Mike Isabella is probably not the first rookie in the major leagues to take a swing at chicken parm stardom. But the version that he’s bringing to Nationals Park in Washington, D.C. this spring is a significant upgrade on the typical red-sauced cutlets on a roll, he says. Maybe not a whole different animal, per se, though he does claim to use the whole animal.

“The difference is, we use the whole chicken,” says Isabella, the Top Chef alum and operator of three D.C. restaurants. Beyond the usual cutlets, the TV chef — who famously invented pepperoni sauce — will also be braising chicken legs to make a ragu, he notes. That goes on the bread first, then the cutlet, then the tomato sauce, then the fresh mozzarella, and then — for a little added contemporary flair —some Thai basil. “It’s big, it’s serious, but it’s the whole chicken,” Isabella says proudly. “There’s not too many chicken parms where you get the chicken ragu on the bun.”

If the idea of simmering animal parts doesn’t strike you as the most appetizing option for fourth-inning snacking, no problem. Isabella’s new G Sandwich Stand, a sporty spinoff of his existing fast-casual spot, also offers a vegetarian option: crispy roasted cauliflower topped with romesco, charred scallions and shishito peppers on a sesame roll. “We roast it until it’s a little bit over al dente,” Isabella says of the cauliflower, which is then tossed in a paprika and lemon vinaigrette for extra acid and smoke.

It’s a far cry from hotdogs, peanuts and Cracker Jack. Sustainability and farm-to-table ethics at the concession stand? Is this Major League Baseball or a Portlandia sketch?

Isabella admits it’s a stretch from the stadium foodstuffs that he grew up with. “I’m from Jersey,” he says. “I love the dirty water dogs, pretzels and beer.” The newbie concessionaire plans on paying tribute to more traditional ballpark fare, too, albeit with a chefly twist. “Every homestand, I’m going to be doing different sandwiches,” he says. “Like, when New York comes to town, whether it’s the Mets or Yankees, I’ll be working with a pretzel bun because, for me, every time I think about Yankee Stadium, I remember the smell of those pretzels outside charring.” He’ll also sell peanut brittle.

Besides the new celebrity chef concession, Nats Park will also debut a vegetarian-only stand this season, so no stray meat juices can cross-contaminate your vegan cheesesteak. Made-to-order burritos further round-out the ever-expanding roster of food options, both regional and international, which presently includes Thai noodles, Italian gelato, Jamaican jerk chicken and, perhaps most notably, a local hybrid featuring the indigenous D.C. half-smoke sausage, topped with Maryland crab and Virginia ham, called “The DMV.”

“We have a very sophisticated consumer in the Washington region and we want to offer them a variety,” says Jonathan Stahl, the Nationals’ senior director of guest experience and hospitality operations. “No one wants to have 82 hotdogs a year. As good as a dirty water dog can be, people are going to get tired of that over time.”

All across America, the national pastime has been hustling to keep pace with the latest food trends:

  • Juicing in baseball has taken on a whole new meaning, with fashionable cold-pressed fruit and veggie juices sold at Marlins Park in Miami.
  • At Citizens Bank Park in Philly, even fans with celiac disease can enjoy a cheesesteak — or choose from a bunch of other gluten-free options from Section 136. Phillies faithful who have no aversion to wheat, meanwhile, can gorge themselves on artisan-style doughnuts designed by James Beard Award-winning chef Michael Solomonov.
  • At Fenway Park in Boston, there is now a whole peanut-free zone, where clean-up crews take extra care to eliminate every trace of the old-fashioned shelled snack in line with modern concerns about allergens.
  • And, in Denver, the crew at Coors Field seems especially eager to adopt the latest food craze, laying claim to a trio of firsts over the past several years: MLB’s first dedicated gluten-free stand (2009), first food truck to set up inside a ballpark (2011) and, in a remarkable flip-of-the-script to Field of Dreams, the first sustainable garden to be built within a ballpark (2013).

Engineered For Food

To trace the roots of this profoundly food-focused period in big-league baseball, a good starting place would be Orioles Park at Camden Yards. The trademarked “ballpark that forever changed baseball” also helped to change Americans’ expectations for ballpark grub.

