Emerging Concepts | January 2013 | By Daniel P. Smith

Meatball Obsession

New York City

Daniel Mancini’s meatball-in-a-cup concept is a big hit in Manhattan. Meatball Obsession/Evan Sung
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At Daniel Mancini’s walk-up window in Manhattan, the meatball bypasses its traditional role as pasta accessory and takes a shot at full-fledged stardom.

Since opening Meatball Obsession last April, Mancini’s 225-square-foot shop has dazzled thousands with artisan-made meatballs served in a cup (yes, a cup).

Based on the original family recipe from Mancini’s grandma Anna, the 2.5-ounce meatballs are beef, pork, or turkey and are served with 3 ounces of homemade Italian plum tomato sauce. Meatballs can then be topped with crispy pasta, Italian herbs, Mozzarella cheese pearls, or grated Romano or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

Mancini, who also runs the Mama Mancini’s retail line of Italian-inspired favorites, discusses the story behind his shop, an outlet The Wall Street Journal labeled a “Meatball Empire.”

What inspired the creation of Meatball Obsession?

I grew up in Brooklyn with my Italian-born grandmother, and she’d always serve me meatballs in a coffee cup. As a teen, I learned her recipes and always had in the back of my mind that a restaurant using her recipes would be a cool idea.

As I talked with friends and colleagues about opening this meatballs-in-a-cup restaurant, one asked me if I had lost my mind. For me, though, the meatball is the forgotten comfort food. I knew it would work.

Why did you decide on a walk-up window rather than a dining room?

I wanted our flagship store to be in New York City. As we started hunting for space in Manhattan, we knew we wanted a small space to prove the concept … and [our architect] Richard Lewis suggested it would work as a walk-up window. We went to some existing walk-up food windows in the city and determined that format was not only cost effective, but complemented our menu since the meatballs are served in a portable way.

What challenges have you faced?

The biggest challenge is changing the habits of consumers, who are used to eating meatballs in a sandwich or next to pasta. I believed that if we could get people to understand the cup, then we’d have a winning business. Fortunately, people have loved enjoying these homemade meatballs in such a simplified way.

What’s next?

There’s been an overwhelming amount of interest about franchising or expanding the concept. I don’t know necessarily how we’ll do it, but do know we want a group of company-owned stores. The idea would be to get a few going, work out the kinks, and assess how this plays in different markets. Our long-term vision is to be in airports, malls, and other nontraditional venues.