Stadium and arena food has come a long way since my childhood—grayish hot dogs wrapped in foil, nachos in yellow plastic ooze. But even back then there was another kind of food, also associated with sports—the pregame meal—that was on another level. I remember a boyhood trip to St. Louis for the World Series, for example, when a team of waiters in white coats at a restaurant on the Hill, the city’s Italian neighborhood, served up such classics as lasagna and veal parmigiana that made the pregame meal an event in itself, adding to the sense of occasion, before we loaded back into the van to Bush Stadium to see the Cardinals play the Dodgers.
This is the kind of nostalgia tapped into by Parm, the branch of the Manhattan restaurant, at the Barclays Center. I went there this December with my friend, his 13-year-old son and his son’s friend, to see the Brooklyn Nets play the Washington Wizards. The food was unpretentious and delicious, somehow knowingly so. The boys raced to the buffet, as boys will, but my friend and I stayed at the table and ordered craft beers and two starters: lightly battered fried zucchini, cut in shoestrings and served with fra diavolo sauce and spicy aioli, and cucumber wedges in a Buffalo sauce covered in blue cheese crumbles. This was followed by a pasta fra diavolo, which exceeded expectations with surprising bite and an abundance of pearlescent onions. Along with it came a platter of the signature chicken parmigiana: three large, perfectly browned cutlets topped with thick slices of fresh mozzarella and a sprig of vibrant green basil leaves. The concept of Parm was suddenly clear. The restaurant embraces a craving you might not have known you had, a desire for old-school red sauce Italian-American food. Then it surpasses that craving by offering better versions of this food than you thought possible. I asked our chef Marlon Facey what his favorite dish was, and it turned out we hadn’t tried it yet. It was spaghetti and meatballs. It was hard to imagine eating another bite, but Marlon sent us out the meatballs without the pasta. They were indeed the best thing that night. Made of three meats—veal, beef and pork—they were salty and sweet and complex, with a thick interesting texture.
Eventually, it was game-time. Our server hooked us up with a couple of to-go beers and a sampling of desserts and we took our seats. There was no way we could have eaten more food, but had we wanted to eat more food we could have easily summoned it from Parm-To-Go, the restaurant’s takeout service, using the Barclays Center app on our phones. The game turned out to be a blowout, the Nets winning in double digits. Somehow we managed to tuck into dessert, in particular the spumoni ice cream cake, in pistachio, strawberry and chocolate, which was like the best ice cream sandwich in the world. There’s such a thing as too fancy for a sports arena. Then there’s such a thing as a grayish hot dog wrapped in foil. In between, Parm strikes the exact right note.