Before Camden Yards, your options were pretty basic. There was beer, of course, but mostly watered-down pale lagers. And there were hotdogs, commonly boiled or steamed. And you had some other stuff: pretzels, peanuts, popcorn, nachos and things. Privileged VIPs up in the Diamond Club ate better, but in the cheap seats, you’d be lucky to score a hot sandwich. Big national companies paid big sponsorship dollars for exclusive rights to hawk their wares at stadium concession stands and that’s usually all you got.

After Camden Yards, hotdogs and warm beer suddenly had company.

Opened in 1992, the iconic building in downtown Baltimore is widely regarded as the first of the modern-era “retro”-style stadiums, built specifically for baseball. This was a big shift from the multi-purpose facilities that came up a generation earlier, when stadium designers primarily concerned themselves with little things like fitting a baseball diamond and a rectangular gridiron within the same oval. Feeding the fans was more or less an afterthought.

“Back then, when you were engineering a place, you paid attention to things other than the food outlets,” says Bill Greathouse, executive vice president with ballpark concessionaire Centerplate. “You still had this idea that you’re just taking care of a hotdog, a beer, a soda, and packaged items, peanuts and things like that. The places themselves were not engineered for food like a modern ballpark is today.”

Camden Yards set a new standard, offering greater infrastructure for cooking and expanded food options as a result. In addition to the basics, there were new stands serving regional cuisine. In Maryland, this meant things like crab cakes and Old Bay Seasoning on everything. The local approach proved to be an influential choice. Equally seminal, Camden also birthed the original retired ballplayer turned pitmaster, Boog Powell, whose charcoal-grilled pit beef stand has inspired many imitators. See Manny’s Bar-B-Q (as in former catcher Manny Sanguillen) in Pittsburgh and Bull’s BBQ (by Greg “The Bull” Luzinski) in Philadelphia, to name a few.

Shake Shack’s Danny Meyer throwing out the first pitch at a Nationals game. Food has become intertwined with America’s pastime 

Powell biographer Rob Kasper says the Orioles were initially lukewarm to the idea of letting the former first baseman cook his ‘cue right out in the open, as opposed to the confines of a traditional concession stand. But the ball club executives agreed to test it out during an exhibition game, and the fans literally ate it up. “They were swamped,” recalls Kasper. “They had so many people, they ran out of food.” On opening day, Powell’s barbecue stand earned prominent placement along the new Eutaw Street pedestrian plaza, where the ex-slugger and his pit crew have continued to crank out the ‘cue ever since. “This was the beginning of people eating with their eyes at the ballpark,” says Kasper, a former Baltimore Sun food columnist, whose original 1992 report on Camden’s modernized concessions (including vastly improved pizza) also noted that it was “the first time I had eaten basil at a ballpark.”

The Camden Yards model would kick off a wave of new stadium construction over the next two decades — more than 20 buildings nationwide — with a greater focus on food as an essential component to the overall entertainment package. When Seattle’s Safeco Field opened in 1999, for instance, the new facility provided nearly double the number of food stands (62) as its predecessor, the Kingdome (35).

Obviously, having more space to sell food is an important factor when expanding the scope of eats. Having the proper equipment to actually cook those foods is equally important. This new generation of ballparks, complete with modern kitchen facilities, gave concessionaires enhanced capabilities to prepare things that would have never been possible in the bare-bones facilities of old.

“We came from a 60-year-old building that didn’t give us the same opportunities,” says Stahl, referring to the Nationals’ prior home at old-school RFK Stadium. When the team moved to shiny new Nationals Park in 2008, every concession stand had its own kitchen. “We can literally cook our food in every location,” Stahl says. “We’re not mass-producing it in one place. Being afforded these luxuries, with real kitchen equipment in every concession stand, we can really craft different food and make each stand unique.”

Not only is there actual cooking going on at today’s ballparks, but that cooking is often going on right in front of you. “All the grilling is on the front counter, everywhere,” says Kevin Tedesco, general manager for concessionaire Aramark at Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park, which opened in 2004 and went on to garner a Food Network award for its veritable smorgasbord of eating options. “We’re not cooking anything in the concession stand behind the wall—it’s all in front of you.”

“No one wants to have 82 hotdogs a year. As good as a dirty water dog can be, people are going to get tired of that over time.”

