Food writer David Rosengarten remembers “alla francese” preparations as part of his first “ethnic” dining experiences, not least because they were his mother’s favorite “Italian” food. He speculates that the name came about in the 1930s, when Italian food was regarded as lowbrow. Only French food was thought classy and sophisticated; Italian restaurant owners might have developed the dish and named it “alla francese” to upgrade the tone of their menus. Rosengarten notes that “alla francese” may have been inspired by a Neapolitan dish of battered and fried artichoke hearts. But alla francese’s light, eggy coating is elegant and lighter than a thick batter or alla Milanese’s heavy breading of flour, egg, and breadcrumbs, often served with a thick tomato sauce.
Chicken Vesuvio isn’t just Italian American, it’s Italian American, Chicago- style. It does, however, have definite antecedents in simple roast chicken with potatoes found throughout Italy. Its origins – at least regarding its name – are unknown, but there was a Vesuvio Restaurant on Wacker Drive in Chicago in the 1930s. Regardless, it quickly became a local Italian restaurant staple. Chicken Vesuvio appears in a 1930s menu from Colosimo’s on South Wabash, “where Al Capone got his start.” That’s according to John Drury, whose 1931 book, Dining in Chicago, provides a fascinating glimpse into the Windy City’s dining scene of that era. Colosimo’s became famous – actually infamous – when owner “Big Jim” Colosimo was killed by one of Capone’s henchmen in 1920. By the 30s, Drury describes it as “just another nightlife center” with a seven-course table d’hote dinner for $1.50, featuring a whole baby lobster. An orchestra provided music for dancing and there were ‘Horse Races’ where you may act as jockey and perhaps win a prize. No, you won’t get shot here, and the eminent Mr. Capone is never seen in the place – now that he’s been graduated,” Drury dryly noted.
Chicken Vesuvio and Chicken Francese may not be authentically Italian. But they’re authentically Italian American, still easily found in old school Italian American restaurants. And they’re still delicious.
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- 1 whole chicken, cut into 8 pieces
- salt and freshly ground pepper
- 4 medium russet potatoes
- Extra virgin olive oil
- 10 – 12 whole garlic cloves, peeled
- 2 tsp. dried oregano
- 1 1/2 c. dry white wine
- 1 1/2 c. low sodium chicken stock
- or broth
- 1 c. peas, fresh or frozen, optional
- Lemon wedges
- Chopped parsley for garnish, optional
Preheat the oven to 375°. Pat the chicken dry with paper towels and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Wash the potatoes and cut them, unpeeled, into 4 – 6 wedges each. Sprinkle them with the salt and pepper.
In a large skillet, heat a thin film of olive oil over medium high heat. Add the chicken pieces and brown on all sides, then remove, skin side up, to a baking dish large enough to hold the chicken pieces and potato wedges in one layer.
Add more oil to the skillet if necessary, then add the potato wedges and cook, turning frequently, until they are browned. Add them to the baking dish with the chicken.
Toss the garlic cloves in the skillet and sauté, stirring frequently, until they just begin to change color, then tuck them around the chicken and potatoes.
Pour off excess fat from the skillet and turn the heat to high. Add the wine, stock, and oregano and stir to deglaze the pan, incorporating the browned bits on the bottom into the liquid. When the mixture has reduced a bit, pour it over the chicken and potatoes, and put them in the oven.
Bake until the chicken and potatoes are cooked through, about 50 minutes to an hour. Towards the end of the baking time, cook the peas until just tender and keep warm.
Place the chicken and potatoes on a large deep serving platter or individual plates. Drizzle with the pan juices, sprinkle the peas, if using, over the top and serve immediately, garnished with lemon wedges and parsley, if desired. Serves 4
- 2 chicken breasts or 4 thighs,
- boneless and skinless
- flour for dredging
- salt and pepper (preferably white)
- to taste
- 1/4 c. finely grated pecorino romano cheese OR parmegiano reggiano
- 1 very large egg, beaten, plus
- additional if needed
- 1/4 c. olive oil, plus additional if needed
- lemon wedges
For the sauce, optional
- 1/4 c. dry white wine or vermouth
- 1 c. chicken stock
- 1 T. lemon juice
- 2 T. chilled unsalted butter, cut into bits
- 2 T. chopped parsley, optional, for garnish
For the chicken:Pound the chicken between sheets of parchment or waxed paper with a mallet or small heavy skillet until thin and of even thickness. Cut into 2 or 3 equal pieces. Season the flour with salt and pepper to taste and put on a paper towel or parchment sheet. Whisk together the egg and cheese on another large shallow plate. Set the flour mixture and the egg mixture next to each other.
Heat the oil in a very large skillet or two smaller skillets over medium high heat. You may need to add a little additional oil, but it shouldn’t be more than 1/8- inch deep. While the oil is heating, dredge the chicken pieces in the flour and shake off the excess. Then dip the pieces in the egg mixture, letting the excess drip off. Add to the oil when it is hot but not smoking. Be careful not to overcrowd the pan. It may be necessary to do this in batches, depending of the size of your skillet(s). Cook until the pieces are golden on the outside, turning once. Depending on their thickness, this should only take about 2-3 minutes per side. When they are done, remove the cutlets and drain in a single layer on paper towels, keeping them warm. The chicken can now be served as is, with wedges of lemon on the side, or with the following simple pan sauce.
Pour off the oil from the skillet and return the skillet to the heat. Add the wine, chicken stock and lemon juice and bring to a boil, stirring up any browned bits from the bottom. Boil the sauce until it is thickened and reduced to a glaze, about ½ c. Remove the pan from the heat and whisk in the butter. Depending on your preference, the cutlets can be added to the pan and coated with the sauce, any remaining sauce drizzled over the top; with the sauce drizzled over the top; or with the sauce on the side. Sprinkle with the parsley and serve with lemon wedges, if desired. Serves 2 - 4.
Note: “alla francese” preparation can be used with veal, turkey or pork cutlets and is sometimes even used with large butterflied shrimp.