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Dream Hero

January 29, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments


[From the Parm website]

We didn’t eat much Ialian food at home when I grew up. Or maybe I should call it Italian-American food. No pizza. No pasta. And I didn’t mind, given that I wasn’t too interested in tomatoes. Or cheese. Or spaghetti, which was pretty much synonymous with pasta then. My brother would like to pick up meatball heroes from a place nearby. I didn’t understand that at all. The name alone was a puzzle. Plus, when he’d bring the paper bag into the car with the takeout hero, the smell was awful.

I know. My loss. And what a loss it was! Here we were, in a suburb of New York with a large Italian population, and I eschewed the local food.

The first four of my Cambridge-Boston years were no better. But finally, when I stayed in Cambridge to attend graduate school, I had to cook for myself and my interests broadened. No heroes in Boston. They had grinders. There was a Greek pizza and grinder shop on Mass Ave about halfway between Central Square and MIT that I’d walk past every day. One day I took a chance. Rather than heading on to campus to grab lunch at the student center cafeteria, I stopped in to look around. And ordered a meatball grinder.

Mind you, I didn’t have much room in my diet for onions either. Thanks to this shop, I learned. They made a meatball grinder the likes of which I’ve never had since. The meatballs were cut long and flat, like meatloaf. A small amount of sauce was put on top. And sliced onions. Then the grinder was grilled, the bread getting toasty, the onions crisp. It was so good. The best.

But not a traditional meatball hero. Or sub. Or grinder. I wouldn’t learn to eat them for a few years more. The year we spent in Princeton, when Joel was a baby, I began serious research. Whenever we went to a pizza place, I’d be sure to order a meatball hero too. Some were good; some weren’t. They were nothing like those Greek meatball grinders from Cambridge, but I didn’t use them as my standard. I treated this as a different food category, and I was content.

Here in Seattle, as Joel has gotten older, he has begun his own search for the perfect meatball hero. We don’t have the same vision. I am convinced, for now at least, that the best in Seattle are from Stellar, in Georgetown. Joel’s not impressed. He prefers Piecora’s, which he grew up eating. More to the point, he’s not convinced there are any good meatball subs in Seattle. He may be right.

Which brings me to Pete Wells’ weekly NYT restaurant review last Wednesday, in which he awards two stars to Parm and breaks my heart. Why must we be so far away?

I would like somebody to explain why my mind keeps drifting back to the meatball parmigiana hero at Parm. Like most things at Parm, which opened on Mulberry Street in November, it is prepared by cooks wearing white paper hats and is set before you in a red plastic basket. And, like most things at Parm, it is completely faithful to your memories while being much, much better than you remembered.

At first, the sandwich exhibits nothing out of the ordinary. The tomato sauce, simple and summery, just seems to have been made by a good cook. The mozzarella and torn leaves of basil are fresh, which isn’t unheard of. The seeded roll is completely normal. The meatballs are not normal. For starters, they are not balls, they are patties. Anyone who has ever taken a bite of a meatball hero and watched one of the meatballs launch into orbit will recognize at once the significance of this deviation. Patties stay put.

Most sub-shop meatballs are as hard as a 15-minute egg. The patties at Parm are not. Your teeth fall right through them.

And when they do, you find something else that isn’t normal: the meat is juicy and rosy pink on the inside, the color of a perfectly cooked pork chop. The meatballs, made from veal, beef and sweet Italian sausage, are pink because they were braised at 180 degrees in a CVap low-temperature cooker for 40 minutes. They were braised at 180 degrees because Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone, the chefs behind Parm, studied fancy-restaurant techniques under chefs like Andrew Carmellini, Mario Batali and Wylie Dufresne.

But the meatballs are sitting on a hero roll because Mr. Torrisi and Mr. Carbone are Italian-Americans who, once they had a restaurant of their own, decided to cook what is a kind of soul food for them and for millions of other Americans, even those with no Italian ancestors.

In the summary data at the end of the review, Wells describes Parm as “an Italian-American lunch counter with tables, where the short-order cooks in white paper hats happen to have trained in some of Manhattan’s best restaurants.” The service is “as smiling and professional as one could ask of a place where nearly everything is served in a plastic basket.” Parm receives two stars, a ringing endorsement of such a simple place. We will have to find our way down there next time we’re in Manhattan.

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