At Hydraulic Hearth, the new Swan Street restaurant across from Larkin Square, there are bar stools set at a pizza bar, where diners can watch pizzas being baked in the gleaming white brick oven. When Chef Rick Gazzo finds himself explaining the restaurant to customers, he sometimes puts it this way: “We are a pizzeria, but we are not an Italian restaurant. We have meatballs, but they’re not Italian.”
He is talking about the “Swedish meatballs” on Hydraulic Hearth’s brief menu. Proprietor Harry Zemsky decided to call them that despite having gotten the recipe – and initial cooking lessons – from citizens of another country entirely. Sonja Siren is Finnish, and Zemsky is selling tender beef meatballs in cream sauce made from her family’s recipe. Zemsky met her after her husband, Janne Siren, was chosen to be director of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.
“They’re both from Finland,” Zemsky said. “According to them, the only difference between a Swedish meatball and a Finnish meatball is that the Swedish are better marketers.”
Since few Buffalonians have heard of Finnish meatballs, Zemsky reluctantly decided to call them Swedish on the menu, even if it did mean that Swedish marketing triumphed once again.
To make them, Gazzo starts by grinding beef. He bakes leftover pizza dough and makes fresh crumbs, which are mixed into the beef with a little milk, nutmeg and white pepper.
The meat is rolled into 1-ounce balls, 200 to 300 at a time. It’s a two-person job – a scooper and a roller – that takes about two hours. The balls are rolled in more fresh crumbs and pan-fried.
Gazzo makes a cream sauce that starts with a lot of Spanish onions, caramelized and then sluiced with cream and accented with a touch of curry powder, of all things. “I don’t know how curry powder ended up in Swedish meatballs,” said Gazzo, “but it definitely works.”
When an order comes in, meatballs are finished in the onion, and served with lingonberry sauce, a berry preserve that is like cranberry sauce’s more lively cousin, with tiny pearls that pop when you bite.
“People love them, they really do,” Gazzo said of the meatballs, which are $7 for five. Before trying the Siren version, “my experience with them was little brown nuggets, like cardboard, Salisbury steak-y. Nothing like the actual Swedish meatball.”
Or the actual Finnish meatball, either.
Info: Hydraulic Hearth, 716 Swan St. (hydraulichearth.com)