Pollo alla Cacciatore
A Tale of Two Chickens
My current husband first brought me to his hometown of Agerola in the summer of 2014. We arrived at three o’clock in the morning after driving the whole damn day from Grenoble. It took us longer than expected because some ding dong was driving against traffic for several kilometers somewhere outside of Genova. We made two pit stops- one to eat a Carrefour roast chicken in a tiny town in the middle of Liguria. We stopped again in Orbetello for Giuseppe to use the toilet and for me to scream about how fucking big Tuscany was.
Somewhere near Grosseto, I complained that I was hungry and Giuseppe insisted that we were near our destination (we weren’t) and that his mother would have prepared us dinner at her house (she hadn’t). The only radio station that worked in our beat up old BMW convertible was the catholic station. I used the unfolding six hours as an opportunity to declare a mental fatwa against Peppe for not letting me eat and also to learn the Lord’s prayer in Italian. I am proud to say that both the mental fatwa and my Italian language acquisition of the Lord’s Prayer remain firmly in tact.
It’s a good thing I prayed in that car ride because nothing could have possibly prepared me for my grand arrival at Giuseppe’s ancestral home. His mother was awake when we arrived. She was sitting in a dirty plastic lounge chair in the middle of her dank kitchen watching Dancing with the Stars on a clunky television from circa 1992. The TV was perched precariously over a refrigerator; the contents of which I would soon learn were largely of dubious pork provenance from when Peppe’s brother had slaughtered the family pig several months prior. Bits and bobs of pig intestine, ears and plastic Fanta bottles filled with lard lurked in that fridge.
The house sat in a ravine where the final road in town ended. In a town that was the middle of nowhere, we really lived on the outskirts of the middle of nowhere. There were two other Americans in Agerola at that time. One of them was from there but had emigrated to America in the sixties. The other was his wife, a former Alitalia flight attendant whose singular claim to fame was that she had once served William Shatner a G&T somewhere over the Atlantic. She pronounced his name Shatnah, with troubling pizzazz.
When we met, this woman asked me where I lived in Agerola with the passive aggressive condescension ex-patriots reserve for encounters with their fellow citizens abroad. I told her I lived in that ravine at the end of that lonely road. She chortled, “There’s really no there-there” and then gestured to her home in the town’s piazza. Well fuck you, I thought. There was really no there, there in the piazza either. So just for good measure I declared my second fatwa in as many days against the vile vapid former flight attend who once had the privilege of serving Shatnah himself and had worked her way up to living in a piazza.
The real baptism by fire moment in the first week of my arrival would be reserved for the day I met Fiorina, Peppe’s sister-in-law. Fiorina means little flower in English, but little flower she was not. At first, she reminded me of Hagrid. Then she opened her mouth and I realized she was more like Tony Soprano inhabiting Hagrid’s body.
Fiorina dressed in all black, mourning the death of a brother some odd decade prior. She chain-smoked and drank about 17 cups of espresso a day. By the looks of it that was about all she did other than preparing family meals, coughing and screaming at her second son to sweep the kitchen flour. Somewhat incongruously she also liked to crochet fanciful creatures like unicorns and dragons in shimmery neon yarn from the crappy local craft store. Come to think of it, maybe she had more in common with Hagrid than I had initially imagined.
I was convinced Fiorina was crazy. Her gigantic football hands and sausage fingers scared the shit out of me. I imagined her whacking her husband with those paws daily. Lucky for me, she lived in the apartment above me so we would have lots of quality time together.
Peppe was eager for us to like each other and so one afternoon he brought us two unplucked (but thankfully dead) chickens and suggested we make cacciatore together. Fiorna’s eyes sneakily veered left then right in a way that could only mean she was up to something. “How do you make cacciatore, Cristina?” she asked me.
Anxious to impress her with my culinary prowess, I blabbered about browning the meat first and slowly braising it in tomatoes. She silently nodded her head and declared, “why don’t you do it your way and I do it my way and we’ll see what the family thinks.” In a swift move, she had thrown down the only gauntlet a bored, angry housewife in a place with no there, there knew how to throw. We were having a chicken off. And the fifteen members of the family would be our judges.
