RECIPE

Think chicken is boring? These inspired takes on Italian-American classics will change your mind

Reach for olive oil, lemon juice, capers, butter and bundles of herbs to give weeknight chicken a flavorful boost

By Michael La Corte
Published August 4, 2021 5:08PM (EDT)
Chicken Marsala in a Cast Iron Skillet (Getty Images)
Chicken Marsala in a Cast Iron Skillet (Getty Images)

One of the simplest, purest pleasures I've experienced during my 32 years of life is going out for Italian-American food with my family. There is such a deep, rich nostalgia and comfort that permeates those spaces for me. 

I almost always opt for my favorite, which is (you guessed it) chicken parmesan. My mother will undoubtedly get some sort of shrimp dish with lemon, while my brother might get penne with vodka sauce. Then there's my father, who — without fail — will order "chicken oreganata."

You'll typically see "clams oreganata" on the menu as an appetizer featuring lightly breaded, chopped clams spiced with oregano and garlic. My father apparently decided to merge an Italian-American chicken with a clam appetizer and voila — a new Italian-American chicken classic was born. Wow, is it good. 

My Italian-American heritage is indelibly stamped on who I am as a cook today. When I was in culinary school, students would moan, "Ugh, it's Italian week," while waiting with baited breath for other types of cuisine to come up on the schedule. After years of feeling embarrassed and shunning my Italian heritage, it was the time that I decided to "mark my territory" and fully commit to my natural predilection for Italian-American flavor profiles. From that moment on, I worked with vigor to fully embrace my identity, becoming a "gnocchi king," experimenting with fresh pasta with aplomb and mastering bolognese. My bowl was emptied, eaten voraciously by my classmates, while the other bowls sat cooling and untouched. 

The flavors I love extend to chicken. Italian-American chicken dishes are a staple. Don't get me wrong, I adore skin-on, boneless breast, but a skinless, boneless, thinly-sliced chicken is ideal for these dishes. Often called a cutlet, scallopini, thin-sliced or pounded chicken, it's a fundamental protein throughout the culinary arts, though it really shines with Italian-American flavors. 

And while many decry chicken as "boring," the amount of preparation and customizations are infinite. It's easy to purchase and cook, while also meeting the feverish need for a weeknight dinner that can be made and enjoyed within an hour. 

The classics are chicken parm (be still my heart!), marsala and piccata. But I also have an affinity for oreganata, saltimbocca, scampi, sorrentino and valdostana. When it comes to sides, I'm not a proponent of flimsy and flaccid steamed vegetables or mashed potatoes, so I almost always opt for pasta. I come by this honestly. My father would bathe in spaghetti aglio olio if it weren't frowned upon.


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No matter the sauce — butter and cheese, garlic and oil, marinara or even a bit of the chicken's sauce —  pasta and a classic Italian-American chicken dish is a beautiful pairing. Lastly, and this should go without saying, grab an Italian loaf or a crusty, dense baguette for the table. It's a necessity for sopping up every last bit of luscious sauce. 

Below, I've included my recipes for the classics, some details about their backgrounds, as well as a bonus recipe for my dad's beloved chicken oreganata. Mangia!

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All of the classics (sans oreganata) start with this same sautéed chicken. Prepare this fundamental chicken base, then pivot from there to any of the delicious sauce options.

Recipe: Base Chicken 

  • 1.5 pounds chicken breasts, thinly sliced or pounded
  • Kosher salt to taste 
  • Freshly ground black pepper to taste 
  • Enough AP flour to thoroughly coat the chicken (about 2 cups)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons of onion powder
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons of garlic powder
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons unsalted butter

1. Using salt and pepper, season the chicken breasts well on both sides. Then, in a large shallow bowl or rimmed plate, season the flour with salt, pepper, onion powder and garlic powder. 

2. In a heavy bottomed saucepan or skillet, melt the butter and olive oil over medium-high heat. 

3.. Dredge the chicken breasts in the seasoned flour — coating both sides — before adding to the pan. Cook the chicken until the coating is a deep, golden brown, about 4 to 5 minutes on each side. 

