The server’s uniforms speak volumes at Parm Burlington, the new casual Italian spot from celebrity chef Mario Carbone. The maroon vests and bow ties are a reminder of an era when going out to a restaurant—even a family-friendly one—was an event. When made-from-scratch was the standard rather than the exception, and Sinatra was crooning from every radio.
Parm checks all those boxes, right down to the 1950s-era soundtrack, but with a bright modern space and a knowing wink . . . much like Carbone himself, whose eponymous New York restaurant draws celebrities with its Old World ambiance and elaborate service. The chef even has a clothing line, Our Lady of Rocco, which celebrates Italian-American style with satin bomber jackets and “wife-pleaser” tank tops.
While satin bomber jackets come and go, Italian-American food is a perennial favorite. The flavors at Parm are brighter perhaps than decades ago, in a nod to modern tastes, but there is no skimping on the comfort, or the cheese. Lots and lots of cheese—not surprising for a restaurant whose name is an homage to the king of Italian cheeses. The Caesar salad arrives in a shower of the restaurant’s namesake, completely disguising the lettuce. Similarly, the famous Chicken Parm is completely enrobed in a mix of Parmesan and mozzarella.
Carbone, who grew up in Queens, New York, with northern Italian traditions on his mother’s side and Sicilian on his father’s, credits his meatballs—impossibly light for something so savory and meaty—to his mother’s side. Topped with more Parmesan cheese and fresh basil leaves, the meatballs are dressed in a bright tomato sauce.
That lively sauce, quick-cooked with a balance of sweetness and acidity that comes very close to biting into a fresh tomato, appears throughout the menu. It’s served on the side with buttery pizza knots and cuts through the richness of the golf ball–sized rolls. Made with dough that rises for eight hours, each piece is shaped like a fat pretzel, deep-fried, and then dusted with fresh herbs. It’s a great accompaniment to Parm’s list of classic cocktails. We never turn down a Negroni, but classicists can also find an Aperol Spritz, Old Fashioned, and sangria.
The salad list is quite robust for an Italian-American joint. The Caesar is far and away the most indulgent we’ve ever encountered, awash in a rich house-made dressing and that aforementioned snow of fresh Parmesan cheese. For a departure, and something a bit lighter, try the Arugula Salad—it’s a little sweet from a lively fig vinaigrette, with a nutty crunch from toasted almonds. Topped with a shaving of Parmesan cheese, it is about as umami-laden as a salad can be.
Of course, you can’t skip the pasta course: The rigatoni, penne, fusilli, and spaghetti are all made in-house. The Rigatoni Carbone—a variation on the dish that is famous in his New York flagship—has a following for good reason, thanks to the spicy-creamy vodka sauce that coats the toothsome pasta, tumbled with slow-cooked sweet onions. For an explosion of summer, no matter the season, order the Rotini Genovese. You can smell the fresh basil from halfway across the restaurant. As if the bright-green, cream-based sauce weren’t indulgent enough on its own, the dish comes with a luscious ball of burrata in the center.
Main courses hit all the notes you’d expect—that cheesy, crispy chicken parm is hard to resist (and we failed to resist it), and the menu also offers several other chicken dishes. But we were also intrigued by the salmon Oreganata—it’s the most expensive thing on the menu, yet still a gentle $25 at press time and worth every penny. The salmon had a perfect sear on the exterior, while staying moist in the center. But the surprise hit was its side—a bed of warm chickpeas lightly cooked in oil, and then dressed in a mix of oregano, garlic, and parsley.
The dessert list is small, but makes a big claim: that the cannolis are the best you’ve ever had, followed by three exclamation marks for emphasis. That brag invites harsh judgment, but we wound up hard-pressed to argue. Clearly filled fresh to order, these boast whipped mascarpone cream rather than the traditional whipped ricotta. The result is something that is somehow lighter yet more indulgent all at once.
Want to linger for one last song? Order the espresso martini—creamy and rich, but not too sweet, it’s both a throwback and very modern. Just like Parm.
75 Middlesex Turnpike (Burlington Mall), Burlington, 781-328-8003, parmitalian.com