Meatball Sandwich

meatball sub

I often think how amusing (and sometimes frustrating) how many words there are in the French language that seemingly mean the same thing, but have various subtleties and nuances that make them worlds apart. And thinking about it, I realize that Americans have our own variety of words for seemingly (or exactly) the same thing, many based on where we live. Speaking of which, I had a hankering for a meatball sandwich for — oh, say… the last three years. And due to an abundance of bread crumbs, I thought I’d tackle them at home.

onions fryingmeatball mixture
meatball mixtureonions

Technically, these kinds of sandwiches are called “grinders”, and if you call them something else, then you weren’t raised in Connecticut. You’re probably from one of the 49 other states that doesn’t call them grinders, but refers to them as submarine sandwiches (or subs), torpedo sandwiches, hero sandwiches, poor boys, or hoagies. (Which I now realize, since the shoe is on the other food, are all just to confuse the foreigners.) So let’s just call them meatball sandwiches, because who wants to argue over names where there are hot meatballs bobbing in tomato sauce, ready to be sandwiched between two pieces of crusty bread, then topped with melted cheese to eat?

fresh herbs

In the states, these grinders were often served at Italian-American spaghetti joints, that also often have spaghetti and meatballs on the menu as well. Interestingly, I’ve been told that in Italy they don’t eat meatballs in tomato sauce with pasta. Since I’ve not had the pleasure of seeing every corner of Italy, I can’t say for an absolute fact*. But it’s amusing Italian-Americans are serving them up right and left.

meatballs and tomato sauce

But from what I’ve seen personally with my own two eyes (and accompanying mouth) in Italy meatballs, or polpetti, are served on their own. Basta. In France, meatballs called boulettes and I’ve only seen them in Lebanese and Middle Eastern restaurants, and they’re invariably oversized meatballs that come as part of a plate of various appetizer. I’m not sure who was the first person to put meatballs and tomato sauce on a sandwich, but whoever it was, I thank them for an excellent idea. And they get no argument from me.

tomato sauce

Speaking of tiffs, (which for non-English speakers who are kind enough to follow along here, is another word we use for “argument” or “row” or “fight” or squabble or “dispute” or…) I once got into a little row in a supermarket in Southern California, when I was teaching a class at a cooking school next door and needed anise seeds. The folks where I was teaching kept trying to give me fennel seeds, which they insisted were the same thing. Thankfully America is a melting pot culture and I headed straight to the meat counter, found someone who would know the answer for sure – an Italian-American butcher – and he quickly concurred, “Of course they’re not the same thing!”

tomato saucescooping meatballs
mozzarellameatball sub

I was loosely inspired by the recipe in Tartine Bread, where meatballs sandwiches were sometimes the staff meal at their bakery. I futzed around with the recipe quite a bit and came up with what I’ve been digging into for lunch lately. This recipe makes kind of a lot of meatballs, but you can do as I did and freeze a portion of them in a zip-top bag or another container, and use them whenever the urge strikes for a meatball grinder. Or sub. Or hoagie.

Meatball Sandwich

45 Meatballs – 8 to 12 sandwiches

Inspired by a recipe in Tartine Bread (Chronicle) by Chad Robertson

I used fresh herbs that I gathered from a recent trip to the countryside, which included sage, savory, and thyme. Conversely, you’ll notice that I used dried oregano in the tomato sauce, which I did for two reasons: One if that fresh oregano isn’t available easily here (I’ve only seen it for sale once), and two, dried oregano adds that unmistakable flavor of the meatball sandwiches that I fondly recall back in the states.

