All jokes aside, the food at Downtown's 1831 Tavern-a meatball-centric concept initially called Balls-is nothing to laugh at.
When Joe Milano announced late last year that he'd be opening a restaurant called Balls in the former Jury Room space Downtown (22 E. Mound St.), I cringed. If you've ever met the hospitable owner of Villa Milano banquet hall and former owner of Caffe Daniela, you'd perhaps get that the name was intended to be tongue-in-cheek-but instead it became the butt of eighth-grade-style jokes.
The initial name was a nod to the main dish to be featured on the menu: various meatballs, cheese balls, rice balls and veggie balls atop sandwiches and pasta. But the mission was overshadowed by the unfortunate name; and eventually Milano changed it to 1831 Tavern, an ode to the year the building was built. (The 185-year-old space is one of the oldest operating bar and restaurants in the city.)
All jokes aside, the food here is nothing to laugh at. I enjoyed the choose-your-own adventure style of the menu, with a half of it dedicated to building your own meal. You start with four balls in any one style-classic, sausage, chicken or veggie-then choose your sauce, and your pasta or vegetable should you want it. You can also throw balls onto sliders, a sandwich or a salad. Aside from the the build-your-own options, the menu offers a few composed bowls, too.
From that section, I tried The Spicy Italian ($13) with a fiery fresh tomato arrabiata sauce, penne and sauteed green peppers. Though it comes with the sausage meatball, I subbed in the classic made with beef and pork. One bite and it was Christmas Eve at my Italian next door neighbor's growing up where a Crock-Pot of homemade meatballs ensured everyone got to the party on time, lest you'd miss the dense but still moist meatballs, with a heavy hand of thyme and oregano.
My lunch companion ordered a salad (starts at $8, choose your own ingredients, such as tomatoes, mushrooms, artichokes, white beans, dried cranberries and chopped walnuts) with a side of chicken meatballs topped with a choice of sauce (classic, mushroom gravy, alfredo or pesto). The chicken version was herbaceous and just as moist as the classic-and a close second for the table favorite.
If meatballs aren't what you're craving, there are also a few ball-free options a 1831: salads that can be topped with chicken or tuna, and a house-favorite Lasagna ($10) that comes with a salad or vegetable. (The Lasagna was highly recommended by our server, though on our first visit we felt obligated to try the dish for which the bar was named.) Starters include calamari salad, oven-roasted potatoes, Brussels sprouts and arancini. There's also a full bar with specialty cocktails like the Angry Balls-a shot of Fireball (cinnamon whiskey) with Angry Orchard Cider.
The setting at 1831 Tavern hasn't changed too much since it was the Jury Room-it's still got historic, dark wood charm and a long bar to belly up to. I'm looking forward to heading back to work my way through more of the menu.