Little Italy

I wrote this piece a while ago after a visit to New York but redid the recipe just recently and loved it so thought I would share it!  I am doing a demo at Vintage Goodwood on August 15th at 4pm and will be making the 70’s dish of Chicken in a Basket, similar to this in that it is breaded chicken – something I think will be popular in some form for millennia.
We visited New York and went to see Little Italy in Lower Manhattan.  It was started by the massive influx of Italian immigrants in the 19th century who were escaping great poverty at home.  They “escaped” however to dreadful conditions of overcrowding in the dumbbell apartments where natural light never made it to the lower floors.  Tuberculosis and other diseases were rife but despite that the Italians created a new version of their homeland preserving their traditions and language.
Little Italy was nearly six times bigger than its current size before the Italians started moving out to the more comfortable suburbs of Bronx and Queens.  There are still the stubborn few who cling onto their tenement apartments and talk about the old days when each street “belonged” to a different region.  We met an old man in a patisserie who told us that there were different streets for the Pugliese, Calabrians and Sicilians.  In those streets you heard only the dialect language of those regions.
A couple of deli’s and patisseries are still there which look and feel like the real thing selling Italian products with knowledge and pride.  The few remaining restaurants however are touristy and are run by Americans with distant Italian heritage or Mexicans who sport the Italian colours.  Neighbouring Chinatown is expanding and maybe one day Little Italy will be gone forever from its original position but the strength of feeling in the immigrant Italian families has not diminished and I believe Little Italy’s all over the world will be continued for a very long time to come.
Chicken Parmegian’
Recipes evolve and mutate when immigrants recreate them in new countries sometimes with great results.  I was given this dish, typical of Little Italy, to try by an American family and it was delicious, in fact I had about four helpings it was so good so I learnt the recipe and here it is.
Serves 4

  • 2 skinless chicken breasts,
  • 1 egg, beaten in a shallow dish
  • 100g fine breadcrumbs
  • 50ml olive oil
  • Half a litre of tomato pasta sauce, preferably homemade
  • 1 x 125g balls of Mozzarella di Buffala, cut into eight slices
  • 50g Parmesan, finely grated
  • A few basil leaves as a garnish
  • Salt and pepper

Preheat the grill to its hottest setting. Using a sharp knife, open out each chicken breast and put them between two sheets of cling film.  Bash them out evenly to 1cm thickness using a meat tenderiser or the base of a small saucepan.  Cut each piece into two.  Warm the tomato sauce in a small pan.
Season the chicken breasts, dip them in beaten egg and then into the breadcrumbs to coat them on both sides.  Heat the oil in a large frying pan and then fry the chicken on both sides until golden brown and cooked through.  Set aside on kitchen paper to drain.
Arrange the chicken on a baking tray and pour over the tomato sauce in a thick stripe across the middle of the chicken pieces.  Lay two slices of Mozzarella over each portion and then scatter over the Parmesan.  Grill for five to ten minutes until the cheese starts to brown and bubble.  Lift each chicken piece onto a serving plate and garnish with black pepper and a few basil leaves.  Serve with salad and crusty bread.
If you would like to make your own tomato sauce here are two ideas for fresh – only when tomatoes are at their ripest and plumpest and bursting with flavour – and the tinned tomato sauce recipe when tomatoes smell of nothing but the plastic they are wrapped in.
Passata al Pomodoro
Fresh Tomato Passata
The double cooking of this tomato sauce gives it such an intense and sweet flavour, it’s worth the effort.  However only do this sauce with really ripe flavourful tomatoes.
First stage

  • 2.5 kg of fresh tomatoes, quartered
  • 2 sprigs of basil, left intact

Second stage

  • 50 ml olive oil
  • 2 cloves of garlic, peeled and lightly crushed
  • Freshly ground black pepper and salt
  • 10 g sugar, optional depending on the natural sweetness of the tomatoes
  • 1 red onion, finely chopped
  • 1 clove of garlic, peeled and lightly crushed

For the first stage, add the tomatoes and basil to the pan. Cover the pan and leave to simmer for about ½ hour shaking the pan frequently to make sure the tomatoes don’t stick before they have released their juices. Remove the basil and pass the sauce through a passetutto, food mill or seive until you are just left with the skins and pips which can be discarded.  The other option is simply to use a stick blender and whiz up the tomatoes, skins and all.
For the second stage, heat the oil in the pan and add the red onion and garlic.  Cook for around five minutes or until soft.  Then add the passed tomatoes and bring the mixture to a simmer.  Skim off any scum that occurs on the surface and cook for half an hour.  Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt, pepper and sugar as necessary.  Any leftover tomato sauce can be kept in the fridge for a few days or frozen.
Franca’s Tomato Passata
Passata al Pomodoro di Franca
The quintessential tomato passata is as much a part of the Italian kitchen as good stock. A ladleful is needed frequently to enrich a sauce or soup or to serve with pasta for a fast lunch. This is the simplest tomato passata I came across on my travels. If you like garlic, add some and remove with the vegetables before blitzing.
Serves 6

  • 3 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 celery sticks, broken in half
  • 1 carrot, cut into half lengthways
  • 1 red onion, peeled and cut in half
  • 3 large sprigs of basil
  • 1.2kg Italian tinned whole plum tomatoes
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar, optional
  • Salt

Heat the oil in a large frying pan over a medium heat. Briefly fry all the vegetables and basil in the hot oil then add the tinned tomatoes. Season with salt and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for about 30 minutes to 1 hour, depending on how much time you have: the longer you can leave it the more concentrated the flavour. Stir regularly, breaking up the tomatoes with a wooden spoon. Remove the flavouring vegetables and basil and purée the tomatoes in a blender or food processor. (or leave the vegetables in the sauce if you prefer and blend). Add a little sugar if necessary.

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