Let’s face it—meatballs are one of those foods that everyone claims to cook better. Chefs, specialty restaurants, and grandmothers (particularly those you call nonna) all have their own “famous” interpretation of the classic meat-based dish. For such small morsels, there’s a lot of competition and room for experimentation. But where do you go for standout meatballs to celebrate National Meatball Day on March 9? Whether you’re looking for a traditional take or something with a little more pizzazz, these shops are worth traveling for.
1. THE MEATBALL SHOP // NEW YORK CITY
Meatballs aren’t specific to one culture or region; they’re popular in Sweden, Turkey, Italy, and other countries as standalone meals or ingredients in soup. There’s no one way to make or eat a meatball, which is likely where The Meatball Shop got its inspiration to serve up these tiny, savory rounds any way you please. With meatballs as its main base, the New York-based shops feature pick-your-own sauces and toppings along with some specialty creations, such as Thanksgiving meatballs made from turkey with gravy and cranberry sauce. So, why is such a simple food so successful? “I compare meatballs to the New York Yankees. They’re classic and they always win,” says co-owner Michael Chernow. (“Unless the Red Sox win,” adds co-owner Daniel Holzman.)
2. IKEA // NATIONWIDE
Purists may scoff at these meaty rounds, but you can’t deny that IKEA has a strong hold on the meatball market. The home goods retailer is as well known for its bookcases as it is its Swedish meatballs, which are served with a side of lingonberry jam, cranberry’s less-tart cousin. In 2015, IKEA stepped up its meatball game by adding specialty options like chicken balls and veggie balls, which come with the added bonus of a lower carbon footprint. You can find IKEA meatballs at locations throughout the U.S., or, if you don’t have the patience to navigate the behemoth store on a crowded Saturday, you can always buy IKEA’s frozen meatballs to nibble at home.
3. MAMA'S ON THE HILL // ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI
The Hill—a St. Louis neighborhood featuring some of the city’s best Italian food—is home to some stiff competition when it comes to meatballs. There are plenty of choices, but for a jumbo meatball, Mama’s on the Hill (formerly Mama Campisi’s) serves up two-pound meatballs with the potential for a free meal if you can finish the first dish. Called Mama's Pasta Challenge, this gargantuan meatball sits 13 inches tall and is nested in 4.5 pounds of spaghetti and marinara. But this St. Louis establishment isn’t solely known for its giant meatballs—it’s also the supposed origin of toasted ravioli. Mama’s legend has it that one of its early chefs dropped raw ravioli in hot oil instead of hot water by mistake, unwittingly concocting one of St. Louis’s famed appetizers.
4. PATSY'S ITALIAN RESTAURANT // NEW YORK CITY
The Scognamillo family has been serving up meatballs and other Italian specialties just south of Central Park since 1944. The eatery is known for serving celebrities like Al Pacino and Oprah Winfrey, although it was Frank Sinatra’s satisfied endorsement that helped boost Patsy’s popularity in its early days (his favorite dishes were the arugula salad, littleneck clams posillipo, and veal Milanese). As for Patsy’s plates, its veal meatballs and spaghetti are the signature item; the dish has been made from the same recipe for three generations of Patsy’s family chefs. If you’re not in New York City, you can sample these famous meatballs at home with Patsy’s official recipe for mini meatballs.
5. LAVO // LAS VEGAS
Even the most upscale eateries find it hard to resist the allure of a well-made meatball. At LAVO, a chic Italian restaurant at the Venetian, meatballs are made with freshly ground wagyu beef, Italian sausage, and veal and served with either sausage ragu or whipped ricotta cheese—each one weighing a full pound. If you choose to replicate your own softball-sized meatball, LAVO chefs suggest minimal mixing to preserve tenderness and keeping an eye on cook time to avoid a dry meatball.
6. AL JOHNSON'S SWEDISH RESTAURANT AND BUTIK // SISTER BAY, WISCONSIN
While IKEA can provide a taste of the Swedish motherland, Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant and Butik offers an immersive experience complete with traditional dress, Swedish meatballs … and goats that roam the restaurant’s sod roof. Al Johnson opened his own restaurant in 1949, but when he met his Swedish wife, Ingert, a decade later, they redesigned the eatery to give customers a full Scandanavian experience. Then, in 1973, a friend of the Johnsons put a billy goat named Oscar on the roof as a joke. Since then, herds of goats have graced the restaurant’s top, just like the Scandinavian countryside, May through October.
7. RAO'S // NEW YORK CITY
Many chefs will keep the recipe to their legendary recipes a secret, but not Rao’s. The tiny, East Harlem restaurant proudly displays its meatball recipe online, but that may have something to do with how impossible it is to get a reservation. Rao’s first opened in 1896 as saloon, but by the 1970s, it had transformed itself into the most exclusive 10 tables in town. As a way to keep customers happy, Rao’s began a table reservation system that essentially granted permanent reservations to a select few, who share their seats based on the date. With this system, Rao’s tables are booked year-round, and some loyal patrons have passed their tables down to children and grandchildren.
8. LOPRIORE BROS. PASTA BAR // SEATTLE
Pike Place Market is known for its fresh fruit, veggie, and seafood vendors, but the place to stop for west coast meatballs is at LoPriore Bros. Pasta Bar, which has served up Sicilian specialties to Seattleites for more than 30 years. Tucked away in a tiny kitchen, the restaurant dishes out savory meatball sandwiches as well as meatballs on the traditional bed of spaghetti. In a region where fresh seafood reigns supreme, a solid meatball sandwich can feel like a real hidden gem.
9. CARMINE'S // NEW YORK CITY
Launched in 1990, Carmine’s is the much younger sibling to other famed Italian joints in New York, but the popularity of its meatballs makes up for its relative youth. Chefs usually prepare around 500 palm-sized meatballs per day at each of the restaurant's locations, but for the restaurant’s 25th anniversary in 2015, meatballs were likely cooked around the clock since Carmine’s plated them up for 25 cents a pop. You can mix up the veal and beef balls at home though, using the restaurant's own recipe.
BONUS: THE FERRARA FAMILY MEATBALL MATCH // OMAHA, NEBRASKA
Gorat's, a Midwestern steakhouse, is known for its own fine fare (and love from patron Warren Buffett), but in 2015 it hosted an all-out meatball-making competition. The Ferrara Family Meatball Match was a showdown between 10 Italian-American siblings over who could make the best meatballs. Ranging from traditional family recipes to personal creations, each sibling swore by their own meatball making prowess, and in March, Gorat's invited meatball lovers from the public to sample 1100 meatballs made by the family. Ten of the 11 Ferrara siblings participated, and Rosie Matz (sibling No. 8) won the meatball challenge with her seasoned-bread-crumb-filled fried balls, though youngest brother Joe Ferrara (who came in second) would like a rematch. We're guessing the public would support making this meatball match an annual event.