For the tomato sauce

  • 2 medium onions, peeled and minced
  • olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
  • 4 cups (1kg) canned crushed or diced tomatoes, along with their juice
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano
  • 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • one bay leaf
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar

For the meatballs

1 large onion, peeled and minced
olive oil
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 pound (450g) ground beef (not too lean)
1 pound (450g) ground pork
3 large eggs
1/2 cup (25g) grated Parmesan, Asiago, or Pecorino cheese
1/2 cup (15g) chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 to 2 tablespoons chopped fresh herbs
2 teaspoons salt
freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 teaspoon whole fennel seeds
2 cups (220g) dried breadcrumbs
3/4 cup (180ml) milk

Additional salt and black pepper, for seasoning the onions

-Mozzarella or provolone cheese

-Crusty Italian or French bread

1. For the tomato sauce, sauté the two minced onions in a good pour of olive oil in a Dutch oven or very large saucepan, seasoning them with a bit of salt and a few generous turns of black pepper, stirring frequently – until the onions start to wilt. Add the garlic and cook until the onions are completely soft and translucent,

2. Add the canned tomatoes, the tomato paste, 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, dried oregano, red pepper flakes, the bay leaf and the sugar, and let simmer for 10 to 12 minutes over low heat, stirring everyone so often. Set aside.

3. To make the meatballs, sauté the onion in some olive oil in a large skillet, seasoning with a bit of salt and black pepper, stirring frequently, until the onions start to wilt. Add the garlic, and cook until the onions are completely soft and translucent. Remove from heat, scrape into a large bowl, and let cool to room temperature.

4. To the bowl, add the ground beef and pork, the eggs, cheese, parsley, herbs, 2 teaspoons salt, a few generous turns of black pepper, the fennel seeds, the breadcrumbs, and the milk. Use your hands to mix everything together thoroughly.

5. Preheat the oven to 350ºF (180ºC) and line two baking sheets with parchment paper, or grease them with olive oil.

6. Form meatballs slightly less than the size of unshelled walnuts, and place them evenly spaced apart on the baking sheets. Bake the meatballs for 15 minutes, then remove from the oven, pluck out the bay leaf, and slide them into the tomato sauce. You can also fry the meatballs in olive oil in batches, in a large skillet until cooked through, although it can be quite messy.

(Note: If you like your meatballs sandwiches more “sloppy”, or extra-saucy, leave out about a dozen of the meatballs. They can be frozen for another use.)

7. Heat the sauce with the meatballs in it until everything is warmed through. If the sauce is very thick, it can be thinned with a bit of warm water.

To make sandwiches, take crusty French or Italian bread, cut it open almost all the way through. Slice some of the meatballs in half and put them between the bread, pressing down with a fork to meld them with the bread. Top with slices of cheese and heat in a hot oven (about 400ºF, 200ºC), or under a broiler, until the cheese melts.

Related Recipes

Party Pan Pizza

Oven-Roasted Tomatoes

French Tomato Tart

Tomato Basil Pizza

*I’m sure that somewhere out there – yes, there is an obscure village high up in some mountain in Italy with a population of 47 people, where folks do eat meatballs in tomato sauce with pasta ; )

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  • Susan Williams
    September 21, 2012 4:37am

    Takes me back to D’Arios in Los Angeles back in my meat eating days.

  • September 21, 2012 7:08am

    there is nothing better than a meatball sandwich. there just isn’t.

  • Alli@peasepudding
    September 21, 2012 11:50am

    I have never thought of meatballs sandwich as very appealing but with that baguette, mozzarella and your ingredients I’m up for trailing them.

  • K
    September 21, 2012 5:05pm

    Actually, I grew up calling this a meatball wedge. Holla, Westchester!

  • September 21, 2012 5:33pm

    I haven’t had a meatball sub in ages – this might have to be the tastiest one I’ve ever seen =)

  • Kelly
    September 22, 2012 5:14am

    To Rachel that wants Buffalo wings: I’m from there and they have never been called that there – they are chicken wings. One of the best places in Bflo will ship them overnight. I’ve had them at the actual location but never shipped. May be worth a shot.

  • Ellen Shatter
    September 22, 2012 5:58am

    In New York, where I grew up, they were heros but here in Rhode Island, where I now live, they are also called grinders.

  • Patti W
    September 22, 2012 6:07pm

    You wrote: “I’m not sure who was the first person to put meatballs and tomato sauce on a sandwich, but whoever it was, I thank them for an excellent idea.”

    I am originally from the northern part of NJ with a large Italian population. I think it was probobably an Italian Mom who thought up the idea.

