We had talked about opening a restaurant together ever since we had our very first jobs as delivery boys for the Candle Cafe, a vegan restaurant (yeah, you read that right— vegan) on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. We were 13, best friends, and we had big plans. We wanted to open our own place, a restaurant where our friends could hang out— a place created for us, by us.
After high school we both continued to work in the restaurant business. Daniel found his home in the kitchen, taking a job at the legendary Le Bernardin, and eventually moved out West to work in kitchens in Las Vegas, San Francisco and Los Angeles, while Michael stayed in New York, polishing his skills working in the front of the house at a series of popular bars and restaurants. Eventually, we both ended up in New York again, ready to start our own restaurant.
While we didn’t know what neighborhood we wanted to be in yet, or what type of food we would serve, here’s what we did know: We wanted a place that felt as if it had always been there, but one that also had a modern vibe to it. A place that was warm, welcoming and satisfying as well. A place that was as comforting and eagerly anticipated as a bowl of delicious meatballs. Because for us it was all about the balls.
So why meatballs? We’ve been asked this question a thousand times. It all started with a joke. Michael was working at Frank, a popular East Village Italian restaurant, and Daniel would stop by late at night after work to catch up and hang out. Now, keep in mind that Michael is a marathon runner and generally healthy dude, and his daily late-night meal was the restaurant’s staple rigatoni ragù, minus the rigatoni. What was left was a bowl of meatballs and sauce that he’d eat alongside an order of broccoli, beets, or spinach. Daniel would come in and taunt him, saying things like, “Be a man; eat a bowl of pasta.” Sure enough, the one time Daniel caved and ordered the rigatoni “Mikey C style,” he was hooked.
But we still weren’t ready to have our lives revolve around meatballs. Initially we had a different menu and restaurant concept in mind, and we spent months chasing spaces and locations, only to miss out on each lease. We came closest on a space that had a walk-up window, which we figured we could use for food “to go.” We brainstormed and cased the Lower East Side neighborhood at all hours, figuring out just what we could serve out of the window. What do you serve the hoards of young and hungry late at night? Something hearty, super delicious, yet still healthy. . . Of course, it had been sitting in front of us every night — Mikey C–style meatballs! And then we lost the space.
At first we were crushed, but then we snapped out of it with a big lightbulb moment — we said enough already, let’s do fast food for our generation and open up an actual meatball shop. After all, wasn’t Daniel tired of cooking fancy food at fancy restaurants charging a fortune? Wasn’t our shared mission to reinvent fast food and elevate it to casual dining? Couldn’t a meatball do all that and more? So, in the end we decided there was no reason that meatballs shouldn’t be celebrated with their very own shop.
Making our meatball dream a reality: We pounded the pavement looking for locations, and we hosted a series of Sunday night test suppers on Michael and his wife Donna’s roof in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. That’s where we hammered it all out — where we developed the food, began to build the team, fine-tuned the menu and service, and wooed potential investors.
We knew the Lower East Side was where we had to be; we loved the energy, creative spirit and history of the neighborhood. The design and functionality of the space was as important to us as the food. As we mentioned, we wanted to create a comfortable, casual, been-there-forever feel, but did not want to have it feel like Grandma’s house or self-consciously retro. Wood was one key to creating that warm feel, and we literally built that warmth into the restaurant by finding the wood through a friend who told us about a tenement building that was being gutted right around the corner from the Shop. We rolled up to this 100-year-old building in a big rental truck and sure enough, they were gutting the building and happily gave us access to as many 20-foot floor joists as we could handle. From true New York City history, we now have some damn fine wooden tables and a pretty handsome bar. That’s the thing about this city — you never know what treasure is right around the corner.
Opening day on Feb. 9, 2010: The funny thing about friendship is how hard, how exciting, how tricky, how simple, how argumentative and how supportive each interaction between friends can be. Mix in a business venture as risky and complicated as a restaurant, and you could have a recipe for disaster. That’s why we’re pretty damn proud that we were able to realize our dream and still remain best friends.
When we look across the dining room and see this strong and capable team we built working, and then we see all the diverse guests — tables of fashionable 20-something women and local firemen or sanitation workers who jump off their trucks to order takeout standing next to tables of suited Wall Street execs — all excitedly digging into their meatballs, that’s when we really get the power of meatballs. They’re the great equalizer. They’re the real deal. Down to earth, universally loved, they make people happy.
Try out the meatball recipe below and see for yourself!
Spicy Pork Meatballs
Makes about 2 dozen, 1 1/2-inch meatballs
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 pounds pork shoulder, ground
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon salt
4 jarred hot cherry peppers, minced
1/4 cup hot cherry pepper pickling liquid
4 slices fresh white bread, minced
3 large eggs
Preheat the oven to 450°F. Drizzle the olive oil into a 9-by-13 inch baking dish and use your hand to evenly coat the entire surface. Set aside.
Combine the ground pork, salt, cherry peppers, pickling liquid, bread and eggs in a large mixing bowl and mix by hand until thoroughly incorporated.
Roll the mixture into round, golf ball–size meatballs (about 1 1/2 inches), making sure to pack the meat firmly. Place the balls in the prepared baking dish, being careful to line them up snugly and in even rows vertically and horizontally to form a grid. The meatballs should be touching one another.
Roast for 20 minutes, or until the meatballs are firm and cooked through. A meat thermometer inserted into the center of a meatball should read 165°F.
Allow the meatballs to cool for 5 minutes in the baking dish before serving.
From the book, “The Meatball Shop Cookbook,” by Daniel Holzman and Michael Chernow. Copyright © 2011 by Daniel Holzman and Michael Chernow. Reprinted by arrangement with Ballantine Books, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.