Meatball Sub Sandwich Recipe
Oh hai! We’re back after a long hiatus in which we gave up place-based living and started traveling full-time. It was all well-planned and executed—this is not some desperate, fly-by-night plan—so don’t worry, we’re fine. Actually, we’re better than fine. We’re living our dream and doing what we’ve been working hard planning, saving, and looking forward to for nearly three years: we’re spending our time in new and different cultures and in doing so, experiencing those cultures first hand.
We’re currently in upstate New York, visiting with Jeremy’s parents and getting a feel for what life is like up here. Though Jeremy did live here for a few years as a child, it’s been a while, and it’s always a different experience to live somewhere as an adult. Since we’re staying in a new area, of course we’re bringing you a sandwich that we feel represents the area well. It also happens to be an iconic American sandwich: the meatball sub sandwich.
Without further delay, let’s jump in and explore this simple but delicious sandwich.
The meatball sub is one of the classic American submarine sandwiches. Depending on the region, this sandwich goes my many other names including hoagie, grinder, wedge, hero, and some would even argue: po-boy. While opinions differ on what actually makes each sandwich its own special item, these sandwiches all have a few things in common: they’re served on long rolls, split in half length-wise, and filled with various meats, cheese, vegetables, condiments, and/or pickled items. This description of course covers a huge swath of American sandwiches.
As with so many of the sandwiches we’ve created here, the naming and creation of the sub sandwich is somewhat contested. Some people claim that it was named during World War II in New London, Connecticut (where the Navy’s primary submarine base is located), but others assert that the sub sandwich was alive and well before that time, as early as 1928. In the older origin story, Dominic Conti, an Italian immigrant, is said to have named the sandwich after seeing a submarine (which one exactly is contested, of course) and remarking that the submarine looked a lot like the sandwiches from his store: a long, torpedo shaped bread roll filled with meats, cheese, and vegetables.
How people got around to putting meatballs on this sandwich is something that we’ll need to extrapolate from how we know history has unfolded. Sub sandwiches were popular in the Northeast, especially among working class Italian immigrants who owned and frequented grocery stores that made these delightful subs. At some point, someone realized that meatballs, a staple of Italian cuisine and readily available in these stores already, would work well with some marinara and cheese. There are probably a few dozen Italian delis in the Northeast that claim to have invented the meatball sub, and every one of the probably does it well enough to be right.
In any case, what’s most important is that the meatball sub sandwich is here, and it’s a mainstay of upstate New York cuisine. Italian heritage runs deep here, and the restaurants in these parts serve some of the best classic Italian food in this country. On top of the Italian restaurants, a booming deli culture abounds in the region. Delis are everywhere here. Not everyone goes out to restaurants all the time, especially not working class immigrants, so delis serve the lower tier of eating needs: they provide convenient meals at affordable prices, and sandwiches are the epitome of convenient and affordable meals. To pay homage to the Italian deli culture here, we decided on the meatball sub as our sandwich for this area.
The classic meatball sub consists of a long, slender Italian-style roll topped with meatballs, red sauce, and mozzarella or provolone cheese. We’ve stuck pretty true to this classic version, except that we’ve used a sharp provolone, which we’ll talk about more below. As is our tradition, we will take a closer look at the ingredients that make up this delectable sandwich.
Let’s start with the bread. We chose a short, slender classic Italian roll for our sandwich. The rolls we bought were around six inches in length, with a crispy crust and a soft crumb on the interior. This is perfect for a meatball sub because it soaks up the marinara but retains its integrity and doesn’t fall apart while eating. As we’ve said many times, structural integrity is crucial in the sandwich building and eating process. Nothing is worse than a delicious sandwich falling apart in your hands.
The meatballs, of course, are the star of the show, and we actually made our meatballs from scratch (we’ve included the recipe below!). If you’re inclined, feel free to pick up pre-made meatballs. They’ll be fine, sure, but if you’re looking for the whole experience, take the time to make your own meatballs. The final product will taste even more satisfying since you’ve put time and effort into lovingly crafting each meatball. We decided on a well-seasoned, highly flavored meatball – something that would taste good alone, if we were inclined to eat it that way (spoiler alert: we are and we do).