With my third mental fatwa declared, I began plucking my chicken in earnest over hot flames. Fiorina had the advantage because her hands were so big and she didn’t have a long nailed gel manicure to worry about like me. She also seemed to have a lot of experience plucking poultry. When we repaired to her kitchen for the great chicken wars of 2014, my mind went blank.
How the fuck do I prepare chicken cacciatore I wondered. My phone did not work in Agerola so there was no hope of furtively Googling a recipe while in the bathroom. I somehow managed to recall a recipe from a Williams Sonoma slow cooker recipe book. Then I just thought, screw it. It’s a braise and like any other slowly cooked dish one must brown the meat, deglaze, add liquid, bring to a boil and then simmer.
I began smiling as I thought of the Maillard reaction. There was no way that dumb bitch knew what the Maillard reaction was. And then I noticed the lard filled plastic Fanta bottle. Fiorina was squeezing it in a long dingle berry over a gigantic cast iron skillet. She was frying the goddamn chicken in pig fat. Not fair, I wanted to scream. But Fiorina had brought out the big (pig) guns and she was in it to win it.
As my cacciatore happily simmered in a hearty sauce of tomatoes and oregano, Fiorina’s cast iron skillet was screeching and popping in delight. When everything was ready, she plated her fucking FRIED chicken with tomatoes on a massive oval platter. I daintily ladled my chicken cacciatore into a wide shallow bowl and garnished with parsley. We silently walked to the dinner table with our respective chicken contestants.
The family, as usual, served themselves that night. I tentatively took a portion of my own dish, worried that maybe it tasted like cat food. To my delight, it did not. It was amazing. Fork tender and bathed in a sensuous tomato sauce it was the best chicken cacciatore I had ever had. Nobody else but Peppe ate my cacciatore that night. They all ate Fiorina’s cheater chicken. I sampled hers too. It was good. But I still liked mine better. They say the winners write history, and I suppose that Fiorina was the winner that night. But in this case the people with computers write history. So fuck you Fiorina, my chicken was better and here is the recipe to prove it!
Cacciatore di Pollo (Hunter Style Chicken)
Serves 6 as a secondo
- 1 whole chicken butchered into breast, legs, thighs and backs
- 2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 2 whole garlic cloves
- 1 cup white wine
- 16oz canned whole,peeled San Marzano Tomatoes
- 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 1 tablespoon oregano
- Pat the chicken dry with paper towels and season with salt and pepper
- Heat olive oil in Dutch oven over medium heat and brown chicken on all sides (really, really brown it- don’t be whimpy about this step)
- Set chicken aside on platter being sure to collect accumalted juices
- Lower heat and add whole, slightly crushed garlic to oil
- Stir with wooden spoon for 30 seconds until garlic releases its characteristic garlicky smell
- Remove garlic
- Add white wine, deglazing Dutch oven by scraping up brown chicken bits with wooden spoon
- Add tomatoes, red pepper flakes and oregano to Dutch oven
- Break up whole tomatoes with back of wooden spoon
- Add chicken and accumulated juices back to Dutch oven
- Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook covered for one hour
- Garnish with parsley and serve with warm bread
Fiorina’s Recipe for those who Dare….
Serves however many you feel like...
- One whole (dead) chicken plucked over an open flame and butchered according to however the hell you feel like it
- 1 cup of salt
- No pepper--- black pepper is bad for your health, smoking on the other hand is not
- A Fanta bottle full of lard--- also better for your health than olive oil
- 5 minuscule cherry tomatoes
- Furiously rub the sodium equivalent of the Dead Sea into the chicken
- Heat cast iron caldron over high heat, disregarding any concern about kitchen fires
- Squeeze spirals of lard into caldron
- Deep fry chicken in lard (possibly while wearing motorcycle goggles to prevent sputtering oil from blinding you)
- Add baby tomatoes and violently squash them into ‘sauce’
- Serve on pseudo silver platter and scream at every in ear reach, “EAT! What are you waiting for…. A BENEDICTION?”
- Make the sign of the crucifix over the platter of chicken and retort, “Fine, benedetto.”