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!"

Hmm.

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, www.meatballsnl.com

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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