Chicken Savoy is a popular dish at many Italian restaurants in my area. How popular? There are people who call it “the unofficial state dish of New Jersey.” Mamma mia! Take that Italian hot dog! (Don’t know what an Italian hot dog is? I’ll tell you later…)
If you don’t live in North Jersey, you probably never heard of of Chicken Savoy. In classic Italian cooking, there is no specific pollo alla savoiarda in the same way that there is pollo alla fiorentina (chicken Florentine, or chicken with spinach). But even without provenance, Chicken Savoy—browned chicken pieces with a cheese-herb crust and a tart vinegar sauce—is a relatively fast main course that everyone should know how to make.
First, credit where it is due. The exact recipe is a secret of the Belmont Tavern in Belleville, pretty darn close to Newark, smack in the heart of Sopranos country. This joint is a dive, and proud of it. The chicken's creator, a chef nicknamed Stretch, has long gone to his reward (to a place where you must get to eat meatballs for breakfast), and his dish has spread to menus through area. But the real deal is served up at the Belmont.
There are a few online recipes for Chicken Savoy, but I don’t find them to be very accurate. There are many little details that make it work. (C’mon…do you really need a half-cup of olive oil to brown the chicken?) Listen up, or I’ll sic the ghost of Uncle Pussy Bonpensiero on ya!
(The Italian hot dog is the Snooki of Jersey food--in other words, something that everyone knows, but an easy butt of jokes. Start with a deep;-fried or grilled dog, stick it in thick pita-like pocket bread, stuff in griddled potatoes with onion and peppers, and douse the mess with catsup. When I had my first Italian hot dough, it made my cry with longing for the frank I grew up with, from the legendary Kasper’s in Oakland, CA.)
1. Use a small chicken, anywhere from 3 to 3½ pounds. Most supermarket birds are much bigger. I get mine at a Chinese market, and I also see birds of this size at natural food stores on a regular basis. The cut-up chicken must be able fit into the skillet with plenty of room. This is the top “secret” to this recipe. You can substitute your favorite chicken part (breast, thigh, or drumstick), but again, do not crowd the pan. This will turn out to be 4 breast halves, 6 large thighs, or 6 drumsticks. If the chicken is jammed together, it will steam and not brown. Many places only use dark meat, and if you do, this is a very economical dish. I use a whole chicken bec ause the breasts are so huge these days, even on small birds, that they cook in the same time as the dark meat anyway. If you wish remove the white meat from the oven a few minutes before the thighs and drumsticks.
2. The size of the chicken makes a serving issue. For hearty appetites, the chicken will serve two. With a couple of sides, it could serve four.
3. You will need a 12-inch heavy ovenproof skillet. Do not use a nonstick skillet, as the oven temperature for this recipe is high (475F), and could damage the coating. (Most skillet manufacturers give 400°F as the highest temperature for oven use.) I don’t use cast-iron because I am concerned about the vinegar's acid reacting with the metal.
4. I love how Chicken Savoy calls for unfussy pantry ingredients. The dish does not improve by using fresh herbs, balsamic vinegar, or red wine and I’ve used any grating cheese on hand, including Romano, Parmesan, and Asiago. Grate the cheese on the small holes on a box shredder or food processor. If you use a microplaner, be sure the grate the entire two ounces and pack it into the measuring cup. The new-fashioned grater gives the cheese a fluffier texture, so the volume is different than the old school graters.
5. The recipe calls for a very hot oven. Allow as much time as you need for it to reach 475°F—most ovens need at least 20 minutes for this. Use this time to brown the chicken and gather the other ingredients.
6. If the crust browns before the chicken is done (although I usually don’t have that problem because I use a small chicken and brown it well before adding the herb crust), tent the skillet with foil.
7. My favorite side dish for Chicken Savoy is crisp roasted potatoes, which can be cooked on another oven rack at the same time as the chicken. Put the potatoes in the oven a few minutes before the chicken to give them a head start. Just cut a few red-skinned potatoes into quarters or sixths, toss with a tablespoon or so of extra-virgin olive oil, and spread on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake at 475°F, undisturbed, until they have a golden brown crust, about 20 minutes. Scrape them up and flip them over with a metal pancake turner and continue roasting until they are a deeper brown and tender, about 10 minutes more. Season with salt and pepper after roasting. (I find that vegetables brown better without salt, which tends to draw out their liquid.) Broccoli is another great vegetable to roast with this, and sometimes I'll roast broccoli florets and potatoes in separate areas of the same pan, adjusting the timing as needed (potatoes go in first, broccoli about 10 minutes later).
Makes 2 to 4 servings
1 whole chicken, giblets discarded, cut into 2 breast halves, 2 drumsticks, 2 thighs, and 2 wings
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
8 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, as needed
4 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
½ cup (2 ounces) freshly grated Romano Pecorino, Parmigiano, or Asiago
4 teaspoons dried Italian seasoning (or 1 tablespoon dried oregano and 1 teaspoon dried thyme)
¼ teaspoon crushed hot red pepper
1 cup red wine vinegar, preferably imported and fermented from wine (the label will say so)
Chopped fresh parsley, for garnish
1. Position a rack in the top third of the oven. (If you are roasting vegetables as a side dish, place another rack in the center of the oven.) Preheat the oven to 475°F. Pat the chicken dry with paper towels. Season it all over with salt and pepper.
2. Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a very large (12-inch) heavy, ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, but not smoking, add the chicken, skin side down. Cook until the chicken is well browned on the underside, 4 to 5 minutes, adjusting the heat so the chicken doesn’t burn. Using tongs, turn the chicken and brown the other side, about 4 minutes more. Remove the skillet from the heat. Pour off any liquid in the skillet. (Remove the chicken briefly to do so, if you wish. I just hold the chicken back with the tongs.)
3. Process the remaining 6 tablespoons oil and the garlic together in a blender or food processor to mince the garlic. Add the cheese, seasoning, and hot peppers, and process until the mixture is a thick, spreadable paste. Spread a test patch of the paste in a thick layer over the chicken. The paste should cling nicely to the chicken, and not drip. If it is too thick, add a bit more oil, and if it is too thin, stir in some grated cheese.
4. Return the skillet with the chicken to the oven and roast, without turning, until an instant-read thermometers inserted in the thickest part of a breast half reads 165ºF and the crust is browned, about 25 minutes (start testing at 20 minutes). Remove the skillet from the oven. Transfer the chicken to a platter and tent with aluminum foil to keep warm.
5. Pour off any liquid from the skillet, leaving the browned bits in the skillet. Put the skillet on the stove over high heat. Averting your face, add the vinegar (the fumes are strong), and bring to a boil, scraping up the bits in the skillet with a wooden spoon. Boil until the vinegar is reduced by half, 3 to 5 minutes. Pour the sauce around the chicken (not over the chicken, which would soften the crust), sprinkle with the parsley, and serve.