This blog post is about meatball-filled submarine sandwiches or if you’re a normal person you probably just call them meatball subs. If you want to go right to the recipe, click that fancy “jump to recipe” button above, otherwise we’re going to dig into why I chose to write about them.
The first meatball sub sandwich I ever ate was most likely at Subway in my teenage years. The closest thing I have to an Italian heritage was the time I’ve spent watching all three Godfather movies and Goodfellas, and I never really had the opportunity for many interactions with meatball subs until I was a teenager. For much of my senior year of high school, I was enrolled in a journalism class and when I wasn’t pretending to participate, I was likely eating meatball subs. Our journalism class, possibly like others across the country, was required to spend some time writing but during a portion of class time, we would be released out into the outside world to “sell” ads that would appear in the school paper.
At my school, the paper ad sales situation was basically a scripted affair. Everyone in the class was presented with a legacy business from a former student who would almost always buy a cheap ad placement because they had been buying them for years, supporting the local school. This meant that most of the time you would stroll into a store/restaurant/business, wait 15 to 20 minutes for the opportunity to talk to a decision maker, then they’d say yes and write a check to the school. At that point, most of your quota would be met.
Weren’t we talking about meatballs!?
Most of the time that I was supposed to be selling ads for the school newspaper was spent hanging out with a few classmates and eating subs at our local Subway restaurant. We’d push the ad sales stuff to the last possible opportunity because all of our ads were mostly sold, and we’d go to Subway and eat a footlong sub. High school was fun.
Subway is not a top-tier sandwich restaurant. We all know that. But for my teenage palate and budget, the meatball option made for a good sub. It obviously also left a spot in my memory bank when the subject of meatball subs pops up. Food memories are very important to all of us and that first bite into a meatball sub often conjures up memories of a more innocent time in my life when I had a whole lot less to worry about.
As I’ve grown up, I’ve continued to be a big fan of meatball subs of all kinds and have found them to be a very comforting sandwich. Let’s make a meatball sub that is packed full of comfort and reminiscent of my high school sub experience, but better and made from scratch (or mostly from scratch).
First, we need some bread.
The sub sandwich roll
I’ve written about my sub roll recipe a few times and I’ve baked it so many times at this point that I can almost do it without looking at the recipe.
I have used this sub roll in the past for anything from po’boys to cheesesteaks to club subs. This is an American sub roll recipe, there’s no crusty exterior, but it is super soft all the way through. The roll is dense enough for cold cuts but won’t cut your mouth from the exterior which is firm but not crusty. If you want a crusty exterior on your long sandwich rolls, I have a Chicago-style sub roll and a French-style sub roll that you can tackle. Both of those focus on baking with a crusty exterior, which this sandwich doesn’t require.
During the process of this blog post, I bought a new silicone “pan” for baking sub rolls. So, I wrote a little about it (with more examples and photos to come in a later sandwich post). These three photos were taken of rolls I baked prior to this new baking form.
The silicone “pan”
I bought this silicone baking form for sub rolls (photo below) for 17 bucks on a whim after seeing that occasionally my sub rolls would have thicker and thinner parts (see above photos). This NEVER really makes much of a difference in the final sandwich, but it is inconsistent and looks like it could be an issue. So, I figured I’d buy this baking form to test if it helped with consistency.
I have baked with it at this point, and I really like what it does. The silicone form is floppy and flexible and can be rolled up and put in a corner of a cabinet. It doesn’t really work without a sheet pan underneath it, so you would probably need to have one of those as well. It might work with a cookie sheet or even carefully placed on a pizza stone in your oven, but you can’t just put some dough in it and move it around easily because it’s so floppy.
This silicone form levels up the ability for sub roll consistency. It helps shape the rolls so that they rise taller, and it keeps them similarly shaped. You can definitely accomplish much of this with a canvas proofing cloth like baguette bakers have been using for years but paying 17 dollars for something that could last me for a very long time seemed like a good investment to me.
Sub rolls with or without the silicone form
Below are two photos. The first one shows two rolls baked without the silicone form and the second photo (on the pink cloth) are two rolls that were baked with the silicone mold. The mold is mostly just going to give you a more consistent shaped roll, but if all you care about is flavor then you don’t need it.
Overall, I’m a fan of this sub sandwich roll form and I will probably look around for other shapes of silicone forms that might help with consistent proofing in different styles of bread. The silicone forms take up almost no space and help keep your rolls or buns shaped from one to the next.
Here’s my simple sub sandwich roll recipe. It’s probably the easiest bread recipe I have on my site, so give it a shot. I even added the ability to plug in a start time and it will tell you timestamps based on that time for when you need to take the next step in the directions.
The meatballs in this blog post were made with ground beef. The recipe has some sauteed, diced onions and garlic for flavor but other than that they’re standard meatballs with breadcrumbs and seasonings.
According to the USDA, ground beef should be cooked to 160 degrees F (71 C). If I was cooking a thick burger and had a good feeling that the meat was from a reputable source, I’d likely cook it less than 160 F, but with a meatball, I think it needs to be medium-well or even well done. You want the ball cooked fully to retain its shape and your meatballs will be covered with sauce so it’s not the same situation as a cheeseburger.
The marinara sauce
I’ll be honest here, I used store-bought sauce on the meatballs pictured below. But my recipe for meatball subs uses the marinara that my wife has been making for a while now. The sauce takes almost an hour and a half to make and it’s tasty, but buy your favorite brand if you are hoping to eat a little quicker.
The sauce I share in the meatball sub recipe is a little chunky with tomatoes and veggies, so if you want it to be a bit more like store-bought sauce, you will likely need to run it through a blender or food processor. We’ve also found that the sauce tastes better if it sits overnight in the refrigerator before you eat it because it gives all the ingredients just a bit more time to get to know each other.
