It always surprises me when I learn of an Italian dish I’ve never heard of before. I know it shouldn’t. Italian cuisine is so incredibly rich and diverse, and influenced by the preferences and idiosyncrasies of 20 different regions and 110 provinces, that it would take several lifetimes to become an authoritative connoisseur of all Italian dishes.
So there I was, looking for a recipe that required braising, a standard technique of peasant cooking, to turn humble, cheap chicken thighs into fork-tender bites of jubilation and TA DA!!!!
I found it while consulting one of my favorite go-to soruces, Cook’s Illustrated. I have of course learned a thing or four on the subject at this point, in part to fortify my knowledge as an Italian and in part to try to understand why I had never heard of this tender and savory dish before.
While I’ve made no headway on the second point, and have had to resign myself to peacefully accepting that I just don’t know everything I’d like to know on the subject, I have learned something about Chicken Canzanese.
First, finding its source is a lost cause. The dish SOUNDS like it could come from a small provincial town named Cansano, located south of Italy’s boot ‘calf.’ Its inhabitants, whom are considered inhabitants of the larger nearby city of Teramo, are known to make a dish called Tacchino alla Canzanese, which involves slowly baking a turkey in gelatin and then serving it most often cold. Well, that doesn’t exactly make a direct connect with Chicken Canzanese now, does it? So….after crossing the ocean back to the States I was able to find one source, from 1969, by way of an artist and cookbook author named Ed Giobbi, who said he acquired the recipe from a family friend in Abruzzo. And so it goes. Unfortunately, finding a source for Italian recipes often feels like going down the proverbial rabbit hole, and this one is no exception.
Secondly, and unsurprisingly – there are about 1,327 variations of this dish. That’s right. Chicken Canzanese is like any other dish in Italy… its one defining version does not exist. Just as you can find a rich variety of minestrone soup in just one apartment building in Milano or Bologna, you can find a plethora of variations on Chicken Canzanese. Mario Batali’s version, for instance, simply asks to place all the ingredients in a large skillet, cover everything and cook it. Its rewards for such little effort was described by American food writer, cookbook author, and Food52.com co-founder Amanda Hesser as a “dish that has the fragrance of Chinese steamed duck and the succulence of a Bolognese.”
While the first part of the description didn’t resonate with me, though I will definitely reassess its fragrance when I make this tasty dish again, I concur completely with the succulence bit. I have served this dish to a myriad of folks, some pickier that others, and all have loved it.
I hope you do too.
making chicken canzanese
Prep the ingredients you’ll need. Cut 4 oz. of prosciutto slices into strips that are a half-inch wide and then cut into pieces.
Remove the skins of 4 garlic cloves and slice thinly lengthwise. Mince 4 shallots finely.
Remove the leaves from 1 (4-inch long) sprig of fresh rosemary.
Mince the leaves finely, it will come out to be about a 1/2 teaspoon or so, and reserve the stem.
Trim the excess fat and skin of 8 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs (about 3 lbs.).
Remove excess skin…
Trim parts that contain excess fat, like this piece of flappy skin.
The underbelly of the thigh will have lots of fat too, so trim as much as you can off. It should look like this when done.
And here they are, nice and cleaned up.
TIP: Please don’t substitute chicken breasts for this recipe. Once I only had those in the house and tried it and was sorely disappointed, as they turned out dry and stringy. The braising really needs a dark meat, with all of its sumptuous collagen, in order to work its magic.
Now preheat oven to 350°F., and adjust the rack to lower-middle position. Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a 12-inch heavy-bottomed, oven safe skillet over medium heat until shimmering.
TIP: Use a stainless steel sauté pan or skillet for this dish. First, it will allow you to brown the meat beautifully and create those savory crispy bits – called ‘fond’ – that remain at the bottom of the pan. These bits will lend incredible flavor to your pan sauce. Non-stick pans will not create the fond. Secondly, unlike non-stick pans, you can use the stainless steel skillet throughout your recipe, as it can also be placed in the oven.
Add the prosciutto and cook, stirring frequently, until just starting to brown, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic slices and cook, stirring frequently, until garlic is golden brown, about 1 ½ minutes. Transfer prosciutto mixture to a small bowl and set aside. Do not rinse skillet.
Return skillet to heat and increase the heat to medium-high. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil and heat until swirling but not yet smoking. As oil heats up, pat chicken dry with paper towels and season with salt and ground black pepper.
Add chicken, skin side down, and cook without moving until well browned, 5 minutes.
Once you’ve added the chicken to the skillet, do not move it. Leaving it alone is what is going to create that fabulous crispy skin.
TIP: Browning the chicken skin-side down is what is going to create that oh so vexing crispy skin. So be sure to dry the thighs thoroughly by patting them with paper towels before adding them to the hot oil. Any moisture left on the surface of the skin dramatically brings down the temperature in the skillet, causing the thighs to steam cook instead of brown. I usually paper towel-dry my thighs and then let them ‘air dry’ on more paper towels while I’m prepping all the herbs and other ingredients. That way they are nice and dry.
Using tongs, turn the thighs over and brown for about 5 minutes longer. Transfer chicken to a large plate.
Remove all but 2 tablespoons fat from pan. Add the minced shallots and cook for 5 minutes.
Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of unbleached, all-purpose flour over fat and cook, stirring constantly, for 1 minute. Slowly add 2 cups of Marsala wine, and 1 cup of chicken broth, and bring to a simmer, scraping bottom of pan with wooden spoon to loosen browned bits. Cook until liquid is slightly reduced, 3 minutes. Stir in 12 whole fresh sage leaves, 4 whole cloves, the rosemary stem, the sage leaves, 2 bay leaves, 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes, and the cooked prosciutto mixture.
Nestle chicken into liquid, skin side up making sure to keep it well above the surface of the liquid.
Place the skillet in the oven. Lower the temperature to 325°F. and bake, uncovered, for 1 hour and 15 minutes. When done, the meat will offer no resistance when poked with a fork. To make sure the oven temperature isn’t too high, check the chicken after it’s been in the oven for 15 minutes. The sauce in the skillet should be barely bubbling. If it’s bubbling too vigorously, reduce the temperature to 300°F.
Once cooked, transfer the chicken pieces to a warmed serving platter and tent with aluminum foil to keep warm. Remove the sage leaves, rosemary stem, cloves, and bay leaves. Place skillet over high heat and bring the sauce to a boil.
Cook until sauce is reduced by about a third. This should take 7 minutes or so. Transfer the skillet off the heat and stir in the minced rosemary leaves, 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, and 2 tablespoons of butter. The butter will add a nice velvety element to the pan sauce. Taste and adjust for seasoning, adding salt and pepper if needed. Pour sauce around chicken and serve immediately. Makes 8 servings, but usually feeds 4 – 6 people.