Pammy's – Cambridge, MA
Boston is one of those cities I feel bad that I haven't spent more time visiting. I finally got up to Boston to see a dear friend's recital at Boston Conservatory back in 2014 when I was teaching in the northeast and I loved the city. I've only been once or twice since, and always too briefly. This visit, too, would prove to be a brief one since Boston was just my airport gateway to the Maine coast to see some fall colors during fall break, but never content to settle for a mediocre dinner, I asked friend and fellow SLC expat Ruby, now a long-time Bostonite with skin in the city's culinary scene, to give me some recommendations for food while passing through. Pammy's, a "new American trattoria" in Cambridge, was her unequivocal suggestion, so I drove up through Cambridge on my way to my AirBnb on the Maine coast to sample some of Boston's culinary delights.
Pammy's opened in Cambridge just over four years ago and has become one of the buzziest neighborhood restaurants in metro Boston since. Husband-wife team Chris and Pam Willis named the restaurant after Pam's father's now-shuttered Italian spot in New Jersey, Pamela's, that he named after her. "Pammy's" was the more casual evolution of the name, reflective of the intent of the restaurant to be a "new American trattoria" much like the neighborhood trattorias in any given Italian town. And while it's certainly Italian, there are some wild twists that you'd never find in Italy, like the addition of a distinctly Korean ingredient to an otherwise very traditional recipe (more on that later).
Pammy (Pamela) herself greeted me and took me to my table, and I mentioned that Ruby had recommended the place, to which she replied, “I tried to get Ruby to work here!” She was delightful and would visit my table again later in the meal to chat further about food, even later suggesting I should create a food blog! Way ahead of ya, Pam!
I will say that I found the night's menu, while exciting on both the drinks and food sides, to be a shade late-summer focused for how far into fall we are, especially in New England where things are already getting brisk and the leaves are beginning to change. But what the hell do I know about seasonal produce in Massachusetts, and maybe they're just on the tail end of a menu rotation. I did manage to isolate a particularly autumnal cocktail, “Golden Delicious,” made with apple vermouth, apple liqueur, lemon, and sherry, and gorgeously garnished with apple slices. Golden and delicious indeed, and certainly a great way to get me into the autumn-in-New-England spirit!
Pammy’s has a pretty cool prix fixe menu concept where you can select any three of the 12 or so dishes on the menu for a flat $69. Want three pastas? Go for it. All appetizer portions? Sure thing. A bunch of heavier, meat-focused dishes? Be our guest. They also have the option to order any extra course for a flat $20, and then will pair a wine with each of your courses for $45. It’s reasonable and flexible, the way a neighborhood restaurant should be! Since there were at least four things on the menu that tickled my fancy, I added an extra course and was quickly brought out a couple slices of beautiful local sourdough bread with a fruity Italian olive oil. Being rather hungry, I managed to finish most of it off in just a few minutes.
It’s difficult for me to resist raw fish, and the first item on the menu, a black bass crudo, had such a perplexing combination of ingredients that I couldn’t possibly pass it up. Thin slices of black bass sat in a pineapple citronette broth, with thinner still slices of pineapple beneath. But the interesting ingredients were on top––olive tapenade, yuzu kosho, and what I think were crumbled pine nuts. Who’d have imagined that a salty olive tapenade and sticky sweet tropical avocado would be a match made in heaven? Something about the salinity of the tapenade tempered what can be a cloying fruit on its own, and steered the dish firmly in the savory direction. Meanwhile, the yuzu kosho added a bit more tang and some spice, and the crumbled pine nuts a nice textural component. Amazing stuff!
The wine program here focuses, rightly, on Italian wines, and niche ones at that. With the at once sweet, saline, and spicy crudo, they poured a pinot grigio with skin contact fermentation, unfined and unfiltered. Right up my alley these days, and a multifaceted dish needs an equally layered wine to match!
