My great-grandparents, who came from Italy, would chuckle upon learning that not only is there a restaurant on New York's Lower East Side dedicated just to meatballs (The Meatball Shop), but that it's almost always packed. They'd also get a kick out of how popular events like Meatball Madness are, and how popular meatball recipes are. Why not? Meatballs are delicious.
Meatballs and gravy are also one of the first things I remember watching my mother and grandmother make. As a kid, I thought tomato sauce ran in my veins — I told people that. That said, while I dig tradition, I've developed my own recipes for meatballs and gravy. Sorry, Gram, tomato seeds stay in — it's a rustic thing.
This recipe includes gravy, meatballs, and heavily-garlicked bread to compose some pretty badass meatball sliders with a little flare — if I do say so myself. In the immortal words of Jack Somack, "Mamma mia, that's-a spicy meat ball-a!"
For the gravy:
- 10-12 heirloom tomatoes when in season, otherwise Roma
- Olive oil to cover the pan bottom
- ½ stick of butter
- 1 very large onion, minced
- 4 cloves garlic
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
For the meatballs:
- 1 pound ground beef
- 1 pound veal
- 1 pound ground pork
- 1 spicy Italian sausage (casing removed)
- 1 tablespoon red pepper flakes
- 4 large eggs
- large handful of fresh basil, minced
- ¾ cup Parmesan cheese
- 2 cloves garlic
- 2 cups breadcrumbs, preferably Panko
- Olive oil
For the sliders:
- 1 loaf sesame bread, halved then each half cut in thirds
- 1½ cup olive oil
- ½ stick butter
- Garlic head, pressed
- 1 cup Parmesan
For the gravy:
Get your gravy going first — this usually takes an hour or so. Boil a pot of water. Knick the bottom of each tomato with an 'X' the size of your fingertip. Use a paring knife to core out the very top of the stem on each tomato. Prep an ice bath — big bowl of cold water filled with ice.
Lower tomatoes into the water in batches, three or four at a time. Only boil for 30 seconds to a minute. You're looking for the skin to start to peel but not to make the flesh mushy. As soon as the skin starts peeling back, yank 'em out and put them in the ice bath. Repeat until tomatoes are done. Peel tomatoes and reserve skins for later use. Halve tomatoes.*
Quarter tomatoes and reserve. Cover the bottom of a big pot and a pan with olive oil — warm, add butter then sauté onions and garlic. Add tomatoes. Caramelize a bit on high heat, then turn down the heat, add reserved tomato water, bay leaf and simmer until the tomatoes fall apart — about an hour.
For the meatballs:
Season the meat with salt and pepper. Add everything in a large bowl. Do not overmix and create a paste! Combine all the ingredients gently, trying to keep the integrity of the meat. Gingerly form meatballs just a little bit larger than a golf ball. Do not pack them.
Preheat oven at 400 degrees. Line a sheet tray with aluminum foil. Rub olive oil and butter over the entire surface. Lay tomato peels out on the tray (this is for a garnish). You're going to make the garnish at the same time as cooking your meatballs — the flavor of the meat will seep into the tomato skins while the meatballs cook. You could flash fry these in oil too).
Warm oil and butter in a pan. Brown the meatballs — about a half a minute on each side. Repeat until the meatballs have all been browned. Place meatballs on the foil-lined tray, one on each reserved tomato peel. Cook for ten minutes in the oven, remove meatballs and place in the sauce. Cover. Leave on low heat while you prep the bread. Place the tomato skins in the oven again and crisp for a few minutes. Watch carefully! Peel them off and place on paper towels, or parchment and reserve.
For the bread:
Halve a large loaf of sesame bread down the center. Horizontally slice each half to give you 3 flat layers of bread from each. This is going to be more about highlighting the meatball and sauce than focusing on too much bread, and the bread you're going to have is going to be really tasty. Mix olive oil, butter garlic, cheese and pepper until integrated (or pulse in the food processor). Liberally apply to one side of each piece of bread. Wrap the bread in foil. Cook in the oven for about five minutes. Remove.
Portion bread for each slider, about 3 or 4 per bread segment. Put a healthy portion of sauce on the bottom piece of bread (about 2 tablespoons). Place the meatball on top. Dress with another tablespoon of sauce. Lean the other piece of bread against it. Garnish with the tomato skin. Eat. Wow that's good.
*Cooking Note: You have a decision here: To seed, or not to seed. A few years ago at Meatball Madness, Chef Andrew Carmellini told me he doesn't notice much difference. It's true there's a little bitterness, but it's pretty negligible. With how naturally sweet this sauce is you're not going to mind. If you seed, scoop them out with your thumbs, dropping the seeds and tomato water from the halves in a sieve over a bowl. Reserve the water (and plant the seeds!).