There are many components to the Sunday dinners of our Italian-American lifestyle. It almost always starts with the sauce, slowly simmering for hours on end, with meatballs, sausages, and/or braciole bobbing about and imparting robust flavor. Then, there’s the pasta that will inevitably be draped by the sauce, probably a salad with oil and vinegar, along with antipasti, slices of crusty Italian bread, and cheeses like ricotta, parmesan, and mozzarella.
The weekly Italian feast that brings together generations of the family also typically includes heavier meat dishes in the secondi section of the Italian meal structure. And there’s one meat in particular that shines during this course, thanks to its unmatched versatility and almost universal appeal among eaters of all ages.
And that meat is, of course, chicken.
Chicken, whether on the bone or in cutlet form, has been a staple of Italian cuisine going back to the old country, where you might have seen it whole roasted, incorporated into stews, or pounded thin and fried—all depending on the region. Of course, the first generations of Italian-Americans took those old world recipes and tweaked them to cater to their ever-evolving tastes and ingredient availability on this side of the Atlantic.
The resulting dishes, some covered in cheese and others fully ensconced in sauce, made their way onto the menus of Italian-American Sunday dishes—finding a spot and it’s own course among the sauce, pasta, meatballs, and more. These poultry-focused main courses are usually presented with side dishes—or “contorni”—like roasted potatoes with rosemary, carrots, broccoli rabe, Brussels sprouts, oven-roasted onions, roasted vegetable medley, and much more.
Let’s take a gander at some of the most popular fine-feathered dishes that make Italian-Americans flock back to the dining-room table after they’ve already eaten their pasta and sauce course.
Whole Roasted Chicken
Perhaps the most straight-forward presentation of a bird is the whole-roasted variety. Different families lay claim to possessing the greatest preparation of a whole-roasted chicken, but the baseline version undoubtedly includes a combination of fresh herbs like thyme and rosemary, along with garlic and onion, and perhaps some carrots, celery, salt, pepper, and a sizeable portion of either butter or olive oil.
Our favorite method involves finely chopping thyme and rosemary before infusing those fresh herbs into some room-temperature butter, then taking that elevated butter and spread it under the bird’s skin for the most impossibly moist chicken you’ll ever eat. From there, stuff the chicken’s cavity with whole garlic cloves, quartered onion, and roughly chopped carrot and celery. The resulting flavor is a callback to the comfiest and coziest of rustic Sunday dinners, with crisp skin yielding to juicy, buttery meat and an all-around aromatic essence that is sure to enliven the senses of you and your family.
One of our favorite memories from childhood is watching nonna fry breaded chicken cutlets in a pan, then place them onto a paper towel-lined plate to absorb the excess oil. This is one of our favorite memories because, inevitably, nonna would always give us a cutlet off of the kitchen counter as a pre-dinner treat.
Sprinkled with salt, a plain chicken cutlet is the pinnacle of culinary excellence for the children running around the house on an Italian-American Sunday. These crisp, perfectly seasoned, fried slices of chicken breast don’t even need sauce and, though they make a great secondi dish, they almost never make it to the dining room table because they are perhaps best eaten with your hands while standing in the kitchen.
This classic dish takes the baseline chicken cutlet and covers it in mozzarella cheese and marinara sauce or Sicilian gravy. Chicken Parmigiana is somewhat of a gateway food in Italian cuisine—even those who claim not to love Italian food (blasphemy, right?) frequently order this dish when they find themselves in an Italian restaurant. At home, Chicken Parmigiana takes on the role of main course centerpiece, featuring thinly pounded cutlets that are dredged in flour, dipped in egg, and then dropped into seasoned breadcrumbs before being fried in oil.
From there, the bare cutlets are covered in sauce before the cook lays slices of mozzarella cheese atop. The best method is to finish the cutlets in your oven’s broiler on high, which ensures melty cheese while guarding against dried-out chicken. The beauty of Chicken Parmigiana is how each bite combines the varied textures of chicken, breadcrumbs, and silky cheese—along with a flavor that hits all the classic Italian notes. This is a favorite of so many mainly because it possesses everything we love about Italian food in one bite, and it pairs wonderfully with all types of pasta.
Chicken Marsala & Chicken Francese & Chicken Piccata
Though different in taste and ingredients, these three chicken dishes are too similar to separate. Chicken Marsala trades in the sauce and cheese for a slightly sweet and deliciously savory Marsala wine and plenty of earthy mushrooms. Here, we ditched the breadcrumbs, but still dredge the chicken cutlets in flour and egg, which helps to lock in that all-important moisture. The result is golden, pan-fried chicken with a creamy, mushroom-studded sauce that’s spiked with lots of garlic. Both butter and oil are used in the frying process, which contributes to the golden color but also serves to amp up the overall richness of the dish.
Chicken Francese shares the same basic preparation as Chicken Marsala, but foregoes the Marsala wine and mushrooms in favor of a white wine and lemon-butter sauce. Francese translates to “in the French style,” which involves dredging the chicken in flour and then dipping it in egg before cooking it in a rich and buttery lemon sauce. The flavor features bright, sharp notes from the zesty lemon, that’s tamed nicely but rich butter and wine. Chicken Piccata is very similar to Francese, but usually skips the egg and includes plenty of salty, flavorful capers in the lemony sauce. The addition of capers gives Piccata a more intense, almost briny saltiness—which matches perfectly with the subtle charm of chicken breast.
Loosely translated to “hunter’s chicken,” Chicken Cacciatore is a hearty poultry stew that’s just as satisfying to a family on a Sunday as it might be for a hunter in the woods. It’s typically loaded with on-the-bone cuts of chicken that are slowly braised in tomato sauce with mushrooms, onions, garlic, and (red or white) wine, along with a selection of herbs and maybe even some sliced olives if you’re into that sort of thing.
This rustic dish is found throughout Italy, where the specific ingredients depend on the region where it’s being prepared. Here, and in your home kitchen, ingredients depend entirely on you and your family’s taste. Besides being hearty, filling, and comforting, this dish is extremely forgiving. There’s a lot of room for experimentation and self-expression with Chicken Cacciatore and you are free to curate your very own version—as long as you give the stew plenty of time to slow-cook all of those deep flavors to the absolute height of their powers!
Another entry into the slow-braised world of unbelievably flavorful chicken dishes is the Italian classic, Chicken Scarpariello. This recipe includes juicy chicken thighs, sweet Italian sausage, and a vinegary, sweet-sour pan sauce that’s been spiked with hot pickled peppers for an extra kick to the mouth. It’s a one-pot chicken dinner that, like Chicken Cacciatore, is a perfect winter night meal that offers the cook plenty of room for personalization and improvisation.
The aromatic bite of the sweet Italian sausages brings the flavor of the braised chicken to a whole new level, while the zestiness of the peppers adds a layer of heat that is more pleasant than overwhelming.
Paesana Loves Italian-American Chicken Dishes
Chicken can be among the simplest of proteins out of which you can coax an amazing meal. It is so incredibly versatile that we could spend days listing all of the Italian chicken dishes you could prepare for your family. Besides the ones listed above, there’s also Chicken Involtini, Chicken Pugliese, Chicken Peperonata, and Chicken Caprese, not to mention all of the pasta dishes that benefit from the inclusion of poultry, like Chicken Alfredo or rigatoni alla vodka with chicken.
We encourage you to explore the world of Italian-American chicken dishes, both inside and outside of your comfort zone! With our array of pasta sauces and gourmet cooking sauces, Paesana is with you every step of the way to assist in preparing an unforgettable meal for your family.