Meatballs in New London the latest area restaurant to feature pizza and Italian food

Professor-Emeritus L. Colgate Thaddeus of the Department of Interferential Statistics at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore just left me a message. "Rick, I wish I could help you," he said in his warm, slightly thistly voice. "I've talked to several of my colleagues and we've feverishly scrawled all sorts of intimidating formulae on the blackboard — stuff you'd associate with the 'Good Will Hunting'/smart janitor-in-the-classroom scene — and we just can't figure it out. Congratulations! You've just come up with the latest unsolved mathematical problem!"


And all I'd asked was whether Dr. Thaddeus could come up with a theorem that would explain why every human in southeastern Connecticut feels it necessary to open a new pizza/Italian restaurant.

Seriously. Why? Do investors actually drive around the area, taking notes, and say, "Hey, I can only spot 327 pizza joints in a six-square-mile area. Let's open one NOW!"

Well, good luck to you all because I happen to like pizza. But it can't be easy.

The latest of these operations to fall under our radar is Meatballs Ristorante & Pizzeria, on Bank Street in New London near the Waterford line. The standalone building is a familiar restaurant location — having over the years housed a pizza restaurant and, before that, a pizza restaurant. (In all objectivity, a longtime family joint called Harrington's was there and, years and years ago, a Howard Johnson's.)

Meatballs promises "authentic NY pizza" and "old-school homemade Italian cuisine." On an early visit, one of the owners described their restauranting roots on Long Island — from whence, in order to replicate their original dough recipe, they're literally bringing water across on a ferry. The New London water wasn't working to their satisfaction.

I applaud that attention to detail, and in fact the thin crust pizzas at Meatballs are pretty damned good. The crust has a great chew and flavor to it, and the housemade tomato sauce is at once sweet and tangy. I've tried two pies now. One was a custom job where I added chicken and roasted red peppers to the basic cheese pie ($18.20). Very good and a nice melange or flavors. The other was a Hawaiian specialty pie ($21) that, in addition to the requisite ham and pineapple, included a sesame seed crust and — you Meatballers are clever! — toasted coconut. Not sure it's for everyone but I freakin' loved it.

Here's an odd thing: You can only get one size of pizza. It's really large. Or you can order a slice.

Meatballs hasn't changed the basic layout of the restaurant. There's the sunny, up-front section where you can pick up to-go orders or sit at booths or four-top tables. The large dining room is off to one side with a darker ambience and a cocktail bar. This would be the evening-out place to be, and it's comfortable and relaxed with a few big screens if you wan to see sports while you eat or have a few drinks.

Meatballs seems to be a family-based operation. Our servers on two visits might have been, respectively, a son and a daughter. They were kind and eager but definitely not seasoned veterans. There was a little uncertainty to the routine but it was more charming than anything else. Most importantly, the vibe was congenial and I felt comfortable and welcome.

Here are some appetizers and main dishes we tried.

• Mozzarella, Tomato & Basil Salad ($8.95. $10.95) — a variation of the classic Insalata Caprese with excellent fresh mozzarella, tomatoes and basil served on a bed of fresh, crunchy romaine. The basil was minced into very fine ribbons, which meant that with a little tossing, its essential flavor was present right down to the last bite. Also, the side salads were absolutely perfect. 

• Baked Ziti ($14.95) — quite lovely, with perfectly al dente ziti nestled together with ricotta and mozzarella and a deft touch of tangy marinara. The portion was huge.

• Shrimp Fra Diavlo ($18.95) — Plenty of medium-sized shrimp in a dark, slightly sweet red sauce with a pleasant kick and served over spaghetti. The pasta was a bit past al dente, but not overdone. 

• Meat Lasagna ($15.95) — This was not instantly identifiable as "lasagna." In fact, it was an oval mound of pasta and bland meat under a thick quilt of sauce and too much cheese. 

• Deep Dish Chicken Focaccia Sandwich ($9.99) — Now one of my fave sandwiches in the area. This sliced and crisp-breaded breast strips with tart peppers and mozzarella on fresh, olive oil/rosemary bread.

Meatballs is a work-in-progress in an area stiff with competition. I'm confident the quirks will be ironed out.

Meatballs Ristorante & Pizzeria

929 Bank St., New London

(860) 574-9191,

Cuisine: New York style pizza and old-school Italian entrees

Atmosphere: Nice relaxed dining room ideal for relaxed night out or more formal events; casual up-front area with booths

Service: Familial and eager to please; servers seems a bit unsure or perhaps in training

Prices: Moderate for a lot of food

Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tues.-Thurs. and Sun., 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Fri. and Sat.

Handicap access: Accessible

Credit cards: All major


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