Discussions around the dinner table changed the lives of husband and wife Joe and Michelle Rechichi forever.
Each week, they would gather for a traditional Italian dinner with Joe's parents in Perth in Western Australia.
Dinner was cooked by his mum, Nonna Roselyn Rechichi. Joe tells SBS Food, "She did the meatballs, the pasta, the cotoletta [breaded cutlet], that kind of thing." It was a highlight of his week. "We would enjoy it, and we got around to saying, 'How good would this be if we could serve up this kind of food in public to people in the city?'"
Repeated discussions about opening their own food business soon blossomed into reality. Inspired by their love of New York City's sandwich bars during their honeymoon, Joe and Michelle opened Joey Zaza's Boss Sandwiches in Perth's CBD in February 2020.
'Joey Zaza', a hybrid of Joe's nickname and Michelle's maiden name, bears a resemblance to the name of the character Joey Zasa in the film The Godfather about the Italian-American mafia. Indeed, the sandwich bar is themed around the Italian-American gangster stereotype. But the real drawcard is sandwich versions of Roselyn's hearty homemade meals; think traditional Italian food served between bread. Michelle explains, "It's like joining Joe and his family at the dinner table."
"It's like joining Joe and his family at the dinner table."
Fillings such as chicken cutlets and porchetta (slow-roasted pork) are paired with fresh ingredients to become gourmet subs in their own right. The best-selling filling is undoubtedly Nonna Roselyn's meatballs, which are made from an 80-year-old recipe that was passed down from Joe's great grandmother in Calabria, Italy. The meatballs are flavoured with a secret Napoli sauce that simmers for nine hours.
"What you see is what you get – meatballs in a sub," Michelle says.
Michelle says it took time to translate the recipe to paper. "When you are getting a recipe from any Italian nonna, you don't have recipes. There are usually no quantities, so we worked quite hard to narrow it down because we need to be consistent. [Joe] watched. I watched and took notes to the finest details."
Nonna Roslyn was the taste tester. "When we started, nonna came in and had her meatball roll, and she was like, 'It needs to be a bit firmer'."
Since Roselyn's soft meatballs are traditionally served with pasta, the pair adjusted the recipe to work with fluffy bread. Joe says, "When you put the meatballs into a roll, they can get a little bit flattened, so just changing up the recipe by adding a bit more eggs and breadcrumbs just firms them up, so it holds better in the sub."
The end result is four saucy meatballs served in a Calabrese panini made by a local Vietnamese baker.
Remarkably, only four kilograms of beef mince are used each week. However, because the meatballs contain breadcrumbs and cheese, the pair make hundreds each week.
"What makes our meatball subs so good is that it is about the meatball itself. It's simply meatballs, sauce, a bit of Romano cheese, basil and salsa verde," Joe says.
Nonna Roselyn helps makes the Napoli sauce and carrot cake mix for the store's baked-treats cabinet. Michelle's Chinese heritage has also influenced breaded creations. A razzle-dazzle pork crackle sandwich – a combination of porchetta, Asian herbs and Maggi seasoning – is considered the shop's Italian take on a Vietnamese banh mi. Versions of New York favourites, Reuben and Philly cheesesteak sandwiches, also appear on the menu.
Their interpretation of the family's classic meatball recipe may be a hit for their family and friends. But most importantly, does Nonna Roselyn approve of their ball game?
"She will always be our toughest customer," Joe jovially admits. "If you can please her, you know everyone else is going to be pretty happy."
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Nonna's famous meatball hack
This recipe may not be 80-years in the making but it will save you time. Enjoy this easy, quick Joey Zaza’s meatball recipe, inspired by nonna herself and adapted for your bosses at home.
- 250 g beef mince
- 150 g breadcrumbs
- 60 g parmesan cheese
- ¼ cup quality Italian pasta sauce or passata (bought or freshly made)
- 2 eggs
- 4 g basil, chopped
- 1 tsp fresh minced garlic
- 1 tsp salt
- ¼ tsp white pepper
In a mixing bowl add beef mince, bread crumbs and parmesan cheese.
Mix together with fingers for 15 minutes, it is important to ensure every part of the mixture is blended together.
Add eggs, Italian pasta sauce, minced garlic, chopped basil, salt and white pepper. Mix again for 5 minutes until well combined.
Put in the fridge for a minimum of 20 minutes to harden. Weigh out 30g meatball mixture and roll into a ball. Simmer a pot of Italian pasta sauce (made fresh or store-bought). Gently add rolled meatballs and simmer.
When the meatballs rise to the top, they are cooked. Pick up the pot and swirl the pot to move the meatballs. Do not use utensils as they will break! Serve the meatballs with bread or pasta.
Chewy and fragrant, these biscuits are the perfect way to finish a night, and equally good for morning or afternoon tea.