What Happened to the Parmigiano Reggiano in My Hero?


The ridiculously large and delicious Italian roast beef hero at Fiore’s House of Quality in Hoboken

Colin F. asks: I’m a fan of hot Italian heros, those big sloppy sandwiches with meatballs, sausages, and veal cutlets in them topped with melted cheese. But I’ve been wondering for a long time, what happened to the parmesan cheese? They’re all called “parm,” right? But all they have is mozzarella. What happened to the “parm” part?

Faicco’s meatball parmesan hero

Dear Colin F.: I’m right with you, Colin F. For years I wondered the same thing, and had figured out an elaborate explanation involving the weird form of mozzarella used in neighborhood pizza parlors (some say as a result of coercion of the part of organized crime), which seems to be much drier than real mozzarella, but wetter than parmesan. Could pizza mozzarella be some sort of substitute for both cheeses?

Well, that was just idle speculation on my part, and the truth is more direct and simpler: the “parm” in meatball parmesan refers to the northern Italian city of Parma, where many great cured meats and dairy products come from. These sandwiches are Italian-American inventions, made by cooks who suddenly had access to opulent quantities of the meats and cheeses they were mainly deprived of in southern Italy.

To them, “parmesan” was a cooking style they associated with Parma, where anything made with parmesan cheese and prosciutto was referred to as “alla parmigiana.” Here, luxuriant quantities of fiori di latte (what we call mozzarella) were substituted, due to continued expensiveness of parmigiano reggiano here. And good Italian tomato sauce — not as popular an ingredient in northern Italian cooking — was added here, too.

The Meatball Shop’s version of the meatball hero