My Aunt Millie (not my real aunt) made the best meatballs. Before she passed away, she taught her daughter, my Aunt Joan (also not my real aunt), how to make these same delectable treats. My Aunt Joan gave my Aunt Millie’s recipe to my mom (my real mom) and for over two decades the Aunt Millie homemade meatball, sauce, and pasta dinner has been a staple in my mother’s home for special occasions. My mother always makes more than enough and quite often there are leftovers, which for years, I have turned into the best meatball sandwiches imaginable. This is tradition, in all its rolled up, ground beef glory.
In Philadelphia, the Italian Market is arguably one of the greatest traditions and landmarks our city offers. Before any hotshot chefs, Gastropubs, or fancy, three and four star restaurants came to Philadelphia, the world of culinary exchange and happening in Philadelphia occurred on 9th street in between Christian and Washington. And while hardly the iconic institution it once was, the Italian Market is still an amazing place to visit and still offers some of the best food in the city. Amidst the array of shops, vendors, and smaller markets, stands George’s Sandwich Shop, its own proud tradition dating back to 1936. Believed by some to offer the best sandwiches in the city, especially the often forgotten meatball sub or grinder, George’s warranted a stop on my Lunch Break Food Tour.
George’s stands right next to Lorenzo’s Pizza at the very beginning of the Christian Street entrance to the Market. It’s a quaint shop, with limited outdoor seating and a large, sliding window where the day’s offerings sit in a line of delicious smelling metal containers, most likely stewing for hours. Inside, the shop continues to retain its esoteric appeal. There is no wall of famous people who have eaten at George’s and no mandatory ordering system. It’s simply a linoleum counter, a few tattered, rickety stools, a calendar of pinup girls, and one polite sandwich maker. Essentially, it’s everything I yearn for in an authentic sandwich shop. After my friend Nick and I took our seats at the indoor counter, we ordered one meatball sandwich each and within two minutes, we were eating.
Upon first looking at my sandwich, I thought I was in for something very special. The meatballs and the sauce they were simmering in were hot, as was evidenced with the steam wafting off of them, which permeated my nostrils with a delicious smell of a rich sauce. I coated my sandwich with some grated parmesan cheese and after another minute of letting it sit, dove in for my first bite. My first instinct was it was good, not great, but good. The roll was soft but stable, holding the meatballs and sauce nicely, and the sauce was rich but not overpowering or messy, providing a nice coating to the meatballs themselves.
As for the main ingredient, they were plentiful for sure, probably the largest helping of any meatball sandwich I’ve ever had. After a few more bites and more time for my palette to consider the various flavors and the meatballs specifically, I realized that these were hardly homemade delicacies. With each consecutive bite, a recurring taste that I knew too well kept popping in my head, and eventually after finishing the entire sandwich, it came to me- WaWa meatballs. That’s what I was eating. This was no handcrafted, gently seasoned, carefully baked meatball. It was your classic, out-of-a-bag, highly processed, get it at any WaWa meatball. And not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, because I actually enjoy a WaWa meatball sandwich, but it’s hardly the bona fide Italian Market experience you drive down fifty-five city blocks for, especially when you pass three or four WaWas on the way.
I was in Italy just over a week ago. On every menu I looked at and in every Deli I entered, I didn’t once see an option for meatballs. Apparently, it’s not a real Italian tradition in any way. Fortunately for Americans, the meatball is a classic part of our culinary history and continues to be a dinnertime and lunchtime favorite and tradition. So if you happen to find yourself down at Philadelphia’s Italian Market, partaking in one of the city’s finest institutions, treat yourself to a George’s Meatball Sandwich. It may not be as good as your mom’s or favorite Italian aunt’s, but it’s still a tradition and worth your time.
2 and 1/2 out of 4 Lunchboxes!
Patrick Edmonds is a co-founder, editor, and writer for/of The Lunch Break. His passions include Food, Arts & Entertainment, and Education. You can follow Patrick Edmonds on facebook and on Twitter @patrickedmonds1.