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Chicken Parmesan: the ubiquitous mainstay in restaurants, pizzerias, and kitchens


(for the sake of this blog I will be interchanging chicken parmigiana with chicken parmesan and chicken parm. Please don't get upset with me using any of these aliases or all of them in one sentence.)


Ubiquitous. Big word I know. But when I say that word in the same sentence as chicken parmesan and American cuisine, you know exactly what it means. It means chicken parm is the Italian American cuisine found everywhere.


You know what you're getting when you order chicken parmesan regardless of the restaurant from which you are ordering. It's that much of a mainstay in the American cuisine. What you don't know is the quality of the more affectionately known chicken parm, (because it's just too much work to say the "esan"??) you will be receiving. That's the crap shoot you must be willing to endure.


People are more inclined to order it in places that in no way shape or form are affiliated with Italian American cuisine. You know why? Because everyone has the reminiscence take me back to good ol' days comfort food place where they had their favorite chicken parmesan. Chicken parmesan is as American as baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet!



If we take a trip into history, we may see the parmesan part of chicken parm alive and well and thriving in Italy, but we won't see the chicken part. Deconstructing chicken parmigiana down to its basic components reveals the truth behind its origins. In the Old World, that’s Italy prior to the Italian diaspora—the large-scale emigration of Italians from Italy to America—proteins like chicken were not widely available. As such, the prototypical chicken parmigiana was actually made with breaded, fried slices of eggplant in place of chicken for a dish called melanzane alla Parmigiana. So, did Italians in America create chicken parm? Well, yes...they did!


Once in the "new world" proteins were more readily available and affordable in the meat markets. Hence newly minted Italian American home cooks not only devised unique dishes based on what was available, but also adhered existing recipes to the new world’s meat-centric menu—altering many classics into newfound creations, including chicken parmigiana. And the also ubiquitous meatball. (That recipe is for another blog)


Snapping back to present day (in the DeLorean), we notoriously consider chicken parmesan Italian cuisine. It's on every local Italian restaurant menu, most family restaurants, hoagied at your favorite pizza shop, or even in the quintessential diner. But what we've learned is that it's not exactly Italian food. Nor is it named for a great Italian city, Parma.


Food historians argue that the dish couldn’t have been developed in and named for Parma, Italy simply because melanzane alla Parmigiana wasn’t eaten that far north in Italy. Parma is in the Emilia-Romagna region. Instead, the dish was a staple of Campania and Sicily, both southern regions of the country.



But there must be something about this specific combination that sweeps us back to that comfort place, that feel warm in your belly feeling place where we first had it. Mine, you ask. My high school cafeteria.


Now don't confuse the Sto-Rox High School cafeteria (circa 1979-1989) to the ones your children overspend in or complain about. We had serious cooks making our food. And they made one helluva chicken parm sandwich.

The Lunch Ladies at Sto-Rox High School, 1987


Well, that was my favorite chicken parm, until I had Pollo Alla Parmigiana at Filomena's Ristorante, in Georgetown, Washington DC. Hands down, still in my mind the best...


...until this recipe! (wink wink)


 

Cooking Class with Carol


Things to Consider


  1. Ingredient quality is of the utmost importance, again. Try to buy the freshest and best quality available. You won't be sorry you did.

  2. I used a cast iron skillet to fry the chicken breast. If you have one, you may want to consider frying in it. If not, make sure you are using a deep enough fry pan, so the oil does not overflow. If you have an accident with the oil and it spills over onto the burner and flares up, don't panic--grab your kitchen fire extinguisher. Don't have one? (Add it to your list of kitchen essentials) then throw flour on it to extinguish the flames.

  3. For the recipe, it calls for adding tomato sauce to the breaded fried cutlet before adding cheese and cooking in oven. In the pictures I did not include the sauce. But definitely add it.

Ingredients:

  • 4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, pounded thin, about 1/4"thick

  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour, seasoned with salt and pepper

  • 4 large eggs, beaten with 2 tablespoons water and seasoned with salt and pepper

  • 2 cups panko breadcrumbs

  • Tomato Sauce, see "The Walks That Started It All" blog

  • 1-pound fresh mozzarella, thinly sliced or your favorite shredded white cheese*(s)

  • 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan

  • Fresh basil or parsley leaves, for garnish


What To Do

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

  2. On clean surface or on plastic wrap, firmly pound chicken with the smooth side of a meat tenderizer. Each breast should be about 1/4" thick. Season chicken on both sides with salt and pepper. Dredge each breast in the flour and tap off excess, then dip in the egg and let excess drip off, then dredge on both sides in the seasoned breadcrumbs.

  3. In a cast iron skillet, add cooking oil until it covers about 1/2" inch of the bottom. (I do not give you an exact amount because everyone has different sized pans that they use.) Add 2 breaded chicken breasts to each pan and cook until golden brown on both sides, about 2-3 minutes per side. Adjust flame accordingly-- you don't want the oil smoking or the breading to be too dark.


  1. Transfer to a baking sheet and top each breast with 1 tablespoon Tomato Sauce, a few slices of the mozzarella (or a handful of shredded cheese), salt and pepper, and a tablespoon of Parmesan. Bake in the oven until the chicken is cooked through and the cheese is melted, about 7 to 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and garnish with basil or parsley leaves.


Tomato Sauce:

  1. See Blog "The Walks That Started It All" for Cindy Litterini's Marinara Sauce.



Chicken Parmesan is typically accompanied with your favorite pasta-- so make it your own by selecting your favorite noodle and cooking that noodle according to the directions on the box. Toss in the tomato sauce and serve with chicken parmesan. (I love bucatini-- but that's just me!)




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