Tue Oct 29, 2013
My day job has me commuting up to the Bronx Monday through Friday, where my office's close proximity to Arthur Ave finds me awash in great Italian cured meat sandwiches, pastas, and pizza to stuff me silly at lunch. For those not familiar with the area, Arthur Ave is boastingly known as "The Real Little Italy," and pretty rightfully so. While the few blocks that comprise Little Italy in Manhattan are a bona fide tourist trap, up in the Bronx, "The Ave" is lined with shops where you can find homemade sopressata hanging from the ceiling, fresh mozzarella that you can watch being pulled as you order, and cannolis only filled on demand—all done with a sense of tradition and without a drop of pretension. So it's kind of dumbfounding why so many chicken, eggplant, or meatball parmesan heroes up there fail miserably.
Too often these shops fry up the main ingredient and let it sit in a sea of tomato sauce, topped with mozzarella, nestled in a steam table all day. By the time its piled into a roll and served, any trace of crunch from the breadcrumb coating has vanished and the entire thing is a mushy, unappealing mess. There's one place that gets it right though.
Tucked into the back corner of the Arthur Avenue market is Cafe al Mercato, where each ingredient is kept separate, only assemble on order, combined in the right balance between sauce, cheese, meat, and bread. Then the entire thing is heated in the oven. This creates a sandwich with awesome flavor and texture—a parm hero that, while not the best in the world, is incredibly satisfying. Knowing that right procedure to a successful parm, I took to the task of making a great one at home—on the grill (of course).
If the parm heroes I love so much in the Bronx is to be faulted in any way, it'd be on the quality of the main ingredient. The chicken, meatballs, and eggplant are standard red sauce Italian-style. They're not bad, but if a little more attention was given to getting a great juicy chicken breast or better seasoned meatball, it would turn those heroes into something that's merely good for lunch, to possibly being destination-worthy.
So when starting out my ideal parm hero recipe, I needed really awesome meatballs. Luckily, I already had them thanks to work I did a couple years ago in developing a parmesan-spiked beef and pork meatball that's nice and tender with an awesome salty and nutty flavor thanks to the cheese.
I also needed a decent marinara, which I, again, had already developed a pretty sweet recipe for. A simple marinara takes only 15 to 20 minutes to prepare with minimal effort, and the flavor is so much brighter than what comes out of the jar, it's well worth the effort. It doesn't get too much easier than the one I made here—just simmer oil, garlic, crushed red pepper, and tomatoes until it starts to thicken up, then finish it up with a handful of basil and some salt and pepper.
Once the sauce and meatballs were ready, I headed out to the grill to bring this glorious sandwich together. It started with grilling the meatballs over direct high heat until well browned on all sides and cooked through.
Those where then put aside and the Italian bread was split and toasted over the still hot fire. In about a minute on the grill the bread had developed some color and crispness that would allow it to retain its crunch even after being doused in marinara.
The meatballs were then piled on the roll, followed by a healthy portion of sauce, and finally, a sprinkling of my favorite fresh mozzarella from Casa della Mozzarella. The hero was placed on the cool side of a two-zone fire, covered, and let cook until the cheese had melted into the oozy state that can only be responded to by a watering mouth.
The final sandwich was all that a parm hero should be: a substantial filling with the bright and acidic flavor of tomato sauce paired with creamy cheese. So good and so easy to make, it's hard to fathom why there are so many sub-optimal parm heroes out there, especially in an area where most other Italian foods are done so well.
Meatball Parmesan Hero
- Prep Time:
- 45 Minutes
- Cook Time:
- 15 Minutes
- Total Time:
- 1 Hour
- 4 servings
- For the Sauce
- 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 2 teaspoons minced garlic (about 2 medium cloves)
- 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
- 1 (28 ounce) can crushed tomatoes
- 1/4 cup finely chopped fresh basil leaves
- Sugar, to taste
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- For the Meatballs
- 1 pound ground beef chuck
- 1/2 pound ground pork
- 3/4 cup fresh breadcrumbs
- 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
- 2/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- 2 teaspoons minced garlic (about 2 medium cloves)
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley leaves
- 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- Olive oil, for brushing
- 6 ounces whole milk mozzarella cheese, thinly sliced or grated
- 4 Italian hero rolls, halved
- For the Sauce: place olive oil, garlic, and crushed red pepper in medium saucepan over medium heat. When oil starts to bubble around garlic, stir in tomatoes. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook until sauce has slightly thickened, about 15 minutes. Stir in basil; season with sugar, salt, and pepper to taste. Remove from heat and set aside.
- For the Meatballs: In a large bowl, mix together chuck, pork, bread crumbs, egg, Parmesan, garlic, parsley, and red pepper flakes until thoroughly combined. Roll meat mixture into 16 meatballs 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Season meatballs all over liberally with salt and pepper.
- Light one chimney full of charcoal. When all the charcoal is lit and covered with gray ash, pour out and arrange the coals on one side of the charcoal grate. Set cooking grate in place, cover gill, and allow to preheat for 5 minutes. Clean and oil the grilling grate. Brush meatballs with olive oil and place on hot side of grill and cook until well browned all over and cooked through, about 8 minutes total, 2 minutes per side. Remove to plate.
- Toast hero rolls on hot side of grill, cut side down, until lightly browned. Move rolls to cool side of the grill, cut side up, and fill with meatballs. Spoon sauce over meatballs and top with mozzarella cheese. Cover grill and cook until cheese has completely melted. Remove from grill and serve immediately.