    Too many years ago, when I was young and dating, my boyfriends were mainly Italian..whose fathers, by that time owned their masononry or construction companies where their sons worked when not in school, Mom’s would pack their lunches which were predominently leftovers from last nights meal. Eating spaghetti and meatballs cold was awkward and not much fun so they put the meatballs and sauce on Italian bread and sent the boys off to work. I know I shared a lot of “subs” with them and being taught how to run the big Catepillars. Just a thought…

    Thanks so much for your thoughtful and fabulous blog. I read it avidly and often feel like I am with you, enjoying the life and tastes of France and Europe that are so different from America and so lovely!

  • TammyW
    September 22, 2012 11:50pm

    I’m from Connecticut too and haven’t heard anyone say “grinder” in a very long time, since relocating to Nova Scotia.
    There is a certain taste to the Italian-American recipes that are hard to find elsewhere. We often make our own sauces for a more authentic flavor, and I haven’t had a decent link of Italian sausage in years.
    Thanks for the memories :)

  • September 23, 2012 4:25am

    What a hoot–this lovely, inspirational, loving, funny response to meatball sandwiches. Who knew?!! I’m so interested in such a great bunch of comments about what I think of as typical Chicago food. I’m totally interested in it and a going to keep thinking about why it engenders such hot prose!

  • Penny Gold
    September 23, 2012 5:53am

    Yay for meatball grinders, for someone who ate a lot of them in southern Connecticut.

  • Patti W
    September 23, 2012 6:05pm

    Alyce…I think it all comes back to “memories”. When you are someplace else and cannot create the tastes (like TammyW wrote) it must be the memories that sustain one. In Texas, its the bread. I am unable to find or even make the tasty, crunchy, porous roll/baguette that is so required for a good sub/grinder/etc. I finally developed a sauce when we finally found good italian sausage about 8 years ago (and thank you, David for the meatball recipe) but no sense on even trying to put this on the soft rolls and bread found in Texas..

  • betty2dogs
    September 23, 2012 7:12pm

    I remember hiking across the cold and windy SUNY Oswego campus with a hot meatball sub all wrapped up and tucked inside my snorkel coat. Kept me warm until I could get back to the dorm to eat it!

  • PinkSkatingGirl
    September 24, 2012 2:21am

    Nice memory, nice recipe. From NJ, that’s not just a meatball sub, it’s a meatball parm sub. As in “alla parmigiana,” ’cause of the mozarella. And, yep, you get a hankiering, whachta gonna do but make one?

  • Alison
    September 25, 2012 8:19am

    Vermonter here; we call them grinders too.

  • September 25, 2012 1:17pm

    That term grinder so takes me back to Stamford Ct…. and that looks better then the ones I had!

  • Erin
    September 25, 2012 7:43pm

    Oh my gosh, it’s so lovely to even see ‘grinder’ being used! I haven’t lived in CT since I was 18, so I’ve been almost entirely trained out of using the word.

    If I hadn’t already been planning on meatball sandwiches for tomorrow night’s dinner, I would be now!

  • RachH
    September 26, 2012 4:43am

    I just made these meatballs tonight for dinner tomorrow (I have yet to make the sauce, but I’ll do that then). Holy COW, David. These are it. These are my meatballs. I’ve spent years searching for standby recipes that I can just have in hand (best birthday cake and frosting, best sandwich bread, best bolognese, best berry cobbler, etc.) but the meatball recipes I’ve tried have failed me every time, until now.

    Thank you, thank you. You’ve just made this transplant to Chicago a little less of an embarrassment in the regional cooking department.

  • corie
    September 26, 2012 5:14am

    Made this for dinner tonight…and it was delicious! Thanks for another great recipe.

