Mad for meatballs

Debbie Lamborn (left) and Dan Brodeur (right) own Big Dan's Oregon Avenue.
Debbie Lamborn (left) and Dan Brodeur (right) own Big Dan's Oregon Avenue. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: November 09, 2012

IN A LOCAL sandwich popularity contest, the cheesesteak would win. Hands down.

Runner-up would be roast pork.

But which sandwich would come in next isn't quite clear. Italian hoagie? Chicken cutlet? Eggplant Parmesan? Maybe. Or maybe not.

From South Philly to Center City, an old-fashioned newcomer is ascending the sub ranks. Or, should we say rolling up those ranks.

The meatball sandwich seems to be having a moment.

Not that meatballs are new to the food scene.

According to food historians, carniv-orbs go back centuries. Apparently, a Roman named Apicus wrote about them in 400 A.D.-ish. These days, Italians call them "polpette." They're the perfect way to use leftover meat. And not just in Italy.

In the Middle East, meatballs are called kofta or kofte. In Poland, they're klopsy. In Latin America and Spain, they go by albondigas. The Danes dub 'em frikadeller. Obviously, the Swedes eat lots of them. So do the Chinese.

But only here in the U.S. are meatballs tucked into a hoagie roll and called . . . a sandwich. And, only recently, have they cropped up at Philadelphia places that could easily get by serving more popular subs.

In February, DiNic's, the Reading Terminal Market stand best known for roast pork, rotated veal scaloppine off their five-item menu - and put meatballs on. "We wanted to capitalize on the meatball craze that's going on right now," said manager Drew Shattuck. (In August, the Travel Channel's Adam Richman declared DiNic's roast pork the nation's best sandwich. Now lunchtime lines can stretch to 150 people long.)

In 2010, longtime Philly restaurateurs Gabe and Judy Marabella came out of retirement to tuck homemade spheres into Liscio rolls in their launch of trendy Marabella Meatball Co. on Walnut Street, where they also sell chicken and veggie balls.

Down on Oregon Avenue, "Big" Dan Brodeur's best-seller is his chicken cutlet done Roma-style, but a meatball grinder graces the front page of his menu.

"We make meatballs two, three times a week," said Brodeur, who runs the 2-year-old, mostly takeout operation Big Dan's Oregon Avenue with girlfriend Debbie Lamborn, "My grandmother taught me how to make them when I was younger."

The grandma-taught-me refrain is common among meatball makers. So is the recipe, which, many makers insist, is uncomplicated.

"It's pretty basic," Brodeur said of his ingredient list. "We use a butcher around the corner, Criniti's, for fresh ground beef, and simply put in fresh ground garlic, Parmesan cheese, fresh parsley, eggs, bread crumbs, and your basic seasonings: salt, pepper. There's no real mystery to it."

George Mickel has sold meatball sandwiches from By George in the Reading Terminal Market for 22 years. He agreed with Brodeur. "There's really no secret to our success," he said, "Fresh ground meat, grated Reggiano Parmesan and Romano, parsley, garlic, bread crumbs, milk, salt, pepper, fresh basil, eggs." For By George's bright red sauce, Mickel insists on the freshest-possible tomatoes. (Still, his best-seller is, by far is . . . cheesesteaks.)

Sure, some places get fancy. DiNic's incorporates peeled pig's knuckles (if you wanna call those fancy) into their mini globes o' goodness. Center City's Jake's Sandwich Board mixes up a mean trio of beef, veal and spicy pork sausage to make theirs - and dresses 'em in sautéed spinach, fried onions, mozzarella and rich roasted garlic spread.

Marabella's best-selling balls are plain beef. But connoisseur carnivores can also opt for a visibly layered blend of beef, pork and veal. Waistline watchers can go for the mild chicken-ball version, and vegetarians can feast on veggie balls made of cauliflower, broccoli, chickpeas, golden raisins and pine nuts, plus egg, grated cheese, parsley and garlic.

The Marabella Meatball Co. also lets customers customize sandwiches with trimmings that range from classic - aged provolone and tomato sauce - to upmarket pesto, Piave Vecchio or olive tapenade.

"You could come in and eat for a year and never have the same sandwich, if you want," said Gabe Marabella.

Marabella's menu says, "Move over cheesesteak."

Maybe. But veggie ball sandwich with spinach and ricotta? Mmmm . . . maybe not just yet.

Contact Lauren McCutcheon at or 215-854-5991. Follow her on Twitter @LaMcCutch.

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