The bread slicing methods
At some point in the late 90s or early 00s, Subway changed the way they slice their bread for sub sandwiches. I took a little dive into both bread options below. Here’s a video from a former Sandwich Artist where both slicing techniques are demonstrated.
If you’re a child of America, born in the 1980s or earlier, you likely remember the way that Subway used to cut their bread for sandwiches. This method is commonly referred to as the U gouge method from what I’ve seen in the meatball sub section of the dark web. Basically, the technique is like making a bread bowl for soup. It gets the U part of its name from the action you take when you’re cutting the ends of the bread top.
The thinking by sandwich enthusiasts on the internet is that this U gouge helped your sandwich toppings stay inside the confines of the bread. In a meatball sub though, the U gouge works best if the meatballs are small enough to fit inside the cut space. There is some opportunity here to pull out some extra bread from the roll to make space (and I did that in my attempts at this technique) but I don’t think it would ever work well unless the meatballs are the correct size for the bread. Subway had this perfected with consistent-sized meatballs and bread.
The hinge cut
The hinge method is how Subway cuts their bread now. They basically just make an incision all the way down the bread about 2/3rds of the way through. You don’t want to cut through to the other side. Then you can open the bread up like a book or a door with a hinge. This allows you to pack items into the sub and they won’t fall out the back.
I’m assuming that Subway moved to this method because it’s a lot easier to cut just one straight line than it is to cut a hat/top and those V cuts on the ends. But their official response was that this technique allowed them to stuff the sandwiches with more fillings.
Hinge vs U-gouge Verdict
I think the viability of these two methods largely depends on the size of your bread and the size of your meatballs. If your meatballs are smaller than the height of the bread, you can easily use the U gouge technique. If you are working with larger meatballs, I suggest you use the hinge technique.
More meatballs and a recipe
Here’s the deal, buy your favorite marinara and get a good sub roll. Make these meatballs and go to town. It’s easy enough to ignore the marinara part of this recipe if you want.
Or you can make all the components like in this recipe.
A comforting meatball sub that will help to warm your cold dead heart. The sandwich is made from juicy, tender meatballs slathered in marinara and melty provolone stuffed inside a soft sub roll.
- 1⁄4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 small onion, chopped
- 2 cloves of garlic, diced or pressed
- 1 celery stalk, chopped
- 1 carrot, peeled and chopped
- 1⁄2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1⁄2 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 2 cans crushed tomatoes (15 oz cans)
- 1 bay leaf
- 1⁄4 cup white wine or sherry wine
- 1⁄2 tablespoon crushed red pepper
- 1 tablespoon brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 medium onion, diced
- 6 cloves of garlic, minced or pressed
- 2 pounds ground beef
- 3⁄4 cup plain breadcrumbs
- 1⁄2 cup parmesan cheese, grated
- 2 large eggs
- 3 tablespoons ketchup
- 1 tablespoon dry parsley flakes
- 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
- 1⁄2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 1⁄2 teaspoon black pepper
- marinara sauce (from above)
- meatballs (from above)
- 4 six-inch lengths of sub or hoagie bread
- 4 to 8 slices of provolone cheese
- parmesan cheese, grated for sprinkling on top of sandwich
Marinara: In a large pot, heat 1/4 cup olive oil over medium heat.
When the oil is shimmering, add onions and sauté over medium-low heat until the onions are translucent and softening about 10 minutes.
Add garlic, celery, carrot, and 1/2 teaspoon each of salt and pepper. Sauté for 8 to 10 minutes or until everything is soft.
Add the tomatoes, bay leaf, and wine, reduce the heat under the pot to low, and simmer for 25 to 30 minutes.
After 25 or 30 minutes, add red pepper and brown sugar and cook for an additional 30 minutes. Remove and discard bay leaves. Let marinara cool to room temperature, then cover and refrigerate.
The sauce will be chunky but when it is cool you can add to a blender or food processor to thin the texture of the sauce.
Meatballs: In a medium pan, add 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium heat. When oil is shimmering, add diced onions and cook for about 8 to 10 minutes until the onions are soft.
After 8 to 10 minutes add garlic, stir it in with the onions and cook for another two minutes. Remove pan from heat and allow garlic and onions to cool.
Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees F.
In a large bowl, combine all ingredients including the cooled onions and garlic. With clean hands, mix everything together so that all ingredients are combined very well with the ground beef.
Again, with your hands, pull off hunks of the ground beef mixture and roll them into balls that are about 1.5 inches across. With 2 pounds of meat, you should get close to 24 meatballs.
Add all meatballs to a parchment-lined sheet pan, leaving some space between each meatball.
Once the oven has reached 400 F, cook the meatballs for 20 to 24 minutes. If you have a digital thermometer, you want to make sure the meatballs get to 160 degrees F to be completely cooked through.
Sandwich assembly: pre-heat oven to 350 degrees F.
Add marinara and cooked meatballs to a large pan over medium-high heat and simmer to warm everything up for about 5 to 10 minutes.
Slice each bread rolls lengthwise 2/3rds of the way through the bread and open the rolls up like a hinge.
Slice bread into six-inch rolls.
Add 3 meatballs for every six inches of bread, top with more sauce and top the meatballs with slices of the provolone cheese. Close the sandwich and add each meatball, sauce and cheese filled sandwich to a sheet pan
Add pan with meatball subs to oven 350 degrees for 5 minutes to melt the provolone and warm everything through.
Sprinkle extra parmesan cheese on the saucy parts of each sandwich. Serve and enjoy.
Make more meatball subs
Make some meatballs and put them into bread with some sauce. It’s easy! Check back next week and who knows what sandwich will happen?