Like the Roman Empire after the Gothic War, or Sgt. Martin Riggs at the beginning of Lethal Weapon, a proper meatball parm should exist on the very brink of collapse. The crusty roll should strain under the weight of vulcanized mozzarella, leaky red sauce and large meaty spheroids, yet somehow manage to function as a sandwich and not a soggy Italian-American carb heap.
Meatball sandwiches that posses this power are rare in Los Angeles — as anyone not from Los Angeles will make a point to tell you — but there are glimmers of hope (besides Bay Cities). Today we examine two very fine meatball sandwiches from two very different L.A. restaurants. They are both as unique and special as your firstborn child. Which one is better? We find out:
Gjusta’s Meatball Sandwich | $15
320 Sunset Ave., Venice; (310) 314-0320, gjusta.com.
There was a joke in the New Yorker a few years ago about how if you somehow transported a bearded, turnip-preserving, suspender-wearing 19th-century European immigrant to modern Williamsburg, he’d probably be regarded as a pretty hip dude. Of course, the same could apply to Venice circa 2015. The best victuals at Gjusta, the casual deli offshoot/expansion/sibling of Venice restaurant Gjelina, might confirm this theory, since they could loosely be described as “old man food.” These include but are not limited too: pickled herring, smoked brisket,and a dynamite cabbage-dumpling soup (you’ll also find grains bowls and banana-hemp smoothies, too, so go figure).
The meatball sandwich at Gjusta is one such Old World item, stuffed with three tender meatballs and a ladle of blood-red pomodoro sauce. You will need several napkins. On top is a dollop of warm burrata, parmesan shavings and slivered basil. The bread is a dense, crusty ciabatta loaf that Gjusta bakes daily. It’s a sandwich that reminds you that somewhere in Italy a lovely Sicilian grandmother is stewing a vat of sauce for her dockworker grandson, and although you are probably not that grandson, paying $15 to imagine you are isn’t a bad deal.
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Paninoteca and Gjusta share some similarities. As with Gjusta to Gjelina, Paninoteca is the causal sibling of Beverly Hills Italian restaurant Scarpetta. In fact, the lunchtime-only sandwich shop operates in Scarpetta’s large open kitchen, and you’ll often see cooks jotting notes for dinner prep while your sandwiches are being made. Scarpetta Beverly Hills executive chef Freddy Vargas intended Paninoteca to be a tribute to the New York delis he grew up with, and the result is working-class sandwiches with subtle fine-dining tweaks, like a mind-bending chicken parm with smoked tomatoes, porchetta with broccoli rabe pesto, and a cold-cut trio drizzled with herb vinaigrette.
The meatball sandwich is off-menu but always available (just ask for it). It’s a smart choice. Like Gjusta, Paninoteca bakes its own ciabatta, which is soft inside but provides a nice, loud crunch. The pork meatballs are larger than Gjusta's, and maybe a touch leaner. The cheese is soft and stretchy mozzarella di bufala, and the sauce, applied a little less judiciously than you might prefer, is tangy and garlicky. Paninoteca’s meatball hoagie is far less photogenic than its rival, but substantially more portable. Sandwiches are wrapped in brown butcher paper and served with a baggie of house-fried potato chips. The large and gorgeous courtyard outside is a major improvement over Gjusta’s cramped patio, and valet parking is free in the underground lots, but you may have to compete with the tiny sweater-wearing dogs and Botox moms of Beverly Hills. This may be a plus or minus, depending on the reader.
Winner: Gjusta (by the slim margin of one of those melted cheese strings that sticks to you chin)