hungrily and the fragile thing will likely fall apart. But man, is it rich, even dairy-rich. This comes from a construction that includes cream plus ricotta and Parmesan cheeses to go with its beef, veal and brioche bread content. Adding to the lushness, the ball’s given a rich tomato-sauced bath.
Lamb Meatballs on the Four Snacks Appetizer, $10.50
229 S. Civic Center Dr., Downtown
(Sung to a famous nursery rhyme) Milestone has some little lamb/little lamb/lamb meatballs. Milestone has some lamb meatballs in a sauce as white as snow. Plopped in a salty, feta-sprinkled, tangy-yet-rich homemade tzatziki sauce that alternately intensifies and mitigates their magnetic “lambiness” are prettily seared, beautifully tender, teeny-tiny Greek-ish meatballs that highlight a terrific appetizer platter. While I quite like the plate’s other components — a potent giardiniera, spiced cashews plus bacon- and gooey gorgonzola-wrapped dates — those little lambies are something special and deserve their own showcase.
Meatball Mini, $3.50
240 S. Fourth St., Downtown
Little Palace, big fun, right? On a semi-glossy, dry-toasted roll, this diminutive delight arrives draped in pleasantly tangy, melted Peppadew cheddar cheese and is blotted with crushed tomato sauce; it’s kickily served with pickles. Like any great slider (the baseball kind!), it deceptively swerves away from your expectations. So sure, it fits on a little bun, but it’s a nearly fist-thick fat boy and a big-league all-star. It’s also seductively fall-apart soft, heavily seasoned, a smidge spicy from black pepper and chili flake, and flaunts an overall “meatloaf” quality that gives it distinction and makes you crave it.
Natalie’s Coal Fired Pizza
5601 N. High St., Worthington
Hand-rolled with Ohio-grown veal, beef and pork, this bulging, semi-firm flavor bomb is generously speckled with chopped garlic and onion plus an abundant handful of oregano-led herbs; it tastes like real grandma stuff. In other words, it’s unapologetically bumpy and rustic, with homey charms detonated by an underlying puddle of dark and chunky, long-cooked red sauce fused with olive oil. To sop up every last crumb and drop — and you’ll want to — a simple piece of bread and a single basil leaf (merge them) complete the nicely sized appetizer/snack.
Sicilian Meatballs, $9
698 N. High St., Short North
A steal of a deal from arguably the best overall fine dining/most authentic Italian restaurant in Columbus, this wild and racy three-little-balls appetizer plate lives up to its name. See, raisins, pine nuts and chili are hallmarks of in-your-face Sicilian seasoning, and that punchy combination accelerates these miniature taste bud missiles. Adding extra firepower is a bold and lumpy tomato sauce. A duo of triangular puffy, fried Anson Mills polenta hunks crispy on the outside and creamy on the inside provide perfect counterpoints. Here, where acidic meets sweet and richness confronts spiciness, you’re afforded a delicious peek into the expansive soul of Sicily.