Meatball Madness

Three of Portland’s top meatball subs go head to head: Shut Up And Eat, 24th & Meatballs, and Bunk Sandwiches

By Benjamin Tepler April 3, 2013

The softball-sized Meatball Sub at Shut Up And Eat

The East Coast meatball submarine is a polarizing sandwich. Italian-Americans from Maine through New Jersey worship their nonna’s generations-old techniques for grinding veal or go Proustian over their favorite red sauce-splattered mafia hangouts.

Over the years, the influx of Eastern expats has given Portland a formidable lineup of hoagie-wrapped specimens to contemplate, so we test-drove some of Portland’s most notable contenders. What makes a great meatball sub? Meatball integrity, tomato sauce gusto, and cheese choice. But aspiring meatball enthusiasts take note: the submarine canvas—the bread—can be a deal-breaker.

Brush off your Sopranos DVD and grab a bib: It's gonna get messy:

Co-owner and chef John Fimmano hails from Southern Philly, submarine capital of the world. His sandwich shop, Shut Up And Eat, opened last August after a brief food cart stint, bringing enormous, cold cut-jammed hoagies to deep Southeast.

Size matters at SUAE: Each of the softball-sized ground rounds packs veal, pork, and beef, all lightly sauced, draped with whole basil leaves and coated in a bubbling veneer of Parmesan, Asiago, and provolone cheese. The obscene meatball girth demanded the heftiest bread, and Fimmano made the right choice with a custom-crafted 12-inch submarine roll from Pearl Bakery. The bread re-inflates after each bite, absorbing the meatball and tomato juices like a sponge, and lends itself for dipping in an equally supersized saucer of marinara sauce.

Bottom line: Biggest sandwich in town, darn good meatballs, and unbeatable bread. 3848 SE Gladstone St; (503) 577-5604

Meatball’s Adam Berger is a self-proclaimed “nice Jewish boy from New Jersey.” That didn’t stop him from rolling ground pork into his juicy archetypes and opening his own meatball-dedicated eatery inside The Ocean micro-restaurant on NE Glisan.

As you’d expect, Berger obsesses over the quality and variety of his meatballs, instructing patrons to follow his three-step customization process. “How do you want your balls?” The sign asks. For best results, go with the Hero—Classic Italian—Tomato Basil combination. Meatball’s sub has goldilocks proportions: a gentle saucing, golf-ball sized nuggets of Cascade Natural Beef and Carlton Pork, crackling, sturdy Fleur De Lis bread, and a molten landslide of mozzarella, provolone, and Parmesan.

Bottom line: Textbook meatball sub. NE 24th and Glison; 503-282-2557

Portland’s sandwich kings need no introduction. Before he re-invented high-low sandwich culture, co-owner Tommy Habetz created the pasta menu at Mario Batali’s famed Lupa in Manhattan. The transition from spaghetti and meatballs to meatball hoagie should be a cinch.

Bunk’s take on the meatball sub is a spice-flecked, garlicky torpedo of intense tomato flavor that penetrates the moist rounds. Mozzarella and grana cheese are liberally applied, but the bread falls short. Habetz imports his rolls straight from Philadelphia’s trusted Amoroso Bakery, where fluffy hearth baked hoagies are the stuff of legend. Airy, soft bread may work for copocollo and mortadella, but Bunk’s dense meatballs soak and tear their way straight through the bottom.

Bottom line: Bring an extra set of clothes. Multiple Locations

Have a favorite meatball sandwich that we missed? Let us know!

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