If you'd asked me a few weeks ago, I would've said that the only two meatball sandwiches worth eating in all of Orange County were at Cortina's and Harry's Deli. Then I'd remember that Harry's Deli closed, so I'd say it was Cortina's--just Cortina's. But now, I'd add Paninoteca Maggio's to that list and tell you it might be the greatest yet.
It starts with good bread--a noble, football-shaped baguette of considerable girth, with a golden crust so sturdy it could repel buckshot. Like a hammock, the top-slit loaf cradles the three fat meatballs made of beef and pork, the marinara, and the melted cheese that blankets it all. You approach it as though it were a taco, keeping the sandwich level so as not to spill any of its contents, taking your first bite with your head cocked to one side. Once you breach the crust's crackle, the sandwich is all softness and comfort. Curls of steam escape from where you bit last, and you smell the basil and feel the sandwich's warmness slowly spreading throughout your body. If hugs were edible, this is what it'd taste like.
It's called Roma on the menu, but don't stop there. Order the Toscana, which is actually an even better sandwich than the meatball. It's what chef Sharron Barshishat considers his signature panino--a masterpiece of porchetta, roasted potatoes, arugula and lemon aioli that's stuffed flat and tight between two planks of ciabatta bread toasted so well its crunch is audible from across town. But the Toscana is all about the pig. I've never tasted a more decadently fatty pork sandwich, and I've eaten Momofuku's fabled pork-belly buns in New York.
But as beautifully rich as his slices of roast hog are, everything in Barshishat's sandwich is in balance. He has carefully thought through what should and shouldn't be paired with the pork. Peppery arugula? Those steamy wedges of potatoes? Garlicy aioli? Yes to all. Cheese? Never. One time, when he was at Paninoteca's previous location, someone asked him to add mozzarella to the sandwich. Barshishat declined politely. "There should be no cheese on a porchetta whatsoever," he later told us in an interview.
Other substitutions are also discouraged. It's best to trust Barshishat, who studied at Cordon Bleu in Pasadena and worked for Mario Batali, to know which of his ingredients goes well together. The excellent roast turkey sandwich's cranberry pesto and pickled red onions, for instance, work for this sandwich but probably only this sandwich. About the only thing you can and want to customize is whether you want meatballs or chicken added to his spaghetti pomodoro--and of course, you should always opt for the meatballs.
The pastas, by the way, are new to Paninoteca Maggio. Barshishat added them to the menu when he moved his shop from that supply closet of a café at City Place to this gorgeous space just around the corner from Little Sparrow. As of this writing, I've tried all of the pastas except one, and they're just as great as the sandwiches. The marinara that coats the spaghetti has just the right amount of tanginess. I could eat the penne di salsiccia, with its crumbles of homemade Italian sausage, week after week without ever tiring of it. And I have a theory that just a spoonful of the meaty, slow-cooked, red-wine ragu from his fusilli bolognese can cure whatever troubles your soul.
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You should also come for his high-octane espresso and whatever soup he decided to make that day. Of the latter, you'll be lucky if it's the one he simply calls vegetable soup. Perfumed with herbs and chock-full of beans and potatoes, it was practically a stew--a one-pot meal a mother would make for her brood. And then there are the sides, especially the delicately breaded and fried cauliflower drenched in Frank's Buffalo Wing Sauce and served with a thimble of blue cheese dressing, as well as the arancini, fried risotto balls that are perhaps the best non-pasta, non-panino item of all--crispy golden brown on the outside, creamy and cheesy on the inside.
The only problem I have with Paninoteca Maggio is its unpredictable hours. It's not open for dinner most of the week. And when I went one Friday night it was supposed to be open, it wasn't. The next day during lunch, I overheard Barshishat tell a customer who had a similar complaint that he's looking to hire more people so he can expand the hours. And that's good--because Cortina's can't be the only place to get a good meatball sandwich after 5 p.m.
Paninoteca Maggio, 304 Main St., Santa Ana, (949) 393-3333; paninotecamaggio.com. Open for lunch, Mon.-Fri., 6:30 a.m.-3 p.m.; Sat., 8 a.m.-3 p.m.; and for dinner, Thurs.-Sat., 5:30-9 p.m. Meal for two, $20-$30, food only. No alcohol. Follow the restaurant on Instagram: @paninotecamaggio.