5. Move the chicken to a plate, drain the pan of the cooking fat and return to the stove. 

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Chicken Marsala, on the other hand, originates from Marsala, Sicily. Eater states that it may have been invented in the 1800s. Of course, its primary ingredient is marsala wine, but it's always paired with mushrooms and thyme. VinePair notes that marsala wine was introduced to Italy in the late 1700s by John Woodhouse, who was a wine merchant from England. Some marsala also contains a splash of cream. It's a quick, simple dish — a perfect option for the cherished weeknight meal. The New York Times notes that the dish as we know it today was first published in a 1950s Italian cookbook, and that the wine itself "has pronounced sweetness that's distinguished by traces of dried fruit, caramel and nuts and some less-expected savory notes." Now how fantastic does that sound?


Related: Italian-Americans and the language of food: How calamari became galamar and ricotta became rigott


An important note: I implore you not to ever buy "cooking wine," which is a salt-bomb abomination of a product. Please use whatever bottles you have on hand, or purchase a bottle of marsala; it shouldn't be too expensive. 

Recipe: Pollo al Marsala

  • 2 to 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 pound of mushrooms, sliced
  • 1 cup marsala wine
  • 2 to 3 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves removed
  • A handful of parsley, chopped
  • 3/4 cup stock (beef or chicken)

1. Melt the butter in the pan in which you cooked the chicken. Add mushrooms and cook over medium heat  — without seasoning  — for 7 to 10 minutes until browned and all of their liquid has been cooked off.

2. Add marsala and cook down until reduced by half, stirring occasionally. 

3. Add stock and, again, cook down until reduced by half, before adding the thyme and parsley. Cook for another 3 to 5 minutes until the sauce is rich, glossy and luminous. Dot with additional butter, if desired, or a splash of cream.

4. Add chicken back to sauce and use tongs to make sure cooked chicken is enrobed in sauce.

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Technically, "picatta' merely means pounded flat, according to SimplyRecipes. Dotted with capers and bathed in a rich, piquant sauce redolent of lemon and butter, picatta is a staple — and for good reason. The technique is simple, you normally have the ingredients on hand and it comes together in no time. Its flavor is bright, lemon-forward and slightly briny from the capers (or very briny, depending on how heavy-handed your caper usage is).

 Recipe: Chicken Piccata 

  • 2 to 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 3 to 4 lemons, juiced
  • 3/4 cup white wine
  • 3/4 cup chicken stock
  • 1/3 cup capers
  • 1/3 cup artichoke hearts
  • Handful of chopped flat-leaf parsley

1. Melt the butter in the pan in which you cooked the chicken. Add white white, deglaze and cook until reduced by half, stirring occasionally. 

2. Add stock, lemon juice, artichokes and capers. Reduce by half.

3. Sprinkle parsley over the sauce, add chicken back to pan and turn until chicken is warmed through and the sauce is glossy and thickened.

***

Oreganata is — you guessed it — oregano-forward, while also utilizing lots of garlic, breadcrumbs, parsley, lemon, olive oil, lemon zest and some chicken stock. As mentioned earlier, it's almost always a baked clam dish, but the flavor is SO good (and the sauce so silky and rich) that limiting its usage to merely one shellfish would be a shame.

Recipe: My Dad's Pollo al Oreganata

  • 4 to 5 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 3/4 cup bread crumbs
  • 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
  • 3 lemons, zested and juiced, divided
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons freshly chopped oregano
  • Handful freshly chopped parsley
  • 1 cup chicken stock
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • 2 shallots, minced

1. As with base chicken recipe, prepare seasoned flour and dredge chicken in it before adding to a hot, oven-safe skillet with oil and 2 tablespoons melted butter.

2. As it cooks, add bread crumbs, garlic parm, half of the lemon zest, thyme, oregano and parsley to a bowl and add evoo just to moisten.

3. Turn heat off, add bread crumb topping to each chicken cutlet, transfer to oven, cook 7-10 minutes.

4. Remove, carefully transfer chicken to plate and dispose of cooking fat.

5. Add fresh butter to pan. Melt, stir in shallots and cook until translucent.

6. Add white wine and reduce by half. Add stock, lemon juice, remaining lemon zest and oregano. Reduce by half again. Dot with butter, if desired.

7. Drizzle sauce over chicken, being careful not to pour too aggressively or disturb bread crumb coating.

 

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Michael La Corte

Michael is a food writer, recipe editor and educator based in his beloved New Jersey. He loves hard cheeses, extra-crispy chicken cutlets, chocolate-coated candied orange peels, any and all pasta dishes, croissants, peach juice, coffee and admittedly stans Mountain Dew — as damning as that may be. He is a burgeoning movie buff and has an irrational distaste for potato bread. He is especially passionate about music, social justice advocacy, his loved ones and his dog, Winston.

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