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Chef’s Dish: When in Crisis, Make a Chicken Parm


Photographed by Nick Surette

When the COVID-19 pandemic led to a country-wide quarantine in March, Chris and Pam Willis, the owners of Pammy’s in Cambridge, Massachusetts, didn’t miss a beat. “We might’ve taken one day off, maybe two,” says Chris, before Pam jumps in with a correction.“We were open Monday of that week, then we took Tuesday off,” she says. “Then on Wednesday, Chris said, ‘We’re gonna do chicken parm takeout.’” This epiphany may seem obvious to some, but to the chef behind dishes such as delicate yam carmelle with espresso butter, apple, and smoked chestnut, and the brazen lumache with gochujang bolognese, chicken parm was a departure from the norm.

“It felt natural for us to do fun, Italian-American, kind of rustic comfort food,” says Chris when asked about their pandemic pivot. Pam chimes in that this change felt emotionally challenging, but in terms of serving beautifully crafted dishes to a community they love, they were both grateful to be able to carry on in relatively normal Pammy’s fashion. The menus changed daily depending on availability, much like they always have, and at the time of writing theWillises were in the process of re-opening indoor dining and creating the first-ever Pammy’s sidewalk patio.

The time for indulgent chicken and eggplant parm takeout has ended, but look out for new, quintessentially Pammy’s offerings like fried meatballs with satsuma relish, and sea scallops with charred avocado and ‘nudja vinaigrette. While the future of full-service restaurants like theirs may be uncertain, the Willises are committed to filling our bellies with inventive Italian-inspired delights in whatever form necessary.


Dynamic is an understatement for this duo. Pam is the boisterous, charming, silver-haired hospitality genius responsible for all things front of house (with help from the equally charming and lovely Lauren Hayes, Pammy’s general manager). Chris is the culinary artist behind all things back-of-house, with an eye for detail, a penchant for daily-made fresh spice blends, and introducing diners to unexpected flavor profiles using local, seasonal ingredients whenever possible. Together, they make the magic that is Pammy’s happen.

Pammy’s house Pugliese is a staple at the restaurant. Served in dishes such as the burrata with spaghetti squash and garam masala or enjoyed straight up, dipped in a bit of olive oil, this bread is a showstopper. And at the start of quarantine, amidst painful layoffs, Chris and Pam announced that 50 percent of bread sales would go directly to unemployed staff, with remaining profits donated to No Kid Hungry.

While diners may have missed the charming interiors of this restaurant in the wake of quarantine, Pam promises the reopening of Pammy’s dining room will be equally thoughtful. While they’ve yet to reveal the reimagined space, diners can expect social distance-friendly seating, whimsical decor, and, as always, a bounty of locally-sourced flowers.

Chris and Pam describe their spot as a “new American trattoria,” which is clearly reflected in their menus. The burrata with spaghetti squash and garam masala, for instance, takes a cue from the ubiquitous cheese appetizer course, but with Chris’ added twist. “Right off the bat, the goal was to figure out a way to use burrata in a way that wasn’t typical,” Chris says. “I love Indian food, andI think part of the reason this dish is special is because we make the spice mixture fresh every day.” In pairing the creamy burrata with the unexpected flavors of their house-made masala blend and oft-forgotten spaghetti squash, this dish successfully elevates the cheese to a bold, entirely unforgettable place. Recipe below.

