From a “Gastronomic Treasure” in the book Seeing and Savoring Italy– A Taste and Travel Journey through Northern Italy, Tuscany and Umbria, by Pamela Marasco
My first real taste of Italy began in America with a gentle coaxing into Nonna’s kitchen the day after I married Michael. I had been helping in the kitchen all the while Michael and I dated, helping to stir the polenta, chop the garlic; watching Nonna shape the gnocchi with the tines of a fork. I had been helping Michael’s mother make her famous Italian Rum Cake, the centerpiece of many family celebrations. I had spent countless hours going over pictures, postcards and letters from relatives in Italy. But now things were about to get serious.
Nonna was not an architect but just as surely as Brunelleschi designed the Cathedral Dome in Florence, Nonna had a design for me. I was married to her grandson, Michael who she loved very much and as with all grandmothers she had a special place in her heart for him. So teaching me to cook Italian was now a priority. One of my many lessons on the art of “cucina alla casalinga”, home style Italian cooking, was learning Nonna’s recipe for Hunter’s Chicken (Pollo alla Cacciatora). It was one of the first recipes she taught me to cook. A classic Italian dish, most families have their own variation of the recipe using red or white wine sometimes adding mushrooms and peppers. Nonna frequently cooked this dish on Sundays to serve at the afternoon meal that lasted for hours. She called the dish Stewed Chicken with Polenta because the sauce from the chicken was always served over hot polenta.
Measuring ingredients for Nonna was “a glass of wine and olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan”. “What size glass, Nonna, how much olive oil?” She would reply patiently ”You know the small water glass and the pan we always use”. I learned to cook this dish by watching her and helping in the preparation and along the way I began to learn about the background and traditions of her family in the Veneto and her life in Italy.
Now I realize that Nonna had a plan for me. She wanted me to know about her Italian family heritage and culture and she would teach me about it through food. Nonna always served her stewed chicken with polenta, a type of cornmeal that is cooked in water to make a kind of porridge. The regions of northern Italy especially the Veneto where Nonna came from were large producers of corn and so polenta became a common food often eaten by peasants who served it alone or with cheese (Parmigiano, Fontina) or milk. There was a special pot Nonna used to cook polenta. There was a special wooden spoon-like stick (mescola)) Nonna used to stir the polenta and there was a special board Nonna used to serve the polenta which she then covered with a white tea towel to keep warm. As you can see, polenta had a prominent place at the family table.
Polenta is still a very popular dish in the Veneto, a region in Northern Italy that includes some of my favorite taste and travel destinations. Here you can drive along the course of the Brenta River between Padua and Venice, known as the Brenta Riviera (Rivera del Brenta) where architects such as Palladio designed country residences (villas) for wealthy Venetians who were looking for a diversion from the summer heat of Venice. In the Veneto you can create your own balcony scene alla Romeo and Juliet at No. 27 Via Capello in Verona and taste grappa at its birthplace in Bassano del Grappa, an authentic Italian river town at the foot of the Alps. And at the Piazza dei Signori in Treviso I listened to an outdoor concert of American classics by Gershwin after dining on peacock and nidi di amore at the home of my friend, Simone.
When Nonna died at the age of 89 she did not leave a material inheritance valued in dollars and cents but she did leave a gastronomic treasure chest full of traditional family recipes and memories that connected us to the rich, cultural traditions of Italy and the belief that sitting at the table in fellowship with your family and friends is a lost pleasure that must be found again.
I have been on a mission to discover the gastronomic treasures of Italy ever since that first cooking lesson in Nonna’s kitchen. That mission has taken me on a remarkable journey down Roman roads, past castles with Celtic altars and Etruscans ruins, through medieval walled cities and alpine lakes, visiting Renaissance chapels and Gothic cathedrals, into kitchens, vineyards and orchards, to experience the food of princes, popes, pilgrims and everyday Italians developing a taste for Italy and wanting more.
Hunter’s Chicken – Pollo alla Cacciatora
Nonna loved chicken so she would include every part of the bird including the “last part that went over the fence” when making this dish but I have made this recipe with just breasts, legs and thighs and it works well. I don’t feel that you can make this recipe with just the light meat of the chicken. Combining light and dark meat gives the dish a richer flavor.
Also Nonna always cooked this dish with the skin on the chicken and the chicken on the bone. I remove part of the skin and skim off some of the fat during cooking because generally the men I am serving this dish to are not sitting down at the table after a hard day of hunting and do not need the extra calories from the richness of the fat. The measuring of ingredients is according to my best guesstimate as Nonna never used exact measurements for this recipe.
- Wash a 3-4 lb chicken in cold water and pat dry. Cut the chicken into 6-8 pieces. Heat 2 T of olive oil and 1T butter (Nonna was from Northern Italy) in a large enough pan that can accommodate the chicken pieces without crowding them (I use a Dutch oven or enamel casserole pot)
- When the oil and butter begin to foam add 1 large onion thinly sliced and cook until softened. Add chicken pieces, skin side down. Cook chicken until nicely brown on one side and then the other. Add 1-2 cloves garlic being careful not to let the garlic burn (this is very important). Add a little salt (I use gray salt) and freshly ground pepper, as you like. Keep turning the chicken over as it browns. Now you must add the wine – about 1/3 to 2/3 cup of Vino di Tavolo, an Italian table wine (red or white), Nonna used the wine she would be serving with the meal. Allow the chicken to simmer with the wine as the alcohol steams offs and the wine evaporates to just about half. This will happen fairly quickly. At this point add 1½ cups of Italian plum tomatoes, coarsely chopped with their juice. Adjust the heat to a steady simmer and cover the pan with the lid slightly askew.
- Slowly cook the chicken for about an hour or until the meat begins to fall off the bone. Some people add fresh sliced mushrooms to the pot the last 15 to 20 minutes of cooking but in our household the mushrooms were prepared separately and served at the table with polenta.
(The term “hunter” in Italian cooking refers to the style of preparation of a whole meat carcass made with local rustic ingredients including tomatoes, mushrooms, onions, herbs and wine cooked over an open stove resulting in a stew of rich, robust flavors. I have seen this dish made with other meat including rabbit which is more typical of a hunter’s meal. So make this dish in the fall during the height of the hunting season. Even if your cacciatore hasn’t brought home the main ingredient you can connect to a time of the year that in Italy is truly magical. The colors of the autumn landscape in Tuscany and the Umbrian hills are deeper and richer than ever and the Emilia Romagna countryside is full of the fruits of the harvest. The bronze and brown porcini mushrooms, the deep wine colors of the vendemmia (grape harvest) and the earthy aroma of truffles create a taste for Italy in the autumn like no other time of the year.)