I’ve had my problems with Impossible Foods’ artificial beef. I first tasted it in a burger in 2017, when it appeared temporarily at select bistros around town. The texture was good, but the bright pink center — the result of synthetic hemoglobin — struck me as creepy, and the flavor was almost like beef, but not quite, which proved equally as distressing. In subsequent years, beef substitutes seem to have improved, or maybe cooks learned to put them into more suitable contexts.
When the White Castle Impossible slider came along, it was just as tasty as the chain’s regular burger; in fact, the fake meat was indistinguishable in its oniony grayness from the original. And more recently, the gloppy vegetarian burger at Pop’s Eat-Rite proved that the greasier and more lush the setting, the easier it is to camouflage the patty’s negative aspects. Pop’s cloaked it in sauteed onions and bright yellow American cheese, something like a Shake Shack burger. And now Impossible and its ilk are found nearly everywhere, including small kebaberies, big burger chains, and pizzerias.
When I heard about Galioto’s Deli, which opened last Thursday in Little Italy, I was cynical. This grocery and sandwich shop — from the same team as the generally admirable Jajaja Plantas Mexicana — flaunted its strict vegan-ness. Yes, plenty of Italian food is naturally vegetarian, emphasizing vegetables and pastas bolstered with fresh mozzarella and aged Parmesan. And indeed, what meat-bearing dish could be more perfect than a Caprese salad kissed with green olive oil? But subtract the cheese and the larder is vastly diminished.
Grabbing the issue by the horns (or lack of them), the most interesting sandwich at Galioto’s was a meatball parm hero, made with Impossible beef. Yes, both meat and cheese would be faux. Still, curiosity got the better of me and I skidded down to Little Italy kicking up slush on my bike this past Saturday. The snow-heaped storefront looked like it had been there for 100 years through a painstaking interior and exterior design, complete with antique fonts on the signage. Right inside the door I found packaged sauces, oils and vinegars, and pastas ranked on neat shelves, and baskets of colorful fresh produce in the middle of the floor, which ran to pricey persimmons, kumquats, and black garlic.
At the back of the store was a sandwich counter outfitted with a small convection oven and a black cauldron of meatballs. And after I ordered the meatball parm, I watched fascinated as the sandwich maker, his back turned toward me, sliced a focaccia from Grandaisy Bakery, ladled on meatballs in a bright red and fragrant sauce, then grated on the mozzarella, which had a slight yellowish cast. Then he wrapped the sandwich in white butcher paper, struggling to keep the thing from falling apart.
Once outside in the crisp air and bright sunlight, I excitedly tore open the package, being careful not to shoot the meatballs out the end of the sandwich like cannon fire. I pulled one out with my thumb and forefinger, and took a tentative nibble. Then another bite, and another. Its taste was livelier than I’d expected, with an engaging texture that refused to crumble. And, more interesting for my theory of fake meat, it was close to indistinguishable from the meatball in a meatball parm hero at Faicco’s.
The meat was by turns squishy, herbal, oniony, and garlicky, I reflected as I replaced the balance in my four-meatball sandwich and started to chew in earnest. Here, I thought, was the perfect context for our new breed of fake meat, a place that showed off its commonality with actual ground beef by acting in concert with many flavorful ingredients, including copious fresh basil leaves glinting green in the sunlight. I nipped off a squiggle of the faux cheese that had been perhaps too sparsely applied. Apart from the color, it might have been Velveeta. Not bad, but it wasn’t going to convince anyone it was anything like fresh mozzarella.
Altogether, the sandwich was much better than I’d expected, even to an Impossible cynic, and despite the dispiriting vegan cheese. And the price ($13) was not out of line with carnivoric specimens in the neighborhood. I slid back home through the snow, licking my fingers at every stoplight.