If you go into an Italian deli in Brooklyn and ask for a meatball sandwich, you will often be met with a confused look, followed by the question, “you mean a meatball Parm?” A meatball sandwich often comes down to fierce personal preference — the ratio of bread crumb to meat, the types of meat used, the balance of acidity and sweetness in the sauce. Do you add sweet peppers? What about Parmesan versus provolone? Then there is of course the bread. Today, we look at two Los Angeles institutions, and try to figure out which one makes a better meatball sandwich.
Bay Cities Italian Deli opened in Santa Monica in 1925, and likely has had long lines at their deli counter ever since. The Godmother, a monster of an Italian cold cut sandwich, always earns the most praise there, and probably rightfully so. But the meatball sandwich is often looked at as a holy thing too, with the added perk that you can pick it up rather quickly at the hot food counter, without having to take a number at the deli. At Bay Cities, the house-made bread is their secret weapon, a golden brown, crunchy roll with soft spongy insides that are ideal for soaking in your dressing or tomato sauce.
The meatballs, made from beef, pork, and a modest sprinkling of fennel seeds, are nestled inside this bread, topped with tomato sauce, dusted with finely grated Parmesan cheese, then wrapped in paper and aluminum foil. It is almost minimalist in its execution, but sometimes that's what a sandwich needs. Could the meatballs be a tad softer? Probably. But this sloppy, cocksure sandwich is also precisely what it ought to be. An acidic sauce provides a counterpoint to its squishy, hot, density, while also melting in with the cheese and interior bread, creating a delightfully sludgy layer between crust and meat.
Eastside Market, barely north of downtown, opened just four years after Bay Cities, in 1929. It is actually a beautiful, simple old building, overlooking the 110 freeway. On our visit, the street was lined with cars sporting “CA Exempt” licence plates, and half of the clientele inside seemed to work for the city in one way or another. Service is brisk, and there is a pleased confidence in the atmosphere, both from those serving and ordering.
We actually decided to break ranks a bit and, rather than order the Italian meatball with peppers and cheese, went with the more popular choice — a sandwich combining the meatballs, peppers, cheese, and their homemade sausage. For the truly adventurous, there is also the “D.A. Special,” which includes meatballs, sausage, roast beef, and pastrami. Our sandwich was given to us in a basket with a thick stack of napkins, and the bottom was already close to being soaked through in sauce (not necessarily a bad thing). The sauce did seem pleasant enough, though it was actually overwhelmed a bit by the presence of the sweet peppers.The meatballs, containing beef and pork, had good flavor, and are right on par with the ones at Bay Cities, except for some of the outer crust, which was a bit tough and dry. The sausage, though, was juicy with good bite.
The deciding factor, it seems, is the bread. Eastside Market's simple white roll was really no match, tasting like just about any French roll you'll find at any average supermarket. So victory goes to the (barely) elder sandwich shop, proving once again that yes — bread is a vital part of a great sandwich.