Get ready because this might be the best meatball sandwich ever. At least the best my family’s ever had, for reasons I’m about to share. Plus the best because the first time I made it, people were actually fighting for the last bite.
A couple of factors are critical for a meatball sandwich to be called The Best. First, you need to use good quality sausage meat. Besides searching out the freshest sausage, made locally, I found that using more than one variety was key. In this recipe I made half of the meatballs out of hot Italian sausage and half out of Bratwurst. This mix made the flavors that much more complex and successful. Second (and duh), the sauce needs to be incredible and this sauce is just that. These simple ingredients remind me of my favorite Italian sauce recipe by legendary Marcella Hazan. The sauce is only tomatoes, onions and sliced fennel plus a little garlic. It’s perfect with the meatballs in this sandwich. Perfect.
When you combine the ultimate meatballs and tomato sauce on a perfect crusty piece of bread with a fresh basil paste and melted mozzarella cheese? I don’t know what else you want besides maybe a knife and fork so you don’t miss a single bite. Let’s breeze through the recipe highlights:
After the meatballs have been browned just enough to flavor the pot, they get set aside. Then fragrant slices of onion, fennel and fresh garlic are sautéed (don’t worry, the fennel will not overpower at all). Once everything just starts to caramelize, add tomatoes, crushing them as you go; simmer a bit and then add the meatballs back in to finish cooking through.
While you get the basil paste ready and brown your bread under the broiler, the meatballs will continue to cook until the sauce has reduced by half. When finished, this yummy pot of meatballs and tomatoes could be enjoyed over pasta or just like they are, with some toothpicks… keep that in mind for another day. But let’s finish making The Best Meatball Sandwich:
If using a loaf of French bread, which I highly recommend if you’re feeding a crowd, hollow out the top as I’ve shown you. For the basil paste, process basil, garlic and olive oil in the food processor and then brush about half the basil mixture into the opening of the bread. If using hoagie buns, make sure the buns are sliced ALMOST through, and brush the basil on the cut side. The bread gets a few quick minutes under the broiler to toast up and deepen the basil and garlic on the bread. After that, spoon the meatballs and sauce onto the bread, layer mozzarella cheese and broil again. Serve with the rest of the basil paste spooned over the top.
Not only is this a pretty presentation, it’s so hearty and flavorful… looking here I don’t think you need any more convincing.
But if you’re still not sure, let me share this with you- After I’d experimented with the recipe and finally had it ‘right’, I took half of it over to a girlfriend’s house so I could get feedback. It was late at night and I figured she might not be interested since it was so far past dinnertime, etc…. Well I was wrong and she and her daughter devoured the sandwich (though daintily) and were fighting over the last piece when I left. So maybe make two so there’s plenty to share. And bonus here- this sandwich can be completely made ahead, wrapped in foil, and then reheated with excellent success, which is what I did before serving it to my boys for dinner and when I delivered it for the meatball-sub-fight at my friend’s house. I think I’ve said enough. 🙂
- 1½ lb. hot and/or sweet Italian sausage, casings removed (a combo of bratwurst and hot sausage is delicious)
- 8 tablespoons olive oil, divided
- 1 fennel bulb, core removed, sliced thin
- 1 large onion, half chopped and half sliced thin
- 10-12 garlic cloves, thinly sliced, divided
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- 1 28-oz. can whole peeled tomatoes
- 1 cup (packed) fresh basil leaves
- Loaf of French bread, with large whole cut along length of top, or 4 soft hoagie rolls, split lengthwise but not cut all the way through
- 4 oz. fresh mozzarella, sliced
- If using a combination of different sausages (Hot, sweet, Italian, Brats, etc), do NOT combine them into one mix for the meatballs. It adds to the great flavor for the meatballs to be different. Using wet hands, lightly roll sausage into 12 golf ball-size balls (about 2 oz. each).
- Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large Dutch oven or other heavy pot over medium heat. Cook meatballs, turning occasionally, until just browned all over on outside, 6-8 minutes. Transfer to a plate.
- In same pot (do not clean out the pan) add 2 more tablespoons oil, add fennel, onion and HALF of the garlic, season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring often, until onion is translucent and golden brown around edges, 8-10 minutes.
- Add the tomatoes, crushing them with your hands as you go, and bring to a simmer. Season with more salt and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until sauce just begins to thicken, about 5 minutes.
- Return meatballs to pot, bring to a simmer, and cook, stirring occasionally, until sauce is reduced by half and meatballs are coated and cooked through, 15-20 minutes.
- Meanwhile, heat broiler. Process fresh basil, remaining garlic, and remaining 4 tablespoons oil in a food processor to a smooth paste; season with salt and pepper. If making the sub out of a large French loaf, cut a "boat" out of the top of the loaf, being careful not to cut through the bottom. Hollow out the inside of the cut at least half way down. Smear half of the basil paste into the opening of the loaf of bread. If using hoagie buns, smear over cut side of rolls. Place on a rimmed baking sheet. Broil rolls or loaf just until golden brown, about 2 minutes.
- Place meatballs inside hollow of loaf or inside rolls, then top with sauce and mozzarella. Roil until mozzarella is melted and bubbling, about 5 minutes (watch carefully). Spoon remaining basil mixture over sandwiches. For French loaf, cut into individual slices, about 2" thick just before serving.
Recipe adapted from Bon appetit magazine, February 2016.