You can see it, you can smell it. Clearly, modern ballpark designers wanted to amplify the sensory experience of eating at the ballpark. They also didn’t want you to miss much of the game every time you feel hunger pangs. Just as your view of the food isn’t obstructed when you go to the concession stand, your view of the game isn’t terribly obstructed, either. At least at places like Citizens Bank Park, with its open concourses and portable food carts made of glass: “You’re never disconnected from the game,” says Tedesco. “You always have the ability to get up, wander around and still be able to see the game at all times.”

Many of the newer stadiums, Nationals Park and Citizens Bank Park, among them, even feature sit-down-style full-service restaurants inside the stadium, where you can watch the game from your table.

It’s a big win for fans and a smart bet for the franchises themselves to have these types of facilities that can better integrate modern food culture into the spectator-sport experience. Baseball, by itself, is a risky enterprise, with fans’ enjoyment largely dependent on the scoreboard. Good food and drink can at least ease the pain when things don’t go your way.

In a 2009 interview, restaurateur Danny Meyer told me how “forward looking” it was for the New York Mets organization to partner with his company in bringing updated concessions —such as his popular Shake Shack and Blue Smoke concepts — to the team’s newly built Citi Field stadium: “Historically, what teams have done is, they get paid a big sponsorship fee by a big brand to be in the ballpark, and that’s why, historically, the food hasn’t been any good….I think what the Mets are doing is — because we didn’t pay a penny to do this — they basically said, ‘Look, let’s make it fun to be at the ballpark, whether or not the Mets win.’”

Five years later, the Mets are still struggling. But waits for Meyer’s fresh-griddled Shack Burgers often hit the two-inning mark.

Former Orioles first baseman Boog Powell, whose charcoal-grilled pit beef stand at Camden Yards has inspired many imitators, is a father figure in the good-stadium-food movement.

Adding Local Flavor

For some teams, the process of improving the food started years before newer upgraded facilities could be completed.

In San Francisco, a new ownership group took control of the Giants in 1993, ushering in a period of sweeping reforms. Not only did the new bosses manage to lure star slugger Barry Bonds to the Bay Area, they acquired some pivotal new assets in the food and drink arena, as well.

Like the Orioles before, the Giants, too, decided to go local. “That was one of the things we immediately brought to the equation,” says Centerplate’s Greathouse, who took over as general manager at Candlestick Park shortly following the ownership shake-up. “Instead of just looking at national brands, we started looking at the San Francisco Bay Area and trying to drill it down to the popular local concepts, and, really, what was important, even in 1993, on the food scene here.”

Among the various local vendors installed at Candlestick back then was an up-and-coming micro-brewer with a clever new spin on finger food. “Gordon Biersch was one of the first craft-brews in the Bay Area, and Dan Gordon essentially showed up at the ballpark one day and said, ‘Hey, could you sell our beer?’’’ Greathouse recalls. “We took a chance on that. We wanted to do something different, other than just the big domestics. And, as far as our conversation with Dan, it was like, ‘Well, what do we want to sell with this beer?’ And that was how the garlic fry was born.”

Gordon says he came up with the recipe during a late night snack-attack while attending grad school in Germany. He began selling the fragrant fries at his first restaurant in Palo Alto in 1988. “They were our most popular appetizer item,” he says. But it wasn’t until Gordon brought the things to Candlestick six years later that the phenomenon really took off. “The aroma is contagious,” says Gordon. “People walk by and it’s like this Pavlovian response. You just have to have them.”

Cooked in olive oil, Gordon’s garlic fries are perhaps the perfect embodiment of modern ballpark fare: a classic comfort food, gussied up with gourmet flair.

At the time, neither Gordon nor Greathouse expected the specialty item to become such a sensation. Yet, it would require increasing amounts of stadium real estate to satisfy Giants fans’ newfound addiction. “I was just amazed at our inability to really keep up with the demand of this thing,” says Greathouse. “I kept on thinking, ‘Oh, it’s going to cap-out at a certain time’ and we could stop building garlic fry stands.”

By the time the Giants opened their own shiny new stadium in 2000, the garlic fry had become fully integrated into the infrastructure. “We have four designated locations that are called Gilroy Garlic Fries, but anywhere we have a fryer, we sell garlic fries,” notes Greathouse. “Even at our general grill stands, we’ll serve garlic fries.”

