What Happened to the Parmigiano Reggiano in My Hero?

The ridiculously large and delicious Italian roast beef hero at Fiore's House of Quality in Hoboken

Colin F. asks: I'm a fan of hot Italian heros, those big sloppy sandwiches with meatballs, sausages, and veal cutlets in them topped with melted cheese. But I've been wondering for a long time, what happened to the parmesan cheese? They're all called "parm," right? But all they have is mozzarella. What happened to the "parm" part?

Faicco's meatball parmesan hero

Dear Colin F.: I'm right with you, Colin F. For years I wondered the same thing, and had figured out an elaborate explanation involving the weird form of mozzarella used in neighborhood pizza parlors (some say as a result of coercion of the part of organized crime), which seems to be much drier than real mozzarella, but wetter than parmesan. Could pizza mozzarella be some sort of substitute for both cheeses?

Well, that was just idle speculation on my part, and the truth is more direct and simpler: the "parm" in meatball parmesan refers to the northern Italian city of Parma, where many great cured meats and dairy products come from. These sandwiches are Italian-American inventions, made by cooks who suddenly had access to opulent quantities of the meats and cheeses they were mainly deprived of in southern Italy.

To them, "parmesan" was a cooking style they associated with Parma, where anything made with parmesan cheese and prosciutto was referred to as "alla parmigiana." Here, luxuriant quantities of fiori di latte (what we call mozzarella) were substituted, due to continued expensiveness of parmigiano reggiano here. And good Italian tomato sauce -- not as popular an ingredient in northern Italian cooking -- was added here, too.

The Meatball Shop's version of the meatball hero

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I believe the reason its called 'Parmigiana' is actually from the Sicilian dialect & dish called eggplant 'palmigiana' which refers to the roof shingles used on the houses. The shingling of the eggplant slices with layers of cheese & tomato is an actual sicilian preparation. It was adapted to the american palate & became a hero. Then the more recognizable 'parmigiana' became the name.


"Mulinciana a Parmiciana" is a baked eggplant dish made with tomato sauce and mozzarella wherein the eggplants are sliced lengthwise and layered in the style of shutter slats (the Sicilian word for shutter slats is "parmiciana").Eggplants, which were introduced to the Mediterranean by Arabs in the middle ages, were most likely brought to Sicily by the Turks, who called the fruit of the plant Solanum melongena "patlican", which sounds like "padmigian" in the Sicilian dialect. (it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parmigia... transition into sandwich form seems more likely to be related to the immigrant worker's need for an economical, familiar, and most importantly portable lunch than to the Sicilian's "thing for bread". The use of "city chicken" (veal) and polpette (meatballs) in lieu of eggplant was most likely borne of utility ("I'm all out of eggplant - how 'bout I make you a nice veal parmiciana instead") and pragmatism as one could charge a premium for the more luxurious versions... but this is merely idle speculation on my part too.Buon' Appetito!


Never heard that before, thanks for the derivation. Makes sense from the eggplant standpoint, since that vegetable is ubiquitous in Sicilian cooking. I'm going to try to check into it. Anyone else heard that explanation before? It's definitely not the standard one, but it sounds like it might be true. The Sicilians had a thing for bread that many other southern Italians lacked.