Recollecting Little Italy: Parm and Hip Red Sauce

Little Italy has not been a good place to eat, at least in recent memory. The encroachment of Chinatown on Italian territory, rising rents, dying families, and changing immigration patterns set an expiration date on the neighborhood. As classic restaurants closed up shop, only the most vulgar and bawdy tourist destinations survived. Those palaces of forgetfulness prostituted themselves to the lowest bidders—cheap spaghetti in canned red sauce? Louche lasagna, too sweet with cottage cheese? Floozy pasta e fagioli? All for sale on Mulberry Street. Although many tourist traps maintained a pretense of earnestness until the end of red sauce seemed inevitable, the best restaurants, the dim leather salons and family kitchens where regular customers kept the food honest, disappeared long before the neighborhood’s current decline. Today, however, hipster aesthetics have inflected mainstream consumer preferences. It’s hip to be square. So red sauce is back, baby, in all its kitschy glory. For be not mistaken, hipster isn’t campy. The aestheticization of lower middle class custom and culture does not transform life into style. Ordinary experience fails to and perhaps cannot achieve transcendental aesthetic value. Instead, the supposed disclosure of aesthetic value in ordinariness is a patronizing power play, an attempt to appropriate, rehearse, and eventually perform class difference as social fetish. Hipster red sauce cooking, alias Torrisi Italian Specialties, is the latest incarnation of an old school bourgeois impulse: “slumming it.”

At Parm, Torrisi’s sandwich shop spin-off, an eggplant parm on a roll costs $9, only 40% more than my baseline price, Hamilton Deli’s. If overpriced, $9 is tenable—within the realm of possibility—however hard to swallow. The eggplant is greaseless, smothered in sharp tomato sauce and stretchy globs of mozzarella. It hardly needs to be said, but the quality of ingredients, in comparison to a deli counterpart, easily explains and justifies the mark-up. Egads, the parmesan tastes like parmesan! A squishy semolina bun, canary yellow, is not, in fact, stale! Evidently, an extra $4 guarantees a competently prepared sandwich. Alright, I will admit, reluctantly, that Parm’s rendition exceeds mere competence. It is quite tasty. Not as satisfying as my childhood favorite: thick thick slices of eggplant, indubitable crunch,  slopped out into sweet ragu at Grassi’s in St. Louis: but in a pinch, in the new old Little Italy, it’ll do.

My reluctance to validate Parm follows from my particular and probably peculiar orientation to history. I sense that Parm compromises an ethical relationship with the past. The hipster method recollects—it does not remember. What Kierkegaard (and William Spanos) refer to as recollection—the ‘coercive resolution of difference and contradiction into wholeness,’ the mythologization of the past into a static and controllable unit, is in opposition to a repetition that moves forwards, that does not forget, that discovers interest in the historical narrative. Little Italy is a better place to eat because of Parm. Nevertheless, I remain suspicious of the motivations and aftereffects, political and cultural, of this hip red sauce trend.

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Filed under Columbia University, New York City, Restaurants, Reviews, Theory and Criticism

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