Today, you can find all sorts of tempting flavors at AT&T Park, from fresh local Dungeness crab sandwiches to the stacked enchilada known as the cha-cha bowl. But nothing, save for the traditional Giants’ dog, rivals the sheer numbers of the sprawling garlic fry concession. “Even to this day at AT&T Park, if you see a line, it’s generally for a garlic-fry stand,” says Greathouse.

On an average game day, Giants fans are said to consume some three tons of potatoes and more than 1,000 pounds of garlic. But Greathouse points to the fresh-chopped parsley as the most important component. “You won’t publish that, will you? We don’t want that getting out to everyone,” he laughs. “There is a difference. You don’t want the freeze dried stuff and you certainly don’t want to leave it off totally.”

The original Gordon Biersch-brand garlic fries are now available at other ballparks, too, including Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles and Petco Park in San Diego. Copycats are readily available at ballparks across the country. Just follow your nose.

Errors In The Field

Not every ballpark debut develops the same passionate cult-following as Gordon’s garlic fries. Some barely register.

In 1996, Boston’s Fenway Park unveiled a slew of new food options, notably including an outpost of local chain Legal Seafood. With so much clam chowder being sold during the chilly months, the concessions crew also wanted to introduce something similarly soupy but better suited to warmer weather for the summer.

“We said, ‘Why don’t we do a nice cold gazpacho soup?’” recalls Rich Roper, regional vice president for national concessionaire Aramark.

The chilled tomato stew received an equally chilly response. “We were selling three orders a night, every night,” says Roper.  “I said to the manager at the time, ‘Look, we’re throwing more in the garbage than we’re selling. We just got to take this off the menu and see if we can come up with something else.’ So, the night we took it off, I get a phone call telling me to come down to the office. There is this woman who’s a season ticket holder who wanted to know where gazpacho went. So, I said to her, ‘You wouldn’t happen to buy three every night, would ya?’ And she said, ‘That’s exactly right.’ Out of 33,000 people here at that time, there was this one lady who bought three gazpacho soups every night — no one else wanted it.”

Over the years, Roper has tried plenty of new food ideas that ended up appealing to only a tiny faction of Red Sox fans. Hummus, for instance, is now available at 15 stands throughout the ballpark, but attracting only about 30 takers on a given night. “Not a big mover,” he admits. Still, no other item has ever equaled the dispassion that fans displayed for gazpacho. “The gazpacho will probably never come back,” he says.

When introducing a bunch of new things, be it ballpark food or anything else, there’s bound to be a few duds. Where some teams have stumbled into even greater trouble over the years is by compromising tradition in search of modernity.

The Los Angeles Dodgers, for one, have a troubling track record in this regard. The California club already had a regional delicacy on their hands when News Corp. acquired the team from the O’Malley family in 1998. It was the called the Cool-a-Coo, a longtime fan favorite, described by Los Angeles Times sportswriter Bill Shaikin as essentially “just an ice cream sandwich, but it was ours, vanilla ice cream wedged between oatmeal cookies, the whole glorious mess dipped in chocolate.”

The beloved treats were produced by a local independent dairy in El Monte and sold at Dodger Stadium — about 4,000 per game on average, according to a 1999 L.A. Times report — until the things got unceremoniously dumped after the regime change.

More than a decade (and two additional owners) later, the Dodgers, tried to bring back the long-lost treat in an apparent bid to restore fan loyalty. But, by then, the guy who made them had sold his business. It would take concessionaire Levy Restaurants considerable effort to recreate the recipe.

Shaikin, who chronicled the Cool-a-Coo comeback, says that the Dodgers have messed with cherished stadium foodstuffs on prior occasions, as well, most notably switching from grilled to steamed hotdogs at one point, presumably for practical purposes. In some major league cities, the steamed dogs might be a success. According to Aramark’s Roper, fans at Fenway prefer their franks that way. At Dodger Stadium, however, the change-up incited a fan revolt. Eventually, grilled Dodger Dogs returned to the menu, too.

Given these lessons, Shaikin suggests that stadium grub plays a critical role in furthering the game’s legacy. “Baseball is the best sport to pass along from one generation to another, and I would suggest comfort food—the grilled Dodger dog, the Cool-A-Coo—is part of that shared experience,” he says.

