Monday, November 1, 2010

Chicken Parms in Boston – Trends, Highlights and Thoughts

I’ve never been much of a foodie. I tag along when people want to go to a nice restaurant and try to swish my wine and savor the flavors. But usually, by the time I wake up in the morning, I couldn’t tell you what I ate the night before. However, due to a unique cosmic convergence of circumstances, I have become a somewhat renowned connoisseur of chicken parmesans in the metro Boston area.

I’ve loved chicken parm since I was an infant. And when I got into running a few years ago, I was delighted to discover the concept of carbo-loading before a long run. The theory is that if you gorge yourself on pasta and carbohydrates the night before a long run, you’ll have extra energy reserves packed away and ready to go when you start pounding the pavement. I have no idea whether there is any actual medical support for this concept, but who am I to judge. If a magazine tells me that my health and well being will be enhanced by eating a chicken parm and a vat of pasta, that’s all I need to hear. And so, every time I have a run of more than 13 or so miles scheduled, I go out the night before in search of some breaded, fried poultry and a side of pasta. I feel that, in the name of health and nutrition, eating anything else would be downright dangerous.

I haven’t yet reached such a level of national culinary fame that I have to disguise myself when I go out to chicken parm establishments. Which is nice. I can just stroll into any Italian restaurant, evaluate the full experience and share it with all of you lucky diners. All of the chicken parms I review here have one thing in common: they are huge. Any moderately legitimate chicken parm should be accompanied by a massive bowl of pasta and should be able to feed a family of four. A chicken parm weighing in at less than three or four pounds isn’t even worth discussing. Anyone who knows me will confirm that I am notably adept at putting down a chicken parm. When a waitress brings out my entrée, gives my 130 pound self the once over, and says something like, “well good luck finishing that,” I chuckle condescendingly and dig right in. I’ve encountered chicken parms of truly epic girth and have never, not once, left even a little morsel on my plate.

I don’t know how many chicken parms I’ve had. Probably thousands, maybe millions. Here are my reviews of the top five most notable chicken parms I’ve experienced in metro Boston.

Galway House – 720 Centre St., Jamaica Plain

The Galway House is my old standby. Most people know it as the place to go if you want to catch up with Jamaica Plain’s old timer alcoholics. The décor consists of posters and plaques that say things like “Loose women tightened here,” and “Beer – helping ugly people get laid since 1862.” But they also have a borderline respectable menu, including two chicken parm options – entrée and sub. The sub bun gets soggy pretty fast, but it’s a nice alternative if you’re only planning to burn, say, 1000 calories the next day, or if you just can’t handle a full throttle chicken parm. The entrée is served on an old white plate by a surly waitress and comes with a side salad and towering pile of mediocre, overcooked pasta. In a word, perfection. Close to my house, cheap and massive, you can understand why a Galway House chicken parm is what is sloshing through my intestines during most of my long runs.

Delfino – 754 South St., Roslindale

Delfino is a little more on the elegant side. It’s a nice place for a date, assuming your date won’t be disgusted watching you put down a massive, breaded expanse of poultry. There’s a small open kitchen and a few counter seats where you can watch all of the food being prepared. The chicken parm is quite tasty, and they’ve got a legitimate wine menu, nice salads and good desserts. The good desserts are irrelevant if you’re going to have the chicken parm, though; anyone who tells you they’ve had a Delfino chicken parm and a dessert is either morbidly obese, lying or bulimic. Delfino also attracts people who are into “taste” and “quality” and so can be crowded at times. Call ahead or go early to get a table.

Bertucci’s – 683 VFW Parkway, West Roxbury / Vinny Testa’s – 867 Boylston St., Brookline (before going out of business)

Bertucci’s and Vinny Testa’s are chains owned by the same publicly traded corporation. Vinny Testa’s went out of business. But since my review of it is identical to Bertucci’s, I’ll include it here. I could try to describe these restaurants myself, but nothing I could say would be as elegant as the descriptions in their parent company’s Securities and Exchange Commission filings. As so eloquently stated in its 10-K for the fiscal year ended December 31, “Our Bertucci’s restaurants are full-service, casual dining restaurants offering high quality, moderately priced Italian food. Our Vinny T’s of Boston restaurants are full service, casual dining restaurants based upon re-creations of the high quality neighborhood Italian eateries prominent in the neighborhoods of lower Manhattan, Brooklyn, the north-end of Boston and South Philadelphia in the 1940s.” Pure poetry. If you’ve ever been to a Bertucci’s and liked it so much that you’d like to have the exact same experience, with the exact same decor, with the exact same industrially-prepared food, with the exact same six pieces of flare, and with the exact same scripted lines recited to you by your waitress, you’re in luck. You can just go back to any other Bertucci’s. Or an Olive Garden too (or a Chachki’s). Same restaurant, different shareholders. And don’t forget to upgrade your Bud Light to a super size party mug for just an additional $2! As for the chicken parm, sufficiently huge and edible to serve its purpose. Nothing to jump up and down about, but it’s got enough calories and chicken parm flavor to get you through a 20 miler.

Vinny’s Ristorante – 76 Broadway, Somerville

Vinny’s Ristorante is a lot of fun, and very unique. There are a few animal issues - a cat that lives in the dining room and a minor infestation of fruit flies - but the chicken parm is extra delicious and comes with even more extra-ly delicious homemade pasta. The most unique thing about Vinny’s is that you have to walk though a deli / convenience store to get to it. The dining room is in the back, past the convenience store. The bar is actually in the convenience store. If you’ve ever been out buying Saran Wrap and thought, man, I could really use a drink, Vinny’s would be perfect for you. Do your errands, have a cocktail served up by a friendly bartender, and then adjourn to the dining room for some really much better-than-average pasta and chicken parm.

Papa Razzi – Chestnut Hill Mall, Brookline

Papa Razzi is another corporate owned chain with a dozen locations in Boston. They have photos of celebrities all over the walls. Get it? The location I go to most is the one in the Chestnut Hill mall - ‘cause it’s closest to my house. The Papa Razzi chicken parm is pounded flatter than most, so that its surface area is striking - enough to cover a plate that could be mistaken for a pizza. The wait staff has that certain chain restaurant minimum wage-esque quality - enthusiastic and entirely incompetent. One thing to look out for is the tables that are outside of the restaurant. A few faux-plants and barriers cannot hide it; you are sitting IN the mall. I can see how, if you had been locked up in a Soviet gulag for a few decades, it might be exciting to eat your dinner while watching 14 year-olds with six figure allowances shop with their immaculately quaffed mothers-who-lunch, but for people like me who generally take capitalism for granted and are mildly repulsed by snobishness, it’s nauseating. Better to wait an extra few minutes for a table inside under a framed poster of Marilyn Monroe.

So those are my most notable Boston chicken parms. Someday, I hope to quit my job, set out on the road and investigate chicken parms throughout the world. In the meantime, please, my people on the street, send me your thoughts, photos and, even better, samples of, your favorite breaded, sauced and cheese-covered poultry delicacies.


Unknown said...

Dan, I cannot believe you are accusing American wait staff of being incompetent. Come spend 6 months in Britain. And learn. That apart, this is easily the best chicken parm review I have ever read.

jaime said...

Vinny T's went out of business! No more giant heads of roasted garlic, trips home will never be the same.

My absolute favorite Chicken Parm Sub (no pasta, so possibly it doesn't count) is Dino's in the north end. You'll have to pull up a corner of sidewalk and tuck in your tie, but it's worth it!

Happy Eating!