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"Ode to North Beach" Grilled Italian Meatballs with Fire-Roasted Tomato Sauce

Ingredients 

MEATBALLS
1/4 cup dried currants
Zest and juice of one medium lemon
1/8 cup red wine
1 large egg
1/8 cup sour cream
1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan
1/2 cup Italian-seasoned bread crumbs
1/3 cup finely minced onion
4 minced garlic cloves
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh basil
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh oregano
1/4 cup toasted pine nuts, coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 1/2 pounds ground chuck
1/2 pound bulk spicy Italian sausage (or if in links, remove from casings)

FIRE-ROASTED TOMATO SAUCE
1 head garlic, intact with tips of cloves trimmed off
1 red onion, cut blossom end and slice 3/4 way through toward root into 6 sections
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 pinch of coarse sea salt
2 generous grindings of black pepper
6 large fresh whole plum tomatoes (about 1 1/2 pounds)
4 minced garlic cloves
2 tablespoons red wine
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
1/2 cup grated parmesan
1 teaspoon of coarse sea salt
Pinch of pepper flakes

ADDITIONAL ITEMS
Sheet of aluminum foil
Canola oil for brushing on the grill
12 small focaccia rolls, split in half, or quarters, depending on size (should be sized to the meatballs)
1 cup fresh whole basil leaves
1/2 pound aged provolone or asiago, shaved

Instructions 

To prepare the meatballs, add dried currants, lemon zest, lemon juice, and wine to a small bowl. Mix and set aside for at least 30 minute. Stir once or twice.

Lightly beat the egg in a small bowl and fold in the sour cream and grated parmesan, then the bread crumbs. Set aside.

Pre-heat the grill to Medium High

In a large bowl, add the onion, garlic, basil, oregano, and pine nuts. Mix well. Add the currants and their soaking liquid, mix. Add the egg mixture and mix well.

Spread the ground chuck out flat. Spread the sausage out on top of it. Fold the two together until the sausage is evenly distributed in the ground chuck. Add to the meat mixture to the large bowl of pre-mixed ingredients and mix with hands until well blended. Don't overmix. Form into 12 round meatballs. Flatten each meatball slightly so they are still quite thick. Cover and refrigerate until ready for grilling

To make the fire-roasted tomato sauce, take a sheet of foil and make a bowl. Add the head of garlic and partially sliced onion to the foil bowl and drizzle 2 tablespoons of olive oil over it. Add a pinch of coarse sea salt and a few generous grindings of black pepper. Close the foil and seal it up. Add to hot grill and leave for about 20 minutes. Then check to see if the garlic cloves are soft and the onion is cooked and slightly carmelized. If they are not quite done, return to grill for another 5 minutes and check again. Remove from heat.

Place the whole plum tomatoes on hot grill. Close grill top. Wait 5 minutes and check tomatoes. Check every 5 minutes until the grilling side is mostly covered by black markings, then turn with tongs. Continue checking and turning in this manner until at least 75% of the tomato skins are black and the tomatoes are bubbly hot. This should take about 25-30 minutes. If they are cooking faster, lower the heat. Once they have achieved their desired doneness, remove from heat and place in a bowl. When they are cool enough to touch, remove the skins. Crush tomatoes with the back of a wooden spoon. Chop and add cooked onion (from foil packet), minced garlic, and wine. Mix well. Add remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil to a cast iron skillet or other grill-compatible pan, place on grill, and lower the heat. Add tomato mixture to skillet and simmer for about 20-30 minutes, stirring every few minutes until sauce is thick. Add balsamic vinegar, basil, parmesan, salt, and pepper flakes, stir and set aside off heat, but close enough to keep warm.

Clean the grill and oil it well. Grill the meatballs on medium high heat. 4 minutes on one side, 3 minutes on the other side, or until internal temperature is 155-160 degrees. Turn the heat down to the lowest setting, and place the pan of tomato sauce back on the heat. Put the meatballs in the sauce for a few moments until you assemble the burgers. Turn them so they are coated in sauce.

Toast the split focaccia rolls over the low heat. When they are golden brown, take the head of roasted garlic (from foil packet), squeeze the garlic cloves onto the toasted sides of the rolls, and spread the garlic out. Place the rolls on foil and keep warm while you assemble each burger. On the bottom of each roll, place a small amount of sauce, then fresh basil leaves, then the meatball, add a dollop of tomato sauce, then the shaved provolone, and finally the top of the roll. Manga!

Comments 

When I moved west to go to college, there were only a few things I missed from my native New Jersey -- fireflies, warm ocean water, and great Italian food. While attending graduate school at UC Davis, I visited San Francisco as often as possible. I stumbled upon an Italian café in North Beach, ordered a cappuccino, and started to write in my journal. Unexpectedly (to me), a woman started singing an aria of professional quality in Italian. What a place! And further explorations revealed amazing Italian food and culture in the North Beach neighborhood. A little piece of heaven on earth! This recipe was concocted as a tribute to my warm memories of North Beach.