Next up: red sauce. Since we’ve taken the time to create a full-flavored meatball, we decided on a basic marinara for the sauce. Of course, since we’re in Upstate New York, we chose a local brand: 825 Main, produced by the founders Coppolla’s Restaurant here in Poughkeepsie and sold at local retailers. This sauce is perfect for a meatball sub: it’s slow-cooked and rich without being too fussy or competing with the flavor of the meatballs. It’s one of those sauces where you can see the oil in the sauce, something we look for in a red sauce. Most of you can’t get your hands of 825 Main so use your favorite red sauce. Heck, make it if you want. More power to you! Just keep it whole and simple.
Finally, the cheese. Classically, a meatball sub uses a mild cheese like a sliced provolone or a mozzarella. We did use provolone, but we used a sharp imported Italian Auricchio provolone. It’s considered by many to be the best tasting provolone out there (after tasting: we agree!). It’s produced in large 120-pound wheels, aged for at least six months, and has a nutty, sharp flavor. This isn’t provolone that’s sold sliced. We bought a wedge and shredded onto our sandwich. We were quite pleased with the results.
Now to the fun part – where we bought everything! We purchased our bread from a small bakery in Hopewell Junction, New York called Mario’s Brick Oven Breads. They’re a small bakery that came highly recommended by a family friend. Bread bakeries seem to be in short supply up here, but we found this little gem in a town about 30 minutes from where we’re staying. Not only do they produce the short Italian loaves we needed, they also have freshly made pastas, focaccia, garlic rolls, and mozzarella. The prices were better than fair – 50 cents per roll – and the bread turned out to be worth every penny, just like we were told.
For the meat, we turned to a local farm in Salt Point, New York called Hahn Farm. They’re well-known for their cuts of beef, pork, and lamb, as well as processed items from those animals like sausages and ground meats. The farm has been operating over 200 years, and in addition to the meat they raise, they also produce hay, oats, corn, seasonal summer vegetables, pumpkins/gourds, and Christmas trees. Conveniently, they operate a small market on their property where locals can buy fresh vegetables, fruits, and other locally produced items like jams and pickles. The meat was fantastic and well-priced – we were quite happy with our choice.
We purchased the tomato sauce and our other dry ingredients for the meatballs at Adams Fairacre Farms supermarket. This is our favorite grocery store in Poughkeepsie because they have a local feel along with a great, high quality selection of produce, meats, dairy, dry goods, and fresh deli and bakery items. They’re a gem in the field of grocery stores, and we can’t recommend them highly enough. With only four locations in the Hudson Valley, we’re lucky to have one so close to where we’re staying.
Last but not least, the cheese! For this we ventured into downtown Poughkeepsie to Rossi & Sons deli. They’re a classic, old school Italian deli that serves amazing fresh sandwiches, deli salads, sliced meats and cheeses, and a whole assortment of Italian dried goods and prepared items. We’d have been completely remiss had we not included Rossi in an Italian-themed post based in upstate New York. Plus, it never hurts to have a reason to go down there and have an amazing sandwiches, too. You know, for research.
Next up: let’s put it all together!
A meatball sub is a fairly easy sandwich to produce. If you were to buy pre-made meatballs along with the sauce, you’d hardly have any work cut out for you. However, since that’s no fun, we recommend you take the time to prepare your own meatballs. Most of these preparation notes are centered around meatball production, with a bit about the final sandwich assembly at the end.
First and foremost, we recommend buying the highest quality ground beef and pork that you can find. That’s the number one difference maker in terms of taste. Poor quality meat will not have the flavor and depth you’re looking for in these meatballs, no matter how much seasoning you add. Keep that in mind and don’t cut costs on the meat.
When you look at the recipe below, you’ll see that we’re specific in our measurements for the meatballs. We recommend measuring two level tablespoons and then rolling those together like you see in the video below. Consistency in meatball sizes is important so that they cook evenly in the oven and also so that the sandwich is consistent in size. Being consistent in uniform when producing items like meatballs or cookies is a mark of a diligent cook and one who values consistency over ease. We strive to be that way, and if you’re still reading this blog and blog post a thousand words in, you probably feel that way, too.