Next was another late-summery dish that is probably not long for the menu as they transition to fall, and with a similar amount of component density. Burrata cheese was paired with lovely heirloom cherry tomatoes as well as a strawberry granita that had a lovely, mystifying savory quality. Under the burrata, which was a little conservatively portioned, to my mind, was a basil pesto, along with some garnishes of purple basil and crispy croutons. If the crudo dish was a successful amalgamation of many components, this was a less successful one. While there were bites that came together beautifully, particularly those that included the nutty, texturally contrasting crouton, the components didn’t seem to quite meld on their own.
Ah, but here’s wine to the rescue! An unfiltered bubbly rosé was a brilliant pairing, and managed to meld some of the elements that weren’t quite gelling. I would imagine that this dish was more successful in the heights of these ingredients’ seasons, but while there were magnificent bites when some elements were combined, some of the bites just didn’t find footing. Not a “miss,” per se, but the least compelling course of the evening.
Good news for me, though––things would just go uphill from here, and we are talking dramatically uphill. Any review you read of this place will inevitably mention Chef Chris’ lumache, an elbow-shaped pasta they make in house (including milling their own flour!) served in what would otherwise be a traditional Italian Bolognese meat sauce, but made brilliant and exciting with the inclusion of a locally made Korean chili paste, gochujang. The gochujang not only adds a nice sneaky heat; it also brightens the dish and makes it nearly mouthwatering. The inclusion of chicken livers in the Bolognese lends a fatty heft that but for the gochujang might make the dish too heavy. Instead, the sauce is exquisitely balanced between meat, fat, tang, and spice. Add some shaved basil atop, and you have what is probably the most exciting pasta dish I’ve had the chance to sample in years. A triumph in every sense.
And sweet lord have mercy, they served nebbiolo with it. Barolo and Barbaresco are the most famous wines made from nebbiolo, but the locals in the Piedmont will tell you that non-village nebbiolo, without the Barolo or Barbaresco labels to command a price premium, is the best kept secret in Italian winemaking. The wine director here also wisely understands that nebbiolo can be far too tannic when poured young, so I was very impressed to see her bring me a 2013. Brick red with loads of cherries, it was everything to love about nebbiolo, and an ideal pairing with the lumache to boot!
Ruby told me one thing when recommending dishes at Pammy’s––get the pork chop. My server, when prompted to recommend the steak or the pork chop, answered before I even finished the question. This was a big bone-in, grilled to perfection and fragrant with glorious fresh oregano. Alongside were Romano beans, pine nut “milk,” and a type of berry in the honeysuckle family called haksap. But folks, the accompaniments didn’t even matter. The chop was stupid good. I rarely order pork because it can, like chicken, become very “meh” very quickly with just even a half a minute of overcooking. Chef Chris and team have perfected this chop. Not a bite was anything short of tender, juicy, and loaded with flavor. Possibly the Maestro’s favorite meat dish of the year so far, and in a crowded field.
Primitivo is the granddaddy of American zinfandel, made with the same grape. Berry driven with a healthy dose of new oak and yet still gifted with that smack of Italian heat, this primitivo from Puglia in the “heel of the boot” of Italy was a killer pairing with the chop, but much like the accoutrements on the plate, the pork chop was so good that nothing else seemed to matter much. I found myself drinking most of the wine after the bone of the pork chop contained no more edible molecules.
Dessert is not included in the prix fixe price, but I definitely craved something sweet with the fatty heft of the chop still lingering on the palate. Recommended was a sesame semifreddo (semi-frozen custard) served with a strawberry syrup and a salty crumble atop. Very tasty, though large enough for three! I also wanted to do a digestif-style beverage, so the server suggested that I go for the beverage that I chose against when selecting between two at the beginning of the meal. "18th Parallel North" was the name, a drink with coconut-washed rums combined with curry leaf and lime oil. Rum was the star, and the spicy curry leaf provided some heat. A nice boozy digestif.
Pammy's is a bright star in the Boston dining scene indeed––an accessible neighborhood restaurant that is making classic dishes shine through expert cooking, unexpected twists, and remarkably warm hospitality. I would not hesitate for a second to recommend to anyone visiting the area.
I have a big queue of stuff to share from this trip, and the trip is still only two-thirds done! I encourage both regular readers to stay tuned (and maybe if Pam sees this we will get a third regular reader!)