The Ultimate Fork & Knife Meatball Sub

Happy weekend, my food lovin’ friends! I realize that summer is quickly approaching, and many of us are still trying to shake those extra L-B’s we gained while warming up to good, old-fashioned comfort food on wintry nights. And although those frigid temps have thankfully transitioned into warmer spring days, I’m confident there’s still enough chill in the air to warrant sinking my teeth into an enticing meatball sandwich. At least once more before those dog days of summer arrive …

The Ultimate Fork & Knife Meatball Sub

I’m a strong believer that any worthy meatball requires the taste combination of several different meats. Unless you’re a fan of bland, you’ll never achieve ultimate flavor by simply using turkey or ground beef. (The same rule applies to the meatball’s heftier and often-jilted cousin, meatloaf.) Blend equal amounts of ground beef, veal (or pork) and Italian sausage, and your meatballs morph from forgettable to remarkable. Toss in a little diced pancetta and you’re on the glory road to meatball eminence!

The Ultimate Meatball Recipe

Photo courtesy of Philip Friedman/Studio D via Esquire Magazine

After much trial and error in my quest for meatball perfection, I’m convinced I’ve finally reached the pinnacle. My version is an adaptation of “The Ultimate Meatball Recipe” shared by chef Shane Solomon of Philadelphia’s Pizzeria Stella. It generates 40-42 large meatballs (approx. the size of a large garlic bulb), and I consider it a double batch. This happily means that half of the meatballs will go into the freezer for another meal … Spaghetti & Meatballs? More Meatball subs? Ooooh, the endless possibilities! Keep in mind – this recipe is based on a plan that half of the meatball mixture will be stored in the freezer for later use. Each half will yield about 6 sub sandwiches.

Broil until cheese is melted and brown

Sidebar: I’m not in the habit of topping my meatball sandwiches with additional bread. Frankly, it’s unnecessary and “over the top”. (Literally – get it?! Haha!) So then, given that my ultimate meatball sub is served open-faced and oozing with delicious marinara and melted cheese, this plate of heaven would be nearly impossible to consume without a fork and knife, hence the name.

The Ultimate Fork & Knife Meatball Sub

Time: 45 minutes to prepare + 45-50 minutes to bake

  • 1 lb. ground beef
  • 1 lb. ground veal
  • 1 lb. ground Italian sausage (I like to use Sweet Italian Sausage)
  • 4 ounces diced pancetta
  • 1 tablespoon each of dried oregano, thyme, chopped rosemary, and basil
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons dried fennel seed
  • 1-2 teaspoons good olive oil
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped flat leaf parsley
  • 2 eggs, whisked
  • 1 cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, divided
  • 1 small white or yellow onion, finely diced (about 1 cup)
  • 1 bulb of roasted garlic (click here for an easy recipe from
  • 3/4 cup plain panko breadcrumbs
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 2 teaspoons ground black pepper
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 32 ounces of your favorite marinara sauce (I prefer Rao’s if I don’t have homemade on hand)
  • Bechamel Sauce (recipe follows)
  • 1/4 cup butter at room temperature
  • Pinch of red pepper flakes
  • 6 slices of provolone cheese, sliced in half
  • 6 Bolillo or Hoagie Rolls

Combine ground meets with diced pancetta

Add the ground beef, veal, sausage and diced pancetta to a large bowl and set aside.

Open up the herb flavor by using a mortar and pestle

Combine the dried herbs into a mortar or small bowl. Add 1-2 teaspoons good olive oil and smash the herbs using the pestle or the back of a spoon. (This technique importantly aids in releasing the flavor of the dried herbs so they’ll infuse the meat.)

Add remaining ingredients to meat mixture

Using your (clean) hands, gently fold the eggs, 1/2 cup of the Parmigiano-Reggiano, dry herbs, fresh parsley, chopped onion and 8 cloves of the bulb of roasted garlic into the meat mixture.

Breadcrumbs should be of wet sand consistency

Toss the breadcrumbs with salt and pepper in a small bowl. Slowly add the milk, stirring until the mixture resembles coarse, wet sand. Add the breadcrumbs to the meatball mix and gently fold again just until the ingredients are evenly incorporated. Using a large tablespoon or an ice cream scoop, form the meatballs and place them on a baking sheet. (Gently squeeze the meatballs as you form them to release any air pockets.)

Sear meatballs on all sides

Preheat your oven to 350F. Place a large skillet over medium-high heat and add a few tablespoons of olive or vegetable oil. When the oil is hot, sear the meatballs in the skillet, turning every 3 minutes or so to attain an even crust. Remove them to a large baking dish (13″x9″) which has been coated with cooking spray.

Cover the meatballs with marinara sauce

While the meatballs are searing, warm the marinara sauce over low heat in a medium-sized saucepan. Ladle the sauce over the meatballs, then slide the baking dish into the oven for 30-40 minutes until the meatballs are cooked through. Remove the dish from the oven, tent with foil and set aside. (See Cook’s Note at the bottom of this post.)

While the meatballs are finishing in the oven, prepare the garlic butter and the Béchamel sauce:

Blend remaining roasted garlic with 1/4 cup butter

For the Garlic Butter: in a small bowl, combine the remaining cloves of roasted garlic with the softened butter and a pinch of red pepper flakes. Using a fork, smash the garlic and stir until the mixture begins to take on a consistency of peanut butter. Spread the garlic butter on each half of the rolls and place them on a large baking sheet. (I remove some of the extra bread in the middle of the rolls because: A). it isn’t needed, and B). the meatballs fit better in the hollowed out part.)

Bechamel Sauce

For the Béchamel Sauce:

  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • Kosher salt and finely ground white pepper to taste

Melt butter with the toasted flour

In a small saucepan over medium heat, toast the flour until it begins to brown, about 5 minutes. Be sure to stir the flour frequently so it doesn’t burn. (BTW burnt flour … stinks … a lot.)

Whisk milk into the roux

Add the butter and stir until the mixture becomes a roux. Slowly add the milk, stirring constantly, until the sauce begins to boil and thicken. Remove the pan from the heat and cover.

Coat the rolls with garlic butter and toast

Now then, back to the Meatball Subs: after removing the meatballs from the oven, turn on your broiler feature and slide the sheet of buttered rolls under it to toast until they begin to brown, about 3-4 minutes.

Top with sliced provolone and parmesan cheese

Assemble the Meatball sandwiches: place 3-4 meatballs on each half of the rolls, and spoon the remaining marinara sauce over each sandwich. Drizzle a little Béchamel sauce on top of the marinara, then top each sub with two pieces of Provolone cheese. Sprinkle the remaining Parmigiano-Reggiano over the Provolone, then slide the baking sheet under the broiler again until the cheese is bubbly and beginning to brown, about 5 minutes.

Broil until cheese melted and brown

Remove the sandwiches from the oven, drizzle more Béchamel sauce over the top of each meatball sub, and serve immediately – accompanied by several napkins and a set of forks and knives. I’m serious here, peeps – these meatball subs are SOOOOO DELICIOUSLY FANTASTIC!

Cooks Note: Alternatively, you can finish the meatballs on the stovetop. Just be sure you’re using a large skillet with deep sides. When the meatballs are finished searing, add the marinara sauce to the skillet. (Leave at least some of the the juices in the pan for flavor.) Turn the heat to low, cover and simmer the meatballs and marinara for about 30 minutes. 

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