Everyone has experienced an involuntary memory through food, when a taste or even a smell sends your whole inner being hurdling back to a long forgotten, hopefully happy experience often involving that very food. Think of Proust's madeleine with tea, or the critic, Anton Ego, in Pixar's Ratatouille, who is reduced to tears upon the first forkful of the title dish. Parm, the first child of Torrisi Italian Specialties, which opened last Monday, not only evokes happy childhood memories, it actually improves upon them.
Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone have already established their culinary genius by becoming the "Anti-Eataly," if you will, importing nothing while celebrating all things Italian. Expanding their Mulberry Street location in Little Italy, they have lovingly resurrected Italian-American staples that have become ingrained into our collective culinary consciousness. The difference is that memory always seems to shade the past with rose-colored glasses. Not so at Parm. You remember the greatness of the past dish, shake your head, and then have to admit, "Mozzarella sticks were never this good!"
Parm simultaneously revives blasts from the past while re-inventing them. And not with the trendy chemical alterations of molecular gastronomy. The Torrisi boys actually make these iconic dishes true to the original, but better, by adding incredible locally sourced ingredients with love and respect for their heritage. Don't forget, these are the guys who during the past two years helped redirect New York food snobs back to the Feast of San Gennaro.
So after eating homemade fresh fried mozzarella sticks for what seemed like the first time, I had the same experience with their fried stuffed pepper poppers. No fancy imported peppers, mind you, but B&G peppers out of a jar like the ones that I used to spoon onto my first homemade Italian heroes during my first foray into the kitchen as a Jewish-Italian wannabe.
There are some food memories that are still vivid in my mind. Having eaten the night before at Don Peppe's in South Ozone Park (established 1942), the garlic from the undisputed world-champion baked clams was literally still on my breath. Unbelievably, Parm's baked clams knocked out Don Peppe's in the first round.
Taking a page out of Krispy Kreme Doughnuts' playbook, upon entering Parm, you're greeted by a cute neon sign with a cartoon squid skating past a traffic light. If the light's green, that means instead of doughnuts they will be serving crisp, hot, fresh flash-fried salt-'n'-cubanella pepper calamari imported from no, not Italy, but Montauk, Long Island. If fresh calamari is unavailable that day it's red-lighted and you'll have to console yourself with the rest of the menu. Which is one helluva consolation prize.
Not content to pay homage to encroaching Chinatown with their pork spare ribs, introduced at this year's San Genarro Feast (which make me want to forget those of my youth from King Yum), the Jewish influence of the Lower East Side has also been established at Parm. The signage throughout is pure Katz's Deli and the scrambled eggs atop local Parisi Bakery toasted bread with soppressata substituting for salami made me find my own Jewish religion. It reminded me of the salami and eggs I make them grill me next to the franks when I'm trying to beat tourists to Katz's early Sunday mornings. Only, I can't believe I'm saying this, these salami and eggs were more delicious. Is that sacrilegious?
The Jewish influence as well as the cocktail menu (including the "Lemon Scorpio" made from Torrisi's homemade lemon Italian ices), I was told from the man himself, were created by the new partner to the Torissi and Carbone team, Jeff Zalaznick. Full disclosure, Jeff is a friend, meal companion, and occasional client (as is Torrisi Italian Specialties) of my law firm, and was also the founder of the New York food web site Always Hungry NY (which, again, full disclosure, was acquired by The Daily Meal).
The pork and veal meatball parm hero, tested by the world's toughest critics and perfected at Parm's Yankee Stadium stand, is yet another paradigm shift for a classic sandwich, joining the Torissi chicken parm and turkey sandwiches in the Sandwich Hall of Fame.
For dessert, the Italian-Jewish neighborhood connection really shined. First a tri-colored ice cream cake of pistachio, strawberry, and chocolate, which was like my seventh birthday cake from Carvel, but this time made into spumoni. And last but not least, sugar-coated zeppole stuffed, amazingly, with Concord grape jelly, which made my eyes twinkle as jelly doughnuts will do in anticipation of lighting the menorah for Hanukkah.