Let’s also talk a bit about why the meatballs need to rest in the fridge for an hour before baking. After you’ve rolled out your meatballs, it would be tempting to just throw them in the oven so that you could be eating 20 minutes later. Don’t do it! Since you’ve just worked the ground beef with your fingers to make the mix and then subsequently rolled the mixture into meatballs, the proteins in the meat fibers are highly agitated. This means that right after you roll the meatballs, they’re quite tough and would be even tougher if you baked them right away. Allowing the meatballs to rest for an hour allows the proteins to rest, which results in a more tender and more satisfying meatball. The same is true for burger patties or meatloaf – allow your meat to rest between messing with it and cooking it. You’ll thank us!
Now let’s cover the plating up of this sandwich. While your meatballs are baking, heat up the red sauce so that when the meatballs are done, you can just slide them right into a hot sauce. Of course, grate your cheese too while the meatballs are baking and carefully slice your rolls, taking even greater care to leave one side attached and hinged, but cutting it to where it can be laid flat. You’ll need it this way so you can broil and melt the cheese. Mmmmm, broiled cheese. That’s really all that needs to be noted about the preparation process, since this is a rather easy sandwich to assemble.
The cultural importance of the Italian sub is one that exemplifies the meshing of traditional Italian cooking and 20th century American living. As with many of the sandwiches we’ve profiled here, the meatball sub is a fairly modern invention and a shining example of what can happen when someone rethinks a classic like spaghetti and meatballs. Taking the best part of an old dish, the meatballs, and putting them on a sub roll, helps to take the meatball from a slow, sit-down meal setting to a portable, divine sandwich that can be enjoyed on the go. As modern American life keeps getting busier and busier, and people more and more look for food they can eat on the way or on the job, the meatball sub is a nice reminder that the old school tastes and flavors of a classic, beloved cuisine like Italian can be adapted to keep pace.
Meatball Sub Sandwich
- 1 pound ground pork
- 1 pound ground beef
- 2 large eggs, lightly scrambled
- 1 cup bread crumbs
- 1/2 cup finely grated parmesan cheese
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped basil
- 2 tablespoons thinly sliced green onions
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1 quart-sized jar of basic marinara sauce (your favorite brand)
- (6 to 8 each) 6-inch sub rolls
- 2 cups shredded sharp provolone cheese
Making the Meatballs:
- Add the ingredients in the "Meatballs" section in a mixing bowl. Mix gently, but thoroughly, by hand to combine.
- Use a tablespoon to measure two tablespoons of meatball mixture. Combine them and form a meatball by rolling the meatball mixture in the palm of your hand for about 15 seconds.
- Repeat until all meatballs are rolled – the mixture will yield about 32 meatballs.
- As you work, place the meatballs onto a sheet pan lined with parchment or a Silpat.
- Once done rolling the meatballs, refrigerate them for at least an hour before baking.
- About 20 minutes before you’re ready to bake the meatballs, pre-heat the oven to 450 ºF.
- Bake the meatballs for 15 minutes. While the meatballs are baking, heat the marinara sauce over medium high heat on the stovetop (Be mindful to choose a pot that will fit the meatballs, too).
- Once the meatballs are ready, remove the tray from the oven and add the meatballs to the marinara sauce.
- Switch your oven to the broiler setting – it will be needed for assembling the sandwich.
Assembling the Sandwich:
- Slice each sub roll in half length-wise, taking care to leave a hinge attached on one side.
- Place the sub roll on a baking sheet so that you don’t have to transfer the assembled sandwich later to broil.
- Add a bit of marinara sauce to the bottom half of the sub roll then lay 4 to 5 meatballs on top.
- Top the meatballs with more sauce, if desired, and about a 1/4 of a cup of Provolone cheese.
- Repeat steps 1 to 4 to make as many sandwiches as needed.
- Place the baking sheet under your oven’s broiler to melt the cheese. Watch carefully because this should take no more than a minute.
- Cut sandwiches in half (if desired); serve and enjoy!
Note: "Total Time" includes the hour that the meatballs need to rest before baking.