Growing up in Philadelphia, chef Joey Campanaro often could be found in the kitchen of his grandmother’s house next door.
“I grew up with a big family in South Philly, which is a very blue collar hustle and do what you got do kind of town,” says Campanaro, whose father was a fireman and whose mother worked for the school district. “It was always like, ‘go to your grandma’s house and hang out there.’ Usually, she’d be making pasta. I really loved it.”
All these years later, the recipes he learned while keeping his grandmother company are the foundation of his cooking philosophy at his New York restaurant the Little Owl. It’s also what inspired his cookbook Big Love Cooking.
“She lived through the depression and she was the oldest of five kids,” says Campanaro, who also co-owns Manhattan restaurants Market Table and The Clam. “There were really tough times, but when it comes to cooking, that was when she was doing things for people that she loved. And she loved to do it.”
The book dedicates an entire chapter to Sunday Supper, which kicks off with his Sunday Gravy—a recipe that he calls his “North Star” of cooking and one he learned from his grandmother. Of course, he also had to include his Gravy Meatball Sliders, a wildly popular dish that was an instant classic when the Little Owl opened in 2006. Campanaro credits the sensational response it received from customers to its total lack of pretension.
“I said, you know what? Let’s make something that’s great that people can eat with their hands,” he remembers.
He doesn’t deny that the gravy drenched meatballs also have a little more going for them in terms of flavor and texture. While he’s given the recipe a bit of an update over the years, it’s still rooted in his early days of learning to cook in his Italian grandmother’s row house kitchen.
Ready for a crash course in big love cooking? Here’s Campanaro’s recipe for Gravy Meatball Sliders and a few tips and tricks to ensure they come out perfectly every time.
Though Campanaro’s meatballs include three kinds of ground meat—beef, pork and veal—the chef says that the result is “very light.”
“Some people’s [meatballs] can tend to be a little bricky,” says Campanaro. “At the restaurant, we serve them in the beginning of the meal—they’re an appetizer. So you can have three of these meatballs and not feel bloated, and then you can continue and follow on and actually have an entree. Every time I eat one, I’m amazed by how light they are.”
Campanaro achieves that feat by adding a bit of water to the mix of meat, eggs, pecorino cheese, panko bread crumbs, salt and pepper, and fresh parsley. He recommends chilling the raw meatballs before frying them—they’ll hold together better and are far easier to maneuver in the pan. It’s also essential to fry in batches, so you don’t overcrowd the golf ball-sized meatballs in the pan. This will ensure they’ll brown properly.
But before you portion out and roll all of your meatballs, fry a small tester first to make sure you’ve got the proper level of salt. There’s nothing worse than frying all of them only to realize you should’ve added a little bit more seasoning. “My grandmother would taste [the meat mixture] raw,” he says. “And it was like, aren’t you afraid you’re going to get sick? And she’s like, no, not at all.”
Though Campanaro finds that the trio of meats makes the best meatball, he says using one or two of them instead would also be “absolutely delicious.” The breadcrumbs can also be easily swapped for a different kind, dry herbs can easily take the place of fresh (just use a little less) and the water, while important, also leaves a little room for experimentation.
“One thing that might be fun is instead of water, if you put a little bit of wine into the raw meat blend,” he says. Beyond that, however, he does recommend sticking to the recipe as closely as possible.
If you close your eyes and taste Campanaro’s Sunday gravy, you’d swear that it contains pork sausage. It doesn’t. That’s because the Italian market on Christian Street in Philly was closed one Sunday while his grandmother was making supper and she couldn’t get the Italian sausage she typically cooked in the sauce.
“She really loved how the sausage flavored the gravy,” says Campanaro. “And so she thought about it—what is Italian sausage? It’s not just ground pork, it has fennel seeds in it. So while she was browning her onions and garlic, she didn’t have sausage, so she put fennel seeds right into what’s called the sofrito.”
He remembers being “very impressed” by her quick thinking, and the flavor of the gravy that Sunday stuck with Campanaro. “That was something that I adopted from her,” he says. “I feel actually privileged to know that I took this little trick from a 75-year-old woman who cooks from the heart.”
To make the sauce, the chef uses the same pan that the meatballs were cooked in, first straining out the excess oil. After adding in the canned whole tomatoes, you’ll stir the sauce as it cooks down a bit and then run it all through a food mill to get the ideal consistency. He then simmers the sauce and the meatballs together for at least four hours. The longer it reduces, the more concentrated the flavor will be.
“You have to be very careful when you’re stirring,” says Campanaro. “There’s a ring around the pot as the gravy reduces and the water evaporates and it sticks to the side. That is concentrating the flavor, so you need to get that off of that pot and put it back into the gravy.”
If you find that you miss some bits of sauce after the fact, just do what Campanaro used to when he was coming up in kitchens and working as a dishwasher: “I would take a piece of bread and scrape [those bits] off the pot,” he says. “The chef saw me doing that one day and he was like, ‘What are you doing?’ I’m like, ‘I hate to throw it away. It’s so good.’”
While Campanaro serves the Gravy Meatball Sliders as a trio at the Little Owl on small buns, that’s far from the only way he likes to eat them. “I love it with pasta and I love it with salad,” he says. “At the restaurant we make this amazing Caesar salad and you know how people want some grilled chicken or grilled shrimp? What we’ll do at Little Owl is we add a meatball.”
