My family was pretty traditional when it came to Italian cooking. Both my mother and my aunt prepared recipes passed down to them by their mothers and took pride in preserving their traditions.
Perhaps because of this adherence to the past, I never had had the ever popular Italian-American Chicken Parm until I was in high school. I remember my first time with it. My friends raved about the dish so much that I simply had to try it. I thought it would be similar to the only other “parm” I knew, namely my aunt’s eggplant parmigiana, with perfectly fried slices of eggplant baked in layers with a light tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, and Parmigiano Reggiano.
However, when my order of chicken parm appeared, my disappointment with the dish hit me before I even tasted it. The sight and smell of an overly fried and similarly over breaded skinless chicken cutlet drowning in a thick, sweetened tomato sauce and topped with a rubbery piece of “mozz” were, to put it mildly, less than appealing. The taste was not much better. Nevertheless, to fit in with the crowd, I ate most of it and said “Wow, the best chicken parm I ever had.” It was also my last.
Back to the present. Intrigued by a tempting picture of what was called “Chicken Pizza” in a NY Times “What to Cook Now” newsletter, I clicked my way to the recipe by Melissa Clark. My intrigue lessened, however, when I read in her introduction that the dish was “reminiscent of Chicken Parmesan.” Yuck! But that picture was so still tempting.
Well last night, I finally made the dish and am happy to report it was a huge success, or as my better half proclaimed “a keeper!” The sauce had layers of flavor from the anchovies and pancetta; the bocconcini, perfectly melted, complemented the sauce; and the chicken thighs were moist and juicy. A far cry from that first chicken parm.
I followed the recipe pretty closely, only adding one extra anchovy, upping the amount of olive oil to 2 tablespoons, and using chopped rather than whole imported Italian tomatoes. I also chose to deglaze the pan with a little white wine after browning the chicken and frying the garlic, anchovies, and red pepper flakes.
Skillet Chicken With Tomatoes, Pancetta and Mozzarella
3 ½ pounds bone-in chicken pieces (or use a 31/2 pound chicken cut into 8 pieces)
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil (I used 2 tablespoons.)
5 ounces pancetta, diced
3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
2 anchovy fillets (I used 3 anchovies.)
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
1½ ounces dry white wine for deglazing (My addition to the recipe.)
1 (28-ounce) can whole plum tomatoes (I used chopped imported Italian tomatoes.)
1 large basil sprig, plus more chopped basil for serving
8 ounces bocconcini, halved (or use mozzarella cut into 3/4-inch pieces)
Heat oven to 400 degrees. Pat chicken dry and season with salt and pepper.
In a large oven-proof skillet, warm oil over medium-high heat. Add pancetta and cook, stirring frequently, until browned.
Use a slotted spoon to transfer pancetta to a paper-towel-lined plate.
Add chicken to skillet. Sear, turning only occasionally, until well browned on all sides, about 10 minutes. (My chicken took almost 20 minutes to brown.) Transfer to a large plate. Pour off all but 1 tablespoon oil.
Add garlic, anchovy and red pepper flakes to skillet; fry 1 minute.
I chose here to deglaze the pan with wine.
Stir in tomatoes and basil. Cook, breaking up tomatoes with a spatula, until sauce thickens somewhat, about 10 minutes.
Return chicken to skillet. (Turn the pieces in the sauce to coat the chicken. My addition,)
Transfer skillet to oven and cook, uncovered, until chicken is no longer pink, about 30 minutes.
Scatter bocconcini or mozzarella pieces over skillet.
Adjust oven temperature to broil. Return skillet to oven and broil until cheese is melted and bubbling, 2 to 3 minutes (watch carefully to see that it does not burn). Garnish with pancetta and chopped basil before serving.
Wine Pairing: Dry Lambrusco