A meatball sandwich should require two hands, a T-shirt you don’t care about destroying, more than a few napkins and a seesaw of crunch and smoosh.
Since a reader inquired earlier this year about where to find the best examples of that sandwich, I’ve had thoughts of twirling beef orbs raining down with red sauce, a cloud cover of gooey cheese seeking shelter inside toasted bread.
OK, OK. Sorry about that corny paragraph. Clearly, I’m playing on the concept of “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2,” the movie that opens in theaters Friday. But those components – beefy meatballs, a tasty red sauce, plenty of cheese and crunchy bread – became my criteria for Tacoma’s cheesiest, sauciest, messiest meatball sandwich.
I searched for sandwiches in three categories: take-out delis, bars, and the area’s finest Italian eateries.
The overall winner? Adriatic Grill – if not for the meatballs with a hefty texture and delicious garlicky punch, then because of the accompanying hand-cut fries that take chef-owner Bill Trudnowski two days to make. What? Your fries don’t take two days to make? What’s wrong with you?
From the category of fancy schmancy: Adriatic Grill and Marzanos
4201 S. Steele St., Tacoma; 253-475-6000, adriaticgrill.com
The meatball sandwich at Tacoma’s Adriatic Grill, a fine dining establishment with a family friendly feel and a floor-to-ceiling display kitchen, is Trudnowski’s interpretation of one he first made as a teenager in the kitchen of what he described as a sketchy restaurant with great food.
That restaurant didn’t survive, but their meatball sandwich lives on with Trudnowski, who borrowed that restaurant’s secret ingredient: roasted red peppers. The sturdy meatballs were Trudnowski’s invention, all-beef masterpieces light on breadcrumbs and egg binder (meatballs have to be made fresh daily, insisted Trudnowski, the texture suffers if they sit too long), and h-e-a-v-y on garlic (not that I was complaining). The toasted baguette offered beautiful crunch in concert with those hearty meatballs and melted mozzarella, the sandwich sweetened from Trudnowski’s house marinara and those slippery peppers. The hand-cut fries tasted neither too crispy nor too limp, the result of a two-day soak and a quick fry. $12 on the lunch menu.
Marzano Italian Restaurant
516 Garfield St. S., Tacoma; 253-537-4191, dinemarzano.com
I shared this sentiment back in August when I wrote that Marzano Italian Restaurant was a regional destination, but I’ll repeat it here. If Elisa Marzano had anything to do with cooking it, you can bet it will be absolutely delicious. The Parkland restaurant, located steps from Pacific Lutheran University, has a menu of classic rustic Italian fare nudged with Northwest flavors, served up in a tiny house converted to a restaurant.
At Marzano, the lunch menu’s meatball sandwich combined the restaurant’s sparkling bright tomato sauce with meatballs that offered substance, but with tenderness. The secret ingredient to achieve that tenderness? Ricotta cheese in the meatball. A crusty baguette built a sturdy foundation layered with gooey cheese and a backnote of fresh Italian herbs – nothing at Marzano is underwhelming, that sandwich included. $10 for the a la carte sandwich, on the lunch menu.
From the category of must-visit delis: Viafore’s and MSM delis
604 Regents Blvd., Fircrest; 253-564-2228 (note: closed Mondays, and the deli closes in the early evening) NOTE: Cash only.
Meatball sandwiches have been on the menu since Jim Aquino opened his Fircrest Italian deli in 1969. David Viafore, who considered Aquino an uncle, began making meatball sandwiches there in 1977 before buying the deli in 1985. I call the pasta take-out case at Viafore’s the busy mom’s best friend. The menu offers made-to-order sandwiches, as well as pizza that diners can take-and-bake. It’s also a place to shop for edible Italian imports.
Viafore’s meatballs, or “polpette” as his family calls them at home, were tinged with rosemary, garlic and fennel. The sandwich was built on a roll with a slathering of deeply flavored tomato sauce. I like Viafore’s philosophy on cheese – always provolone, nicely melted. The sandwich came with a choice of soup or my personal favorite, Viafore’s pasta salad. $6.95 for dine-in at a handful of tables, or take-out.
2220 Sixth Ave., Tacoma; 253-272-4814, msmdeli.com
Second-generation owner Jamal Muthala took over the Sixth Avenue deli from his father, Mike, who opened the Magical Sandwich Makers deli in the 1980s. MSM doubles as a convenience store, but with an inventory of more than 200 craft beers by the bottle, it’s a destination. The menu of East Coast-style deli sandwiches offers deep value and one of the area’s best Philly sandwiches (it’s not traditional, but it’s good).
The meatball sandwich seemed like the result of a competition to see how many tiny meatballs could be jammed between two slices of toasted French bread that were slathered with spaghetti-style tomato sauce. Because of that, I advise diners to eat this sitting down in a safe place wearing a disgusting T-shirt you don’t mind sacrificing to the meatball gods — because the meatballs spilled everywhere. The rubbery meatball texture and not-quite-melted provolone kept MSM’s version out of my top spot. $5.49 (Call ahead if you’re smart, lines are long. The deli has two small dining areas.)
From the category of eat your sandwich with a beer: Eleven-Eleven and Top of Tacoma
Peterson Bros. 1111 (aka Eleven-Eleven)
1111 S. 11th St., Tacoma; 253-284-1111, elevenelevenbar.com (21 and older only)
After just a year in business, the Hilltop neighborhood bar Peterson Bros. 1111 has earned a reputation as a friendly destination with outstanding sandwiches. The bar is owned by twins Justin and Robby Peterson, with chef Mike Parker in the kitchen.
One bite of a sandwich at Eleven-Eleven – as the bar is nicknamed – and it’s obvious Parker is a fan of texture and flavor, expertly blending both in his Cuban and Reuben.
What I appreciated about his meatball sandwich, named after Parker, was his use of a crusty hoagie. All of Parker’s sandwiches are built on hoagies. It was yum on a bun, tender beef and pork meatballs punched with fennel and with a bit of squishy texture, a slow-cooked marinara and the one-two goo of mozzarella and lots of melted parmesan. Parker scattered the sandwich with black olives, the way he ate his sandwiches as a kid. The Parker is $8.50, served with chips.
Top of Tacoma
3529 McKinley Ave., Tacoma; 253-272-1502, topoftacoma.com (21 and older only)
This McKinley Hill bar was opened in 2007 by husband-wife team Jaime Kay and Jason Jones (they also own Marrow on Sixth Avenue with chef Kyle Wnuk). Top of Tacoma’s extensive menu reads bar friendly, but with way-above-average execution. It’s a neighborhood hangout with friendly staff and good value.
The meatball sandwich here was served open-faced with an open-wide dimension that would make for unwieldy eating, so I opted to plow through each half separately. It might be easier to tackle with a fork and knife.
A thick blanket of melted provolone was a good first sign, as was the crunchy, toasted roll from Macrina bakery. The unapologetically huge meatballs were a blend of ground chuck and spicy Italian sausage with panko and egg as binder, the texture unctuous and loose, but not so soft that they crumbled. The marinara held a nice kick of heat, the spiciest sandwich on this tour. $9.25, with chips.
Sue Kidd dines anonymously, and The News Tribune pays for all meals (even the terrible ones).