When esteemed chef Mark Ladner opened his fast food restaurant Pasta Flyer last year, I published my impressions during the venue’s early days. TL;DR: It was fine. It was boring. But then I returned this week and sampled one of the best chicken parm sandwiches on planet earth, or at least in chicken parm-packed NYC. It costs $10.
Ladner was the longtime chef at Michelin-starred Del Posto, the very formal and very expensive Italian spot opened by now-disgraced restaurateur Mario Batali. Ladner’s year-old solo effort, by contrast, is a more affordable counter-service affair. His new restaurant on the northern edge of Greenwich Village, hawks plates of fusilli and penne for no more than $8.75 apiece.
The sandwich, though, is a different beast. Perhaps you’ve read about it already; when it launched Grub Street penned a full blog post about the drippy red sauce affair. Journalists don’t usually publish full stories about new ceviches, deviled eggs, or rice balls, but a chicken sandwich gets the celebrity engagement treatment. Similar stories appeared elsewhere when Chicago chef Grant Achatz started serving a fried chicken sandwich, and when David Chang debuted Fuku, a crispy chicken sandwich joint, I was part of a team that reviewed it within hours of its opening.
People like chicken sandwiches a lot; just look at the line outside of any Chik-fil-A. And Pasta Flyer’s parm, dripping with tomato sauce and packed with an aroma as strong as the cheese department at good gourmet market, easily ranks with the portable poultry at places like Fuku and Shake Shack.
The preparation doesn’t really depart too much from the Italian-American norm. Ladner fries the pounded breasts in garlic bread crumbs until they’re deeply golden in color. He places them on a sesame hero and tops with provolone, grated pecorino and parmesan, romaine lettuce dressed with Meyer lemon puree, and a boatload of spicy tomato sauce. And that’s it.
The beauty doesn’t necessarily lie in the creative maneuvering (the Meyer lemon was undetectable) but rather in the execution and the ingredients. The sprinkling of good parmesan or pecorino is a fairly unusual touch; it imparts the sandwich with a pungent and complex aroma. The chicken, in turn, doesn’t have a ton of flavor, and nor should it. It is a neutral and assertively crunchy counterpart to the fromage, the gently crunchy lettuce, and most importantly, the tomatoes. The levels of acid and sugar are dialed up so high one wonders whether Ladner slipped a few glasses of good German Riesling in there. The sauce that wouldn’t taste out of place on a Michelin-starred plate of spaghetti.
If you grow up on Long Island you end up eating a lot of chicken parms. Most are indistinct blobs of meat, sauce, and cheese. I’ve never tried a version with such clarity of flavor.
I’m calling the parm at Pasta Flyer a BUY!
Buy, Sell, Hold is a column from Eater New York’s chief critic Ryan Sutton where he looks at a single dish or item and decides whether you should you buy it, sell it (or just don’t try it at all), or hold (give it some time before trying).