The Gilroy garlic fries stand at AT&T Park in San Francisco.

Old Favorite, New Look

Even with all of today’s tantalizing options, the hotdog is still top dog. In Boston, about 1.2 million Fenway Franks are consumed every season. In Philly, upwards of 75,000 are sold in a single afternoon during the Phillies’ long-running Dollar Dog Day promotions.

“Quite honestly, people still do buy hotdogs at a ballpark,” says Centerplate’s Greathouse. “They still buy beer, they buy Cokes, they buy bags of peanuts and Cracker Jack and things that are associated with the tradition of the ballpark. I hear continuously from fans, ‘The only time that I eat a hotdog is when I come to a baseball game.’ As the saying goes, ‘Hotdogs always taste better at the ballpark.’”

What’s changed from the old days is consistency. Back when the Giants played at Candlestick Park, for instance, the type of tube steak you received largely depended on your location inside the stadium. “It was a conglomeration,” says Greathouse. “At this stand, it’s easier to boil. At this stand, you had a roller grill. At another stand, you had a flat grill.” At the new stadium, all dogs are grilled the same way. You don’t have to look far to find one, either. Thirteen stands selling hotdogs and other staples are strategically located throughout the facility, in an effort to reduce walk time and, ideally, wait time, as well.

How you choose to dress your dog is another modern marvel. Phillies Franks, for example, haven’t changed in decades —same brand of beef, same potato bun. But, your options at the condiment cart are profoundly different. “Back at the Vet, with hotdogs, you had a choice of mustard or ketchup,” says Aramark’s Tedesco, referring to the Phillies’ prior home venue.  Today, at Citizens Bank Park, you can smother your dog with all sorts of stuff: “hot sauerkraut, onions, sweet peppers, hot sauce, barbecue sauce—I mean, the toppings are endless,” Tedesco says. A new specialty hotdog stand at the ballpark this season will feature one frank topped with Philly-style steak and Cheese Whiz — “wit or wit out onions,” Tedesco notes — and another adorned with cucumbers, pickled onion salsa and ancho pepper sauce.

Future Considerations

If the modern history offers any clues about the future of ballpark food, you can easily expect to see more famous chefs and more trendy food items in the coming seasons. The next big name, the next cupcake, the next short-rib sandwich—whatever the hot new thing, you can bet on it showing up the very next spring at the stadium.

Your basic stadium hotdog, meanwhile, may never go out of style, but technology could get it to you faster. In fact, you may not even have to leave your seat. A pilot program launched at Citizens Bank Park in Philly in 2010 allowed fans to order food from their iPhone for delivery right to their seat. The system is now in place at many ballparks across the country.

On an average game day, San Francisco Giants fans are said to consume some three tons of potatoes and more than 1,000 pounds of garlic.

Should you bother to get up and go visit the actual concession stand, the experience should be about as fun for your eyes as it is for your palate.

Just last year, the crew at Citizens Bank Park installed a newfangled “doughnut robot,” as they call it, to churn out fried rounds by acclaimed chef Michael Solomonov’s Federal Donuts. The automated machinery is set up so fans can watch every step of the doughnut-making process, in accordance with the stadium’s current ruling philosophy of transparency in food prep.

“We didn’t want them to just deliver a rack of donuts every game,” says Aramark’s Tedesco. “We want everything made here in front of the guest.”

At AT&T Park in San Francisco, too, there’s an ongoing effort to increase food visibility.

“It bugs me how people sell pizza,” says Centerplate’s Greathouse. “You go up to the stand and you buy a box — you’re not even seeing the pizza, you’re buying the box.”

Later this spring, if everything goes his way, Greathouse and his team will be opening a new pizza stand inside the ballpark that functions more like a real pizzeria. “We’re going to actually take a chance and toss dough,” he says. “We’re going to make our own dough from scratch and we’re going toss it. We’re going to use simple, good ingredients, instead of a canned sauce, and see if it’ll take off.”

The planned 22-inch thin-crust pies won’t be stuffed into a pizza box, either. “It’s going to go on a plate,” Greathouse says, “and you’re going to walk around and people are going to see it.”

Check back in coming weeks for recipes, chef-created hotdogs and more from Food Republic’s Baseball Test Kitchen.