Meatballs restaurant in Chinatown does Italian family-style food — fast

The city’s new self-described “purveyor of rounded meats” does not disappoint.

Located in Chinatown at 624 E St. NW, the eatery is a 15-minute stroll from the Capitol and is renowned chef Michel Richard’s third D.C. establishment. But those looking for haute cuisine dishes like silver hake with a ginger emulsion and trofié-lobster gratin should look elsewhere. That can be had for a handsome price at Richard’s award-winning Georgetown restaurant Citronelle.

Meatballs is his foray into casual dining. Customers proceed down a serving line to form a customized meatball creation. Diners choose a type of meatball (classic, chicken, lamb, crab or vegetarian lentil), what to put them in or on (in a grinder, for instance, or over pasta) and with what sauce and what toppings.

The staff is used to newcomers puzzling over the procedure and nudges them toward adding to their dish the many novel toppings like hot peppers or Fritos. 

Sauces include marinara, alfredo, mushroom, red pepper and tandoori.

The classic meatballs are rich and hefty, certain not to leave stomachs growling after lunch. Serving them with bucatani pasta, which is like thick spaghetti, forms a hot, homey bowl that can be layered with slabs of fresh mozzarella cheese and given an extra punch with hot peppers.

In a grinder, one gets straight to the chicken meatballs in every bite, with the melted cheese and pepper add-ons topping it off. While the main course is substantial on its own, intriguing sides are also available, such as warm spinach mixed with garlic and tater-tot-like “spuddies.”

Bring a group of about six to eight on Sunday nights and feel like an Italian family with the Italian Sunday Night Dinner. It features Richard’s signature stockpot filled with diners’ choice of meatballs, sauce and toppings alongside two loaves of bread, two pounds of pasta and a salad.

The establishment is already competing with chains for customers. A steady stream of suit-garbed men and women filed in at lunchtime on a weekday, but the line moved quickly. One can eliminate even a short wait by going after work, when there is almost no one there.

There are no frills to the dining experience, and the restaurant has a simple, pleasant interior. But a nice touch is the staff member who rushes over to clear plates whenever someone gets up to leave.

A dish, side and drink run about $15, slightly more expensive than a typical sandwich-chain lunch option. For the extra money, though, one gets a break from lunchtime monotony with one-of-a-kind offerings of quick yet homey Italian meals.