Burrata with Spaghetti Squash and Garam Masala
Serves 6
Chef Chris Willis’ love for Indian food meets the ubiquitous Italian-American appetizer in this autumnal dish. Garam masala originated in India and is a blend of sweet, hot, and savory spices (think cumin, cloves, and pepper). Willis believes this mixture is best when fresh, so he makes Pammy’s take on garam masala daily. (Store-bought works, too, if you’re in a pinch!
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Ingredients
  1. CURRY OIL
  2. 1 cup (tightly packed) curry leaves, de-
  3. stemmed
  4. 1 cup extra virgin olive oil
  5. PAMMY’S MASALA
  6. 1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
  7. 2 teaspoons green cardamom seeds, husked
  8. 1 tablespoon brown mustard seeds
  9. 1 tablespoon fenugreek
  10. ¼ teaspoon whole cloves
  11. 2 teaspoons salt
  12. 2 tablespoons + 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
  13. ½ teaspoon ground mace
  14. CHILI HONEY
  15. 1 cup honey
  16. 2 stalks lemongrass, outer leaves removed and sliced into ¼-inch rounds
  17. 1-inch piece fresh ginger, sliced into
  18. ¼-inch rounds
  19. ¾ teaspoon red chile flakes
  20. 1 tablespoon cup extra virgin olive oil (try Aria, available online or at specialty stores like Formaggio Kitchen)
  21. ¾ teaspoon salt
  22. SPAGHETTI SQUASH
  23. 1 large spaghetti squash
  24. 3 tablespoons salted butter
  25. Salt
  26. Thyme
  27. White balsamic vinegar (try Terre Bormane Condimento Bianco, available online or at specialty stores like Formaggio Kitchen)
  28. ASSEMBLY
  29. 6 thick slices of rustic bread
  30. 1 clove garlic, cut crosswise
  31. 6 teaspoons curry oil, divided (see recipe)
  32. 1½ teaspoons Pammy’s masala (see recipe)
  33. 1½ teaspoons Calabrian chile powder (or ground chili flakes)
  34. 3 burrata (try Maplebrook Farms) or a good-quality buffalo-milk mozzarella
  35. Flat leaf parsley
  36. Pitted taggiasca olives (available online or at a specialty store like Eataly). or Nicoise olives
  37. Chili honey (see recipe)
  38. Black Hawaiian sea salt or other finishing salt, such as Maldon (optional)
Instructions
  1. ►CURRY OIL: Add curry leaves and olive oil to a high-sided sauté pan and cook over high heat until leaves begin to fry. Gently stir to ensure that all leaves become crispy and translucent. Cool oil and strain. The extra will keep in the refrigerator for up to a month.
  2. ►PAMMY’S MASALA: Preheat oven to 325°F. Combine first five ingredients on a rimmed baking sheet and toast until fragrant. This should take approximately two minutes. Let cool. Grind the cooled spices with the salt until they are fine but not a powder. Some coarse texture should remain. Combine in a bowl with the turmeric and mace.
  3. ►CHILI HONEY: Combine all ingredients in a small saucepan over low heat until the mixture begins to simmer. Remove from heat and let steep for at least an hour to overnight. Strain, pushing on solids to extract as much flavor as possible. The final consistency should be the same as honey (add water if needed).
  4. ►SPAGHETTI SQUASH: Preheat oven to 375°F. Carefully cut the spaghetti squash in half lengthwise and remove the seeds. Salt the cut side of the squash liberally and put the two halves in a roasting pan, cut side down, with thyme or any other aromatic herbs you have on hand. Put enough water in the pan to come about ⅛-inch up the sides of the squash. Seal tightly with foil and roast for roughly 20 minutes. The “meat” of the squash should come away from the skin in al dente strands when forked. Transfer the squash to a large sauté pan. Add butter and ¼ cup water; cook over high heat for a few minutes until the squash is well glazed. Season generously with salt and a splash of white balsamic vinegar.
  5. ►ASSEMBLY: Grill or toast the bread until well-charred and rub with the cut garlic clove. Place each slice in a shallow bowl or on a plate and douse each one with a teaspoon curry leaf oil.
  6. ►Sprinkle a quarter teaspoon of masala and the same amount of chili powder on and around the toasted bread. Cut the burrata balls in half and place one half on top of each toast, pressing down so that it stays put. Top with enough spaghetti squash to perch proudly on the cheese. On top of the squash carefully place 5 or so whole parsley leaves. (They make for a striking contrast against the spaghetti squash and their bitterness is key to balancing the dish, says Willis.) Scatter three or four olives around each “tower,” and circle with a drizzle of chili honey in a circle. Sprinkle each dish with finishing salt.
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Madison Trapkin

Former Editor-in-Chief Madison Trapkin is an Atlanta-bred, Boston-based writer. She graduated from Boston University’s Gastronomy master’s Program in December 2018 and started at culture in March 2019. She is passionate about The Feminist Agenda, pizza, and regularly watering her houseplants.

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