February's Can't-Miss Dish

By Ellen Bhang · 02/02/2021

Looking for a no-fail, mouthwatering, gonna-tell-your-friends-about-it plate? Each month, Boston Globe columnist Ellen Bhang highlights the dish you need to try right now. 

On the plate: Meatball Sub

Where to find it: No one would ever describe Chris Willis as an average chef.

“Anyone who has passed through this kitchen, or knows me, will tell you that I’m a perfectionist almost to a fault,” says Willis, the chef-owner of Pammy’s in Cambridge. “But I like to say I’m curious,” he explains. “I like to explore things. So if we have a new menu item, I’ll do a ton of what we call R&D, research and development, looking into different approaches to it.” Willis did exactly that last spring when the pandemic forced the neighborhood trattoria to launch a to-go menu.

“I like our food at Pammy’s to be somewhat challenging and surprising, but with takeaway, I knew right off the bat that was not going to be the priority here,” recalls the chef. “The priority is to have something that will travel, that’s comforting, and familiar.” Yet true to form, items offered from Pammy’s and for takeout and delivery are exquisitely crafted.

Notes on the nosh: A humbly named Meatball Sub—swaddled like a mid-winter present in a shiny wrapper—might call to mind red sauce joints of the past; but Willis’ version is a cut above. These meatballs offer heft without being heavy, and provide a little bounce while maintaining a soft chew. Traditionally, a panade—a whipped mixture of bread and milk—would be added to ground pork and beef to help bind the meatballs. But cooking at home one day with his oldest daughter, Willis was inspired to use white corn tortillas instead. He loves how the non-traditional starch lends “corniness and complexity” to the finished product. Further experimentation led him to add ingredients like miso, duck fat, and fluffy ricotta cheese to the mix.

To assemble the sub at Pammy’s, one of the cooks brushes a split seeded roll with garlic-oregano butter, then toasts it. Into that demi-loaf go the meatballs, which have been braised in the restaurant’s sweet-tangy Umami Marinara Sauce, along with a pillowy dollop of ricotta and a squeeze of brightly acidic labneh yogurt. Willis himself tucks in slivered jalapeños and basil leaves, showering the sandwich with Parmigiano-Reggiano. He also adds what he calls his secret weapon: a drizzle of warm olive oil infused with toasty garlic and dried Mediterranean oregano. “It gives it an extra punch of all those flavors we love about red sauce food and Italian-American food,” he says.

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