The best meatball sandwiches from around Chicagoland
September 28, 2007 (WLS) -- ABC7 Chicago's Hungry Hound is wrapping up his delicious coverage of Hispanic Heritage month by taking a closer look at some of the typical snacks from Central America.
Chicago may be known for its Italian beef. But our food reporter says the meatball sandwich also deserves some attention. He's been eating his way through Chicago's Italian neighborhoods. And he says surprisingly, there are plenty of variations on the same theme. You can go all-beef, or beef and pork. A marinara laced with basil, oregano, garlic or some of each. Even the bread varies: names like gonnella, d'amato's and Casa Nostra are all interchanged frequently. We found it usually depends on the Italian region the store owner's grandmother came from.
Lisa Sabatine has been making meatballs her entire life. At Cafe Nucci - tucked into the first floor of a Schiller Park office building - she makes them everyday, without a recipe.
"Family tradition; we couldn't have turkey on Thanksgiving dinner without meatballs and pasta. You roll 'em, it's the texture, it's how you feel, it's how you roll it," said Sabatine.
Once baked, they're brought up front and dunked in her homemade marinara. As for the sandwich, either have the meatballs broken up, layered on giant, fluffy focaccia and topped with mozzarella then baked or just get them placed into the excellent Casa Nostra bread, and get a taste of Nonna's home cooking.
"You don't want a real hard crust bread 'cause then it's too hard, it cuts the roof of your mouth. You want something softer and easier," Sabatine said.
Just a few miles away, in the Big Oaks neighborhood on the far Northwest Side, Nottoli not only has imported Italian foodstuffs, they also make homemade meatball sandwiches. Their Sicilian recipe is all-beef and baked in the back kitchen. Using a sturdy D'Amato loaf, they lay in the meatballs, coat them in a basil-laced marinara and top them with the slightest amount of grated Romano.
In Little Italy - and four other locations, including Hinsdale and Elmhurst - Fontano's makes some serious subs, but their meatball is classic. They started in the seventies, feeding construction workers from the nearby UIC campus.
"Back then we used to roll 'em by hand and fry 'em in a frying pan - deep fry 'em - it just got so popular and so big we just can't do it that way no more," said Dominic Fontano.
These days, the beef-pork mixture is pushed through a sausage machine for even length. They're hand-rolled, then baked. Each meatball is slightly crushed in half when it hits the Gonnella bread, then coated in momma's Neapolitan-style marinara. Fontano says once customers try it, they rarely go back to coldcuts.
"I guarantee if nine out of 10 people that I recommend the meatballs to will come back and either say, 'hey, can we buy 'em by the pound, or let me have another meatball sandwich," he said.
Our food reporter also highly recommend the meatball sandwiches at Freddy's Pizza In Cicero. The bonus there is you can score some killer gelato and Italian ice as well.
5100 River Rd., Schiller Park
5025 N. Harlem Ave.
1600 S. 61st Ave., Cicero
1052 W. Polk St.
20 E. Jackson Blvd.
2151 W. 95th St.
9 S. Lincoln, Hinsdale
113 W. First St., Elmhurst
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