No matter how you decide to serve them, Camanaro says there’s a good chances that you’ll have leftovers. So to ensure that they taste just as good the next day, reheat the meatballs and gravy together in a large pot over low heat for about 20 minutes or until fully warmed through. Then grate pecorino cheese over each meatball and watch it melt.
“Big Love Cooking is dedicated to the women that have helped me become the person I am today, including my grandmother and my mother,” says Campanaro. “That’s through more than just food, but life. And how food and comfort food in general can inspire good decisions.”
*Makes 36 meatballs
- 1 lb Ground beef
- 1 lb Ground pork
- 1 lb Ground veal
- 3 Eggs
- 1 cup Pecorino cheese, finely grated
- 1 cup Panko bread crumbs
- Kosher salt
- Black pepper, freshly ground
- .25 cup Fresh Italian parsley, finely chopped
- 1 cup Cold water
- 1 cup Canola oil
- Kosher salt
- Black pepper, freshly ground
- .25 cup Olive oil
- 1 Large yellow onion, ends trimmed, peeled and roughly sliced
- 8 Garlic cloves, smashed
- 1 tsp Fennel seed
- .5 cup Fresh parsley, finely chopped
- 8 Fresh basil leaves, finely chopped
- .5 tsp Red pepper flakes (optional)
- 4 28 oz cans Whole peeled tomatoes
- 1 6 oz can Tomato paste
- 7 cups Water
- Take out two large baking sheets (no need to oil them, they’re there to hold the meats) and set them close by. Also, take out a large platter to hold the browned meats.
- To prepare the meatballs: In a large bowl, combine the beef, pork, veal, eggs, cold water, the pecorino, bread crumbs, salt, pepper and parsley. Use your hands to mix well and form tightly into 36 golf ball–size meatballs, about 3 ounces each. Cup your hands and roll them back and forth to really smooth them out and transfer to a baking sheet. Cover with plastic wrap and place them in the refrigerator to chill for at least 15 minutes.
- In the largest shallow pot you own (the one with the maximum amount of surface area so that you can comfortably brown the meat—even a large cast-iron skillet will work) over medium-high heat, add the canola oil. You want to get the oil very hot but not smoking.
- Remove the meatballs from the refrigerator and use a large slotted spoon to add one to the pot. Does that meatball immediately start to crisp on the outside? Good. Your oil is hot enough. Continue adding the rest of the meatballs to the pot, allowing ample space between each meatball and working in batches. Lower the heat to medium and cook them until they are dark brown and crusty on one side, 4 to 5 minutes. Turn and cook on the other side until that is brown and crusty, too, 4 to 5 minutes more. Persuade any stubborn meatballs that want to stick to the bottom of the pot by sticking a slotted spoon under them and giving a gentle shove. Transfer the meatballs to the large platter and set aside.
- Discard the canola oil by pouring it into a fine-mesh strainer placed over an empty can. The strainer will catch any brown bits of meat and the oil will cool in the can before you dump it—my grandmother and my mother would save a tomato can from their previous pot of gravy. Use whatever can or vessel is best for you.
- Set aside the strainer of meat bits.
- In the same empty pot over medium-high heat, warm the olive oil until it shimmers and add the browned meat bits, onion, garlic, fennel seed, 2 Tbsp kosher salt, the parsley and basil, lower the heat to medium, and cook until the onions are slightly brown and everything smells amazing, about 5 minutes. If you like your gravy spicy, now would be the time to add the red pepper flakes, if using.
- Open the tomato cans and pour their contents directly into the pot one at a time (no need to crush the tomatoes; they’ll be passed through the food mill). Fill one empty tomato can with 1 cup of cold water, swirl, and dump that tomato water into the second can, swirl, and dump it out into the third can, and add the tomato water to the pot plus 6 cups of water. You will have a watery, tomato brothy–looking pot of love in front of you.
- Raise the heat to high until it begins to boil, then lower the heat to a simmer.
- Once the gravy is simmering, add the tomato paste grand-mom style: by opening both the top and the bottom of the can and pushing the top lid down to scrape through and capture the clingy paste along the sides of the can so that none will be wasted. Carefully catch both metal lids at the bottom so that you don’t cut yourself (and they don’t fall into the gravy). Cover the pot with the lid slightly ajar and simmer, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon, for about 30 minutes.
- Remove the pot from the heat and let it cool slightly, about 20 minutes. Meanwhile, fit a food mill with the smallest disk and place it over a large, shallow bowl. Using an 8 ounce ladle, begin to transfer the cooled tomato gravy into the food mill and crank in batches of 8 ounces at a time. As it passes through the food mill, it will begin to look even waterier as the tomato pulp, onions, and garlic are churned and puréed together. Be sure to scrape the bottom of the food mill so that every bit of tomato and herbs makes its way back into the pot. Set aside.
- Using tongs or a slotted spoon, carefully lower the meatballs back into the now-empty pot along with the juices that collected on the platters while the meats were resting. Transfer the milled tomato to the pot, covering the meatballs. Cover the pot with the lid slightly ajar and let the Sunday gravy simmer and reduce for a minimum of 4 hours, stirring gently every so often.
Reprinted from Big Love Cooking by Joey Campanaro with permission by Chronicle Books, 2020.