I’m not special. This is a mantra I live by. Chances are you’re not special either. If someone told you otherwise they were probably lying to you. This isn’t a slam on you or me, but more of a commentary on how low we’ve collectively set that bar.
To set this philosophy in motion, I’ve actualized the opportunity for guest contributions I made in the All About Beer post. Since then, I’ve received many ideas and articles from you, covering a wide spectrum of literal shit. Over time, these will become posts that everyone can enjoy. Here’s how the process goes:
- You’ve got an idea, a strong opinion, or a draft and send it to me in an email
- I check this shit out, brainstorm or make some edits, and send it back to you
- We keep doing this shit until we agree to post or someone gets murdered
In the spirit of Chicpea’s #JCLocals, I’m selecting “Hungry Chuck” a transplant from some fly-over state to be the first in this series. This was the first person with the stones to actually send me fully written essay and the internet taught me how important “first” is. While they are likely using this nom de plum to hide a long history of violent sex crimes, you can show them some love in the comments section. Enjoy.
About the author
I’m a thirty-something Midwestern guy that now lives in Downtown JC. I eat out too much, and I like complaining. So of course I was drawn to Nice Things, like a fly to shit. This is me throwing my hat into the ring and contributing some of my own quality content. Authored with the tenacity and work ethic of a man too lazy to make his own blog. Keep in mind that I haven’t tried everything, I am part of the hordes that moved here in the last five years. That said, feel free to school me in the comments section if you think I am being oblivious.
Single Dish Spotlight: The Chicken Parm
As a fairly recent transplant, I find that natives of the NYC metro area really take their Italian restaurants for granted. I don’t know what impresses me more: the sheer quantity of Italian spots this area has or their consistent competency. While I’m sure you can name a huge list of unremarkable pizza and pasta joints around here, the bar is set very high. Those same businesses would lock down the spot for best Italian in your average Ohio or Indiana town, leaving the Walmart freezer section a distant second.
I’ve been gleefully working my way from place to place and sizing them all up based on my favorite measuring stick: Chicken Parm.
When I say chicken parm I mean the sandwich, not the dish. Technically, it’s chicken parmigiana. Technically, I once ordered it EXACTLY like that at Buon Appetito. And, technically, the girl behind the counter rolled up her face with a mixture of both confusion and disgust, like she had just discovered a new species of insect. Technically. This a standard reaction you can expect at most pizza joints, and you can expect an equally standard pizza joint parm from these spots and others. Think Rustique or Delenio.
Sub Culture, the retro-arcade that moonlights as a sub shop, has a whole poorly punned parm menu. They even have the #ParmageddonChallenge where if you eat this colossal sandwich you get your name on the wall and Guy Fieri to read your premature eulogy. This place doesn’t fit neatly into the pizza spot category, but they have a decent parm.
Bakeries that make sandwiches tend to have best offerings. Baking your own bread in-house is a blood-doping caliber level of competitive advantage. These are diamonds in the rough and you should seek them out.
First, here’s what makes a parm sandwich:
There are four standard choices that you can get ‘parm-ed’. Anything else is heresy.
- Veal – I tend to keep away from veal. I’m not exactly concerned about animal abuse, but rather wasted animal abuse. If the process to make a dry-aged porterhouse involved forcing the cow to watch CBS sitcoms and delivering an electric shock to their eye every time an unearned laugh track played, I would still occasionally eat one knowing full well that the delicious taste I am experiencing is actually the distilled essence of cruelty. But, veal involves some pretty awful treatment of calves for the purpose of making the meat… softer, blander? Pass. [EDITOR’S NOTE: I love veal as a concept because it teaches kids they’re not special. No free passes, play like a champion.]
- Meatball – A solid choice, but to me it makes the sandwich seem too much like a plate of spaghetti and meatballs. Similar to someone running out of pasta and used bread instead.
- Eggplant – The best fried eggplant I’ve ever had has tasted like delicious crisp breading wrapped around nothing. As fried eggplant goes down in quality, I start to detect the least desirable part: the eggplant. I know some people go ape-shit for this stuff. However, to me it’s just a breadcrumb transport device.
- Chicken – My usual choice. Thin-sliced or pounded flat, breaded, and shallow-fried. You may call me a hypocrite for shitting all over the alternative fillings and choosing the most obviously milquetoast option. Fair point. My upbringing has left me predisposed to liking fried chicken shoved into anything. At least I’m not ordering it with a side of ranch dressing.
Chicken Parms need to be served on a sub roll, not buns. Definitely not wraps. There is really no substitute for a fresh roll with a good crust, and a nice chewy interior. Some joints will try to gussy up a too-soft roll under a broiler for a few minutes – you’re not fooling anyone. All too often I have seen giant, dry hoagie rolls make an otherwise perfectly adequate filling seem anemic and insufficient. It’s near impossible to have too little bread, yet easy to use too much.
The Cheese and Sauce
Parms take mozzarella cheese, marinara sauce, and grated Parmesan. If you’re tempted to put anything else in there it better be because you’re a contestant on Chopped. Pizza joints will often just use the same shredded cheese and pizza sauce they put on their pies which feels lazy. They’ll also tend to overdo it on one or both ingredients. Leaving you with bites that are both too gooey and soggy.
Using a fresh mozzarella and sauce more suitable for pasta. It makes a little bit go a long way flavor-wise, and they’re less likely to completely saturate the bread or meat. I also see a lot of stinginess with grated Parmesan. I get it kitchen prep staff… You’re hungover. It’s humid. The shaker has clogged once again. But you can just pop the top off that bad boy and spoon it on? We’re all adults here, we can handle it.
The Best Damn Parm (that I’ve tried) In Town: Pecoraro Antique Bakery on Newark and Monmouth.
Antique Bakery’s chicken parm bursts out of the gates starting with an incredibly unfair advantage: their homemade Italian bread. Other establishments scramble to find and buy ordinary sub rolls while the good folks at Antique pluck a loaf they just made two hours ago off the shelf. Half the customers I see there are just picking up plain bread, so you know they do that stuff right.
The sandwich is as big as my forearm, and it’s not just all bread. They serve it cut in half, subtly suggesting that you eat it in two sittings, or share it with another person. I like you Antique Bakery, but don’t you EVER tell me how to live my life.
They use their own homemade fresh mozzarella that blows the average pizza joint’s shredded mozz out of the water. They supplement the rich and creamy fresh mozz with copious amounts of salty grated parmesan which is spread literally everywhere. It’s in the sandwich, It’s on top of the sandwich, It’s thrown around the general vicinity of the sandwich. The inside of the foam container they serve it in looks like the colon of a coke mule that held a fart too long. The chicken is moist, tender, and consistently fried to perfection.
Finally I would like to mention the price point. Price has nothing to do with the quality of the product, but should be discussed – especially when talking about anything Downtown. Antique’s parm sandwich costs seven dollars. Seven. Seven bucks gets you half a cocktail at the Archer, a side of dry sweet potato fries at South House, or an acai smoothie at Sweetberry Bowls – which is kind of a steal for something that’s going to cure cancer AND AIDS. Seven bucks for a solid sandwich that can feed two productive members of society, or one sad man that doesn’t respect his own body, is more than a deal. It’s masochism. I want to grab the cashier by the shoulders and say, “Survive! Hang in there! I’ll recruit more people to come here. They’ll kind of suck and insist on taking a picture of whatever you give them before they eat it, but they will love your sandwich because it’s awesome.”
So there you have it. Get the chicken parm at Antique Bakery, cash only.
If you’re interested in steeping up to the plat and taking a swing, send a partially cogent email to NiceThings@gmail.com
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