Bloomberg News

World’s Best $9 Hamburger Comes From Parm: Ryan Sutton

August 29, 2012

Parm Scorpino

The Scorpino is a mix of lemon juice, vodka, orange liquor and prosecco. It's a $12 ticket to a very painful brain freeze. Photographer: Philip Lewis/Bloomberg

You can get one of New York’s best burgers at Parm, though you won’t see burger listed anywhere on the menu.

Never mind that the patty isn’t all beef. The French- trained chefs toss in veal, sausage, cheese and breadcrumbs.

The toppings are milky mozzarella and tangy marinara. No watery tomatoes, no iceberg lettuce.

The misleading name of the sandwich is “meatball parm.” But I know a burger when I bite into one. And this one bears no relation whatsoever to the product sold at McDonalds (MCD:US) or Wendy’s. (WEN:US)

Parm’s patty sits flat inside a sesame bun. The meat, pink as a plastic flamingo, collapses silkily in the mouth.

The cost of this perfect burger is $9. That’s about $10 less than the going rate for lesser creations around New York.

The messy, two-handed affair is meant to be consumed on a spinning stool while Billy Joel pumps through the sound system. The Yankees are clobbering the Rangers on the flat screen TV and you’re sucking a frozen scorpino through a bar straw. The mix of vodka, lemon juice and prosecco is like an Italian ice, plus buzz.

Cheap Dough

Such red saucery is the norm at this little gastro-diner in Manhattan’s Nolita district, a brilliant sophomore effort by chefs Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone. The duo’s neighboring and namesake flagship, Torrisi, is proof that great Italian-American cuisine can command the same wallet-burning prices as fancy French fare: Dinner for two after wine pairings, tax and tip runs $300-$600.

Parm, with most dishes under $15, happily offers just opposite -- cheap, checkered-tablecloth food that can be good in its own right.

Take pizza knots, typically a lead lump of hot bread and rancid garlic. Parm lightens up the dough, tossing it in onion powder, tomato powder, oregano and chili. They taste like ultimate Combos.

B&G peppers ($6), the official pickle of Long Island’s South Shore, are deep fried and stuffed with rice and provolone. The result is a gooey, spicy, stinky riff on jalapeno poppers.

That same incendiary condiment reappears on raw clams. Buffalo cucumbers, with blue cheese and RedHot vinaigrette coating the cool cukes ($6), would please Paula Deen.

Zeppo Marks

Grade A+ zeppoles are doused in sugar and have a toothsome satisfying yeastiness.

Fried calamari is a must. The mix of tender squid, verdant cubanelles and tabasco aioli is a paragon of flavor clarity. The $12 dish feeds three; it’s reassuring that in the age of individual appetizers, there are still cheap starters at good restaurants that can nourish a family.

And that’s partly the lure of Parm. A number of the heartier preparations belong to the Mission Chinese school of portion control, where food is served in quantities providing next-day leftover lunches.

For nine bucks, you’ll get one of the best turkey sandwiches, with a concentrated poultry punch and a sweet honey glaze. It has enough meat to feed 1.5 sumo wrestlers.

Or for $17 there’s the sausage and peppers platter, which includes a side of killer baked ziti. Those who finish it should get a plaque on the wall. The noodles are al dente, the Bolognese is laden with beefy aromatics, the marinara is tart and the burnt exterior is a heartwarming sign that Carbone and Torrisi know when grandma’s tradition should trump technique.

Not Comfy

Too bad the chefs couldn’t invest in a few more creature comforts. Only the genetically well-cushioned will find Parm’s hard seats comfortable. And the lack of proper sound-proofing means that screaming children (or misbehaving adults) can raise the decibel count to ear-piercing levels.

As at Torrisi, wine remains the Achilles heel of Parm, with room temperature reds poured into five-and-dime stems.

Stick with the scorpinos, or pair an Ommegang ale with your fried chicken cacciatore -- a $25 blue plate special only available on Mondays. A yogurt marinade keeps the bird exceedingly tender; black-pepper flour imparts world-class crunch.

Even better is the Tuesday-night Salisbury steak. Unlike Swanson, Parm uses Worcestershire-bathed, dry-aged ribeye, which is why the creamy chopped beef boasts an upscale mineral tang. And it’s served on rye with provolone.

That’s a hamburger to me.

Rating: ** 1/2

The Bloomberg Questions

Price: Everything $25 or under.

Sound Level: Shouty; sometimes over 80.

Date Place: You bet; lots of couples in the dining room.

Inside Tip: No reservations; come early or come late for shortest wait.

Special Feature: Bar TV shows Mets, Yankees games.

Back on My Own Dime: Frequently.

Parm is at 248 Mulberry St. Information: +1-212-993-7189; http://parmnyc.com.


What the Stars Mean:

****         Incomparable food, service, ambience.
***          First-class of its kind.
**           Good, reliable.
*            Fair.
(No stars)   Poor

Sound-Level (in decibels): 51 to 55: Quiet enough to converse. 56 to 60: Speak up. 61 to 65: Lean in if you want to hear your date. 66 to 70: You’re reading one another’s lips. 71 to 75: You’re yelling. 76 to 85: Ear-splitting din.

(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Greg Evans on movies and Katya Kazakina on art.

To contact the writer of this column: Ryan Sutton in New York at rsutton1@bloomberg.net or qualityrye on http://twitter.com/qualityrye

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.


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