  • Kathy Blakney
    September 27, 2012 11:36pm

    We made this meatball sandwich the other night. It was fabulous..We saved a batch of meatballs to have in a pasta dish later. Yummy. It was quite a meal. I enjoyed half for dinner and the other half of my sandwich for lunch the next day. Thanks

  • martina
    September 28, 2012 10:57am

    As Italian I can confirm that spaghetti meatballs is something very American (I never had it)… but my mum (she is from the South of Italy) told me in those days sometimes they ate something similar to spaghetti meatball (the “polpette” were really small, sort of a big hazelnut o small walnut). It wasn’t something for everyday, though, meat consumption in the ’50s Italy was something rare, only for rich people. Martina

  • September 28, 2012 12:05pm

    I call them meatball heroes. And now that I’ve seen one on a baguette de tradition, I think that I need one. Stat. Not the same as sesame-seed Italian bread, but in Paris, I think it’ll do nicely :)

  • September 29, 2012 4:54pm

    I think the idea of having meatballs in a sandwich is very American – I don’t think it ever occurred to anybody here in the UK until Subway came along! And for us Brits, a “sandwich” happens with two slices of bread only – anything else is named for the bread it comes in, so this would be a meatball baguette! Hamburgers come in buns or rolls, not sandwiches.

    Actually, meatballs are not a very UK thing, although Lidl has started selling some lovely ones. We mostly eat mince (ground beef) loose (that’s not quite the word I want, but I’m sure you know what I mean!) in cottage pie or spag bol, or whatever. Or as a hamburger, of course.

  • Nan
    October 1, 2012 4:39pm

    I haven’t commented here in years (still a reader though!) but … meatball sandwiches?! On Cape Cod, they’re called grinders too (and in most of MA, I think). Two of the best meatballs I’ve had: 1.) Josh Ziskin’s Tuscan Meatballs at La Morra and 2.) the meatballs at Joe’s Cafe in Northampton MA. My quest for making at home what I think of as the perfect meatball started last winter — still on this worthy quest and will try yours. Your ‘Parisian meatball sandwich grinder’ looks AMAZING (that bread, that cheese)…

  • Andrew
    October 3, 2012 5:59pm

    Of course they’re “grinders”! I’m from the midwest, in Iowa, and they’re called grinders everywhere around here. And indeed they are delicious.

  • Lyn
    October 3, 2012 9:30pm

    Dying to make these for my kids ever since your post reminded me of meatball sandwich Mondays at my Catholic high school in Delaware–the comfort and regularity of which they will never experience in the French public school system. Except that at the exact date and time I went out to find the meat, every butcher was closed and there was none to be found at the local Monoprix, Franprix, or Dia. Le *sigh*. (And I’m trying so hard not to be disgruntled in my 2nd yr as an expat…) I should know my hours better by now. I’ll make it happen.

  • October 6, 2012 4:50pm

    I made this for lunch today, and I smartly doubled the batch. Fantastic! I was having a hard time finding ground pork in Paris…the butcher was puzzled why I wanted pork tartare….but finally realized that sausage meat is also ground pork, and that worked just fine.

    • October 6, 2012 5:06pm
      David Lebovitz

      It’s hard to find plain ground pork in Paris; it’s often sold pre-seasoned, for stuffing. Some butchers will grind meat, such as lamb, although pork is different. I suppose that would work, although you can find plain ground pork in Chinese markets. If they don’t have it on display, they will grind up palette (pork shoulder) for you.

  • Steve
    October 8, 2012 11:17pm

    The one thing that you just don’t hear of is “poor boys”. These sandwiches, which are VERY MUCH a part of New Orleans cuisine, are called “po boys” (or “po’ boys”)

    I had never heard of or seen po boys with meatballs- you typically get an sandwich that is overstuffed with roast beef or all kinds of Italian deli meats and other stuff. On the other hand, I googled to double check, and found the meatball po boy that Emeril posted, so I am backing off on that.

    On the OTHER, other hand, this is what the New Orleans Times-Picayne (yes, dear readers from elsewhere in the world, this is the leading newspaper in New Orleans, and no, I am not making up that name) has to say about po boys:
    (Dear readers, the Times-Picayune has one of the best food sections of any newspaper published in the United States)

    New Orleanians: any opinions on the proper ingredients of a po boy?

  • October 12, 2012 4:47am

    Oh my, this is a beautiful, beautiful sandwich.