› Where: Red Sauce, 14 W. Kent St.
› Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 pm. Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday, closed Monday
› Prices: $5-$26
› Alcohol: Full bar service
› For more information: 423-805-4733
When I heard that a new North Shore restaurant had opened that pinned its success on the humble meatball, I was intrigued. But when I read that Danny and Brittany Alcala were owners — the driving force behind Embargo 62 and Ooltewah's Ceniza — I knew I had to check it out.
Red Sauce is one block off North Market in a space that was a bank, then Sip coffeehouse. It's an Italian-American restaurant based on the concept of a Brooklyn-style neighborhood restaurant.
When guests walk through the front door, they'll find themselves in the bar. The dining area is an open-air patio that has been enclosed with clear plastic sheeting for the winter. It's a small space with only 13 tables that seat anywhere from two to eight people. The tables are covered in red-checked plastic cloths with metal-and-wicker-look chairs giving it a cafe feel.
Strands of Edison bulbs zig-zag across the ceiling. Framed photos of the Rat Pack decorate walls, and Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin croon from the speakers.
My friend and I visited at lunch, which has a downsized menu from what's offered at dinner. Lunch offers three salad choices ($9-$11), eight appetizers ($9-$14), meatball dishes ($13-$15) in beef, pork, chicken or veggie, and eight variations on the hero sandwich ($9-$12). There is also a soup choice ($5 or $7) and two desserts: cannoli ($6) or cheesecake ($7).
At dinner, the menu includes all of the above plus five sides ($5-$6) and eight entrees ($12-$17), which include veggie or meat lasagna, fried eggplant and pasta dishes.
The menu made me smile not just for its mouthwatering descriptions of dishes, but its humor: Guido's Lasagna, Goomba's Eggplant, Gambino's Veggie Sub, The Big Tuna and Gavoon's Hot Ham and Cheese sub.
Having already heard the praises of the fried cheese balls, I ordered that Don't Go Breaking My Cheese Balls appetizer ($9).
We were served four, golf-ball-size fried cheese balls made of a blend of smoked provolone, ricotta and mascarpone inside a crispy, fried shell. The cheese isn't a silky blend, but grated for a textured taste that isn't masked by any grease in the frying. Garnished with red sauce and chopped basil, they lived up to their reputation.
My friend chose that day's special: Parmesan-topped, pan-seared trout served on a swirl of linguine, along with a side Caesar salad. She described the big serving as "crispy, not overly flavorful, but a good, very different topping for a very generous plate of linguine."
Drawn by its name, I went with the Bada Bing, Bada Boom appetizer.
I was served a softball-size meatball garnished with red sauce on a plate with a house salad. Amazed at the density of that meatball, I immediately cut through the center to check the cook on the meat. No pink showing. Instead, the same three-cheese blend as used in the cheese balls oozed out, but no grease.
Here's the prep near as I can tell: Pat together seasoned ground beef into half the meatball, insert a dollop of the three-cheese mixture, pat on enough meat to cap the ball and build its size to about a 4-inch diameter. Put a light sear on it, then bake until done, garnish with red sauce and — Bada Bing, Bada Boom! — you've got an appetizer that's more than enough for lunch. In fact, I took half home.
The side salad wasn't that impressive: two fistfuls of arugula/endive mix with two cherry tomatoes and two slices of cucumber and a few Parmesan shavings. What did impress me was the dressing — I couldn't get enough of it.
When asked, our waiter said it was an olive oil/lemon/thyme mixture made in-house. It was a bright burst of flavor that should be bottled and sold to customers. The waiter revealed that Red Sauce makes all its own dressings as well as the red sauce, and the latter is vegan and gluten-free.
Having read Yelp reviews before visiting, I was concerned over the amount of grumpy complaints posted about service — stories of being forgotten at the table, and waits of up to two hours to be seated. Having been there, I can see how 13 tables on a busy night would cause a backup, because all food is prepared as it is ordered. I strongly recommend making reservations for dinner.
Our server, who happened to be the beverage director filling in for an ill waiter, couldn't have been nicer or more accommodating. He answered all our rookie questions with a smile and even cracked a few jokes. He repeatedly came back to check on us and made our first visit fun. We left already talking about what we wanted on a return visit.
Chattanooga already has several Italian-American restaurants, but Red Sauce is a different, fun take on the style. It is a more casual venue, but not any less expensive than the popular, established restaurants.
I would recommend the meatballs to any first-timer; but when I go back it will be to try their seafood, in particular the Linguini con Gamba shrimp dish.
Contact Susan Pierce at email@example.com or 423-757-6284.