Get Your Super Bowl On: Homemade Meatball Sandwiches with Provolone

Video recipe by Vic Chin

When I first moved to Oakland back in 1994, I discovered and immediately fell in love with a tiny little Italian deli called Genova. This place was the real deal: guys and gals behind the counter who had already been working there for countless years, the best Italian sub sandwiches I’ve ever eaten on the west coast (to this day!), and those fried artichoke balls! They moved to a larger location a few years later, but the food never changed in all the years I frequented the shop. Prosciutto and fresh mozzarella with pesto, pillowy focaccia, fresh pastas and raviolis, and meatball sandwiches. Oh, the meatball sandwiches…always a decadent treat, stuffed full of their tender homemade meatballs and dripping with sauce. Definitely, a sandwich meant to share, and to eat immediately. To my complete devastation, after being open for 90 delicious years, Genova Deli closed in 2016. Along with the legions of fans that Genova fed for so long, I was heartbroken.

Every time I see or think of a meatball sandwich, I always recall Genova’s hefty version. It was the gold standard. Even though it would be impossible to recreate (there was something about getting it there that you can never replace), I can certainly come close.

A good meatball sandwich starts with tender, homemade meatballs that are simmered a good long time in a great marinara sauce. I also add a bit of ricotta to the meatball mixture when I make meatballs, which adds moisture and richness.

Adding ricotta cheese to the meatball mixture adds moisture and richness.
Adding ricotta cheese to the meatball mixture adds moisture and richness. (Wendy Goodfriend)

I also use fresh white bread crumbs in my meatballs to add tenderness and to help hold them together.

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To make fresh bread crumbs, start with a loaf or slices of your favorite white bread or buns. Use something good quality, don’t just grab a squishy loaf of Wonder bread or other highly processed, sugar-laden bread off the supermarket shelf. Trim off the crust if it’s crunchy. In the bowl of a food processor, pulse the bread to crumbs. You can store them in a zippered plastic freezer bag for up to 6 months and just pull them out as you need them. Also, whenever you have bits of stale bread lying around, don’t throw it in the compost, just toss it into the food processor, make some crumbs, and add it to your crumb freezer bag.

Once you make the meatballs, they should simmer for a while in a snappy tomato marinara sauce. Just use your favorite one, whether it’s homemade or a jar from the market. You want to simmer them long enough that the sauce gets that meaty flavor.

Meatballs simmering in tomato sauce.
Meatballs simmering in tomato sauce. (Wendy Goodfriend)

Choose your buns wisely. The ideal bun is a soft, white submarine roll, but honestly, you can use whatever bun you like, but opt for a decent quality one. I like to hollow out the top of the bun so the meatballs sit nicely inside with plenty of sauce. I line the bottom of the bun with slices of provolone so that when you add the meatballs it gets nice and melty. Then a sprinkle of freshly grated Parmesan and some chopped parsley to make it pretty. And there you have it.

If you are cooking for a crowd (these are great for game day!), you can double the meatball recipe and just set out a bunch of rolls. Make these as big or small as you like, I usually can only eat about half a sandwich, but I’m pretty sure my husband would happily devour a whole one.

I kept the meatball recipe separate so that you can use it anytime you want, not just for sandwiches. Top spaghetti with the meatballs and sauce, or slice up the meatballs and top a homemade pizza. Or if you want a healthier version, forgo the bread rolls or pasta and top sautéed chard, kale, or spinach with the meatballs and sauce.

Garnish meatballs with freshly grated Parmesan cheese.
Garnish meatballs with freshly grated Parmesan cheese. (Wendy Goodfriend)

Recipe: Meatball Sandwiches

Makes 5 to 8 sandwiches

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Ingredients:

    Meatballs
  • 1 lb ground beef
  • 1/2 lb ground pork
  • ¼ cup finely chopped yellow onion
  • 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1/2 cup ricotta cheese
  • 1 1/2 cups fresh bread crumbs (see Note above)
  • 1½ tsp kosher salt
  • 1/2 tsp ground fennel
  • 1/2 tsp dried Italian oregano, crumbled
  • Olive oil
  • About 4 cups of your favorite tomato sauce
  • 5 to 8 soft, crusty sweet Italian rolls
  • 5 to 8 oz thinly sliced Provolone cheese
  • Freshly grated Parmesan cheese, for garnish (optional)
  • Finely chopped fresh flat-leaf Italian parsley, for garnish (optional)
    Instructions:
  1. Preheat the oven to 425°F. Oil a large, rimmed baking sheet.
  2. In a large bowl, add the beef, pork, eggs, ricotta, bread crumbs, salt, fennel, and oregano. Mix gently with your hands until the ingredients are combined. Shape into meatballs, each about 1-inch in diameter; you should end up with about 20 meatballs. Transfer the meatballs to the baking sheet.
  3. In a large bowl, add the beef, pork, eggs, ricotta, bread crumbs, salt, fennel, and oregano.
    In a large bowl, add the beef, pork, eggs, ricotta, bread crumbs, salt, fennel, and oregano. (Wendy Goodfriend)
    Mix gently with your hands until the ingredients are combined.
    Mix gently with your hands until the ingredients are combined. (Wendy Goodfriend)
    Shape into meatballs, each about 1-inch in diameter; you should end up with about 20 meatballs. Transfer the meatballs to the baking sheet.
    Shape into meatballs, each about 1-inch in diameter; you should end up with about 20 meatballs. Transfer the meatballs to the baking sheet. (Wendy Goodfriend)
  4. Roast the meatballs in the oven for about 20 minutes, until browned (you can turn once if you like). Add the meatballs to the sauce and simmer gently for about 30 minutes to an hour, until tender and the sauce is infused with the meat.
  5. Roast the meatballs in the oven for about 20 minutes, until browned (you can turn once if you like).
    Roast the meatballs in the oven for about 20 minutes, until browned (you can turn once if you like). (Wendy Goodfriend)
    Add the meatballs to the sauce and simmer gently for about 30 minutes to an hour, until tender and the sauce is infused with the meat.
    Add the meatballs to the sauce and simmer gently for about 30 minutes to an hour, until tender and the sauce is infused with the meat. (Wendy Goodfriend)
  6. To make the sandwiches, split the rolls, and roughly hollow out the top. Line the bottom of each roll with 1 oz Provolone, cutting to fit. Top with 3 or 4 meatballs, along with some of the sauce. Garnish with grated Parmesan and parsley, if you like, then place the top of the roll over the meatballs. Serve at once.
  7. To make the sandwiches, split the rolls, and roughly hollow out the top.
    To make the sandwiches, split the rolls, and roughly hollow out the top. (Wendy Goodfriend)
    Line the bottom of each roll with 1 oz Provolone, cutting to fit.
    Line the bottom of each roll with 1 oz Provolone, cutting to fit. (Wendy Goodfriend)
    Top with 3 or 4 meatballs, along with some of the sauce.
    Top with 3 or 4 meatballs, along with some of the sauce. (Wendy Goodfriend)
    Garnish with grated Parmesan and parsley
    Garnish with grated Parmesan and parsley (Wendy Goodfriend)
Homemade Meatball Sandwiches with Provolone
Homemade Meatball Sandwich with Provolone ready to eat and serve. (Wendy Goodfriend)

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