A friend of mine’s son recently shared that he was going to Italy to see Tuscany for the first time. Only in his mid-20’s, he was already extremely well-traveled throughout both Europe and South America and had already been to Italy 4 times, but never to Tuscany. He planned on meeting a girl who lived in Bologna and that they were then going to cruise south. Prior to my first trip to Italy, I had researched the hell out of it, I mean, I had a 2″ thick file folder on the trip. My friend likes to cook and loves good food, so I offered to share my experiences and recommendations with him.
On my trip, we had flown to Rome for several days of sightseeing there, then took the train up to Florence to soak up all that we could in their cultural capital. After time spend in Florence we rented an Alfa Romeo and cruised down to our rented villa in the heart of Tuscany. Using the villa as our base of operations, we visited one of the numerous surrounding hill cities each day. Rounding out our trip, drove to Assisi where we stayed at the beautiful, rustic hotel ‘Nun Assisi’ which is a converted Nunnery. Beneath the hotel they have the most amazing spa I have ever seen. It is carved out of what once was an ancient Roman limestone amphitheater discovered during the hotel’s renovation. The entire place is filled with steam and soft, dim and dramatic lighting.
One of the real reasons we came to Assisi was for their amazing annual spring “Calendimaggio,” which is the biggest medieval festival in the area.
Soto Good vs Evil Fight
The inhabitants of Assisi spend a year preparing for this festival. Residents of all ages from the upper “sopra” and lower “sotto” side of the city are dressed in authentic medieval costumes and put on elaborate plays and skits. The two sides are judged, and one is awarded the winner each year and the competition is fun, but fierce. The costumes and props are incredibly elaborate and a huge amount of bleacher seating is erected in the town square where all the events play out. People from all over Italy come to view this amazing spectacle.
In any case, when planning the trip, I was told by a friend who had spent many summers in Italy that, when staying in Florence, I had to go to a restaurant called “Trattoria Sostanza” and order what he said was the best chicken dish he had ever had. If I didn’t agree with his assessment of this dish, he said he would pay for our dinner. Well, we did go to Sostanza, which just also happens to be one of the oldest restaurants in the city, and I’ll be damned if he wasn’t right. We had the chicken and the other signature dish, which was a loosely bound omelet filled with fresh artichoke bottoms, both of which were absolutely amazing.
I mean, I’ve been cooking professionally for 40 years and these two dishes were absolutely off the charts delicious.
I told my friend that he should also visit the Mercato Centrale. The Mercato is a two story, holy grail for food lovers. The variety and quality of what they offer is mind blowing and the presentations and displays or their raw and prepared products put Gelson’s and Bristol Farms to absolute shame. But, what else would you expect from the people who gave the world high-performance cars, amazing fashion and beautiful architecture? But back to Sostanza…
Chicken and Pork ready to cook
Steak Florentina at Sostanza
Trattoria Sostanza is a totally unassuming little restaurant with community style seating and a small kitchen with a tiny woodburning grill known internationally for 3 dishes: Steak Florentine, Artichoke Pie, and Pollo al Burro or “Butter Chicken” as it’s become known as by Americans who have enjoyed it. The amazing thing is that it is made using only four ingredients: butter, flour, lemon and chicken breasts. But it is the quality of the small chicken breasts and the high fat butter content of European butter that make this simple dish so damned good. They prepare and serve the dish in a small cast iron skillet and that’s the way I server it at home.
Petti Pollo Al Burro
The hot skillet keeps the chicken warm and bathed in its simple, rustic, yet divine sauce!
During our dinner we kept seeing one of their other signature dishes float through the dining room: their Tortino di Carciofi, referred to, locally, as “artichoke pie”, which is really an omelet, but was like no omelet I had ever seen. It was round in shape with the scalloped edges folded up around the center of artichokes and slightly under cooked eggs like a collar. I was so curious about this dish and the reaction that diners around us had to it that we ordered it as our dessert and, damned, if it wasn’t almost as good as the Pollo al Burro!
After a few attempts, I was able to duplicate the butter chicken and so I am happy to share this with you all now. If you don’t have small iron skillets I would suggest using a large cast iron skillet and then serve the chicken in a small, low casserole style dish for each person with the butter-lemon sauce poured on top of each.
Recipe – Pollo al Burro
Note: Serves 4
» 8 6-ounce chicken half breasts, boneless, organic
» Kosher salt and ground black pepper to taste
» 1/2 cup all-purpose flour or as needed
» 1 pound unsalted Plugra butter, room temperature
» 12-15 Fresh sage leaves (optional)
» 2 Meyer lemons, cut in half
Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
Salt and pepper the chicken breasts on both sides, then dredge in flour and shake off all excess. Heat a large cast iron skillet over medium heat. Add half the butter to skillet. When the butter starts bubbling, add the chicken and cook over medium-low heat for 10 minutes without moving the breasts. Note: Make sure the pan does not get too hot as you just want to simmer the chicken on the first side. Add remaining butter, and sage leaves if using, and put the skillet in the oven and bake for 12 minutes or until interior temperature reaches 160. Measure this using an instant read temperature thermometer.
Chicken breasts on the skillet
Remove chicken from the skillet, place in warmed shallow casserole dishes and pour the butter over each breast. Season to taste and squeeze lemon wedge over each to finish. Serve immediately.
Pollo al Burro, my version.