The meatball sandwich: a great American invention born of great Italian ingredients. Big, thick, juicy meatballs bathed in rich tomato sauce, piled into a crusty roll and topped with “moozadell” or provolone cheese, then slid into an oven to crisp and melt.
I love the things. They're not especially good for the waistline, but they're a comforting taste of New Jersey without the annoyance of TSA Theater, surly, underpaid airline staff, and the washed-up-in-Leningrad feeling of arrival at Newark Airport.
Fortunately, while OC is not exactly awash in Italian delis, we do have our sources of meatball heros (grinders, subs, hoagies, spuckies, whatever, shut up already). This week pits the longtime favorite Cortina's against the unknown newcomer, Niberino's.
Cortina's is a popular place. They open for lunch at 11:30; by 11:15, the parking lot is full and the line stretches out the door. The Anaheim Police love the place; so do the folks who run Disneyland, judging by the number of badges on display. Their meatball sandwich comes in two sizes: 6 inches for $5.55 or 10 inches for $7.60.
Cortina's 6-inch sandwich is a little bit stubby-looking, but it is packed full of light, fluffy meatballs. Their sauce, which I consider the second-best “red gravy” in OC after Mammalucco's in Brea, seems to sit ethereally around juicy meatballs without actually touching them. The bread is crusty, the cheese is tangy, and it's a good sandwich, except that I found the meatballs to be a little bit bland.
Niberino's is a place most people couldn't place on a map. It's a sandwich counter in the back of the hilariously-named His Nibs liquor store, on the corner of Ball Road and Sunkist, in the same plaza as Molino's bakery and the Jägerhaus. They're relatively (locally) famous for their buy-one-get-one-free sandwich specials, which rotate monthly (right now it's turkey; last month it was meatballs). You order your sandwich, take your ticket to the cash register, and pay. This has the advantage of allowing you to buy a $900 bottle of 30-year-old Macallan with your $6.50 sandwich.
Niberino's meatballs are not as juicy as Cortina's, but they are much more flavorful. You bite into them and you know you're eating a meatball, as parsley and Parmigiano burst into your mouth. The problem with Niberino's is that the sauce is overwhelming; it's too sweet and it distracts from the excellent meatballs. You can get around this by ordering light sauce, but it would be better if the sauce were improved.
The real winner between these two would be Niberino's meatballs with Cortina's sauce; if I had my way, I'd slap both those ingredients into bread from Claro's and we'd have the North OC Italian deli trifecta.
Cortina's Italian Market, 2175 West Orange St., Anaheim; (714) 535-1741. Closed Tuesdays.
Niberino's, inside His-Nibs Liquors, 2501 East Ball Rd., Anaheim; (714) 991-8080.