Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Culinary Alchemy at Parasson's?

Sometimes what we crave defies all logic and dictates that we eat certain foods or at certain restaurants that we normally wouldn't otherwise entertain. As a child, my mother would occasionally make what I can only imagine came from a 1950's recipe, tuna biscuit bake casserole. Generously spray your casserole dish with a layer of Pam. Then, using a can of biscuits, a can of tuna, a can of Campbell's condensed cheddar cheese soup, a can of Campbell's cream of celery soup, and some milk, layer this unholy concoction in the pre-greased pan, place in a 350 degree oven and wait for all sorts of processed food goodness to come out. And as a child, I loved it.

Over the years, I've tried re-inventing it to be leaner, healthier, less processed, but in the end, when I crave this dish, it is with all of the same ingredients that my mother used in her version. It just doesn't taste the same otherwise (and I'm sure some would say for the better). That reluctance to let go of a wonderful childhood memory is what drives me to return to Parasson's restaurant again and again. Parasson's is a local Akron chain that serves up what I would consider to be "ok" basic Italian fare. Pizzas, pastas, and subs make up most of their menu. They have four locations and over the many decades I've been going there, the food has always tasted the same.

Every once in a while I'll get that craving. And when I do, there just isn't any way to resist it. Tonight's craving was fulfilled at the Waterloo Road location. All the locations have both sit-down and take-out service, but tonight I felt like eating in. Here is a shot of the front of the menu (addresses and phone numbers are shown for each of the four locations):

And a shot of the condiment station on each table:

Almost any meal you order (except for maybe pizza), comes with the griddled garlic bread. It's your basic mix of butter, salt, garlic powder, and dried parsley. It is neither the best nor worst example of garlic bread that I've ever had, but there is something about it that I crave. They will refill the basket as you eat it, but whenever I dine out by myself, I always feel guilty if I eat more than the two slices they bring me.

The meal that I choose for my dinner also came with a garden salad. Parasson's uses a moderate amount of shredded mozarella cheese to top their salads. In my opinion it is just the right amount. You get the cheesy richness without it predominating.

I always order the French dressing on the side, for two reasons. First, I like to dress my salad minimally with the dressing. Most restaurants overdress salads. Second, and this is where culinarily speaking I may have just lost some of my gentle readers out there, the combination of the French dressing and the garlic bread is ... how to put this? Magical.

I feel like I should be standing up in a self-help group right now. "Hi, my name is Tom and I like to dip my Parasson's garlic bread in my leftover French dressing."

I don't know when this practice started. Maybe my server had taken away my finished salad plate and accidentally left the remainder of the dressing. And maybe while I was waiting for my pasta to come out, bored and with nothing but time on my hands, I thought, "Aw, what the hell!" and dipped for the first time. I've been doing it ever since. I'm always furtively sneaking dips in the dressing because I feel like if someone working at the establishment ever caught me, they'd certainly point out my unnatural ways to the rest of the guests there and throw me out as quickly as they could.

Now, this is not unusual salad dressing. In fact, I confirmed with my server that it is Marzetti California French dressing. Curious to know what this ingredient list consisted of, I stopped at Giant Eagle afterward for a little investigative work. You can read the list of ingredients here:

Basically most of the flavor is coming from tomatoes, sugar, vinegar, and some various spices. Equally as mysterious, the garlic bread is exactly as I described it before. But when you put the two together, the sweetness from the dressing and the saltiness from the bread makes an amazing flavor combination in your mouth. And the even more amazing thing? I taste flavors that exist in neither product by themselves: I get notes of both cinnamon and nutmeg. Every time I go back and try this experiment over again, I get the same result. Without fail.

As much as I come for the garlic bread/French dressing combo, the other lifelong draw for me has been their meat sauce. Made with pork and beef, it has a nice balance of sweetness, fattiness, and seasoning. But I would in no way consider this to be remarkable. Tasty, sure, but not remarkable. I will occasionally order something else on the menu, but that is a rarity. Today I decided to go with rigatoni for my pasta:

The large, at $10.49, is a good value because you will easily get two meals out of this. The one very positive thing about this dish is that I have never come across a plate of watery pasta from Parasson's. And I've eaten at all four locations over the last three decades. It's not so much that the pasta is all that spectacular, it's just nice when I don't end up with a bowl of rigatoni meat sauce soup, like I seem to experience at other places. I always end up dosing my meat sauce with a hefty hit of red chili flakes and grated parmesan cheese (I'm using a little 'p' for parmesan because I'm fairly certain this stuff comes out of the green can).

Sadly, even though they were advertising dessert:

None of their desserts are homemade. And honestly, the tiramisu pictured on the table advert just didn't look all that enticing. I was half tempted to have a scoop of the spumoni, but realizing that I was already pretty full, I opted to skip dessert entirely.

With as much food knowledge that I've gathered over the years by reading, cooking, and most importantly, eating, it still amazes me that sometimes you just want the comfort food of your youth. And I think it is healthy to occasionally let your ever-vigilant set of culinary standards lay by the wayside so you can revel in an experience that just makes you feel good for a little while.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I think it's time for another helping of that tuna biscuit bake casserole.


Kathy said...

Tom fear not. You are not alone in your bread dipping ways. I've always done this, and not just with garlic bread and french dressing, but with any bread and any dressing. I'm a dipper from way back. If I had to guess, I might say it comes from my love of Panzanella salad, which I'm sure you know, is bread tossed directly into the salad itself.

You can easily recreate your favorite combination at home. You already know which dressing it is so just get yourself some New York brand Texas Toast in the freezer department of the grocery store. I've always suspected that this is the product that Parasson's uses for their garlic bread.

Anonymous said...

Anybody remember when the garlic bread was rectangular instead of square? It used to be made on sub sandwich rolls. I hadn't been to Parasson's in years. Stepped in to brain wash my children with their culinary excellence and was shocked to notice they changed the bread.
-Tino's Mechanic