09 Feb The Surprising Story Of Piccata, Marsala, And Parmigiana
Ever wonder where your favorite foods come from?
We serve some wonderful chicken and veal dishes at Frankie Bones. Who doesn’t like mouthwatering chicken parmigiana, veal marsala, chicken piccata and many more in those styles. Our chefs prepare all the classic renditions to perfection, but we were surprised when we discovered the origins of these ever so popular dishes.
All food items and dishes have a story attached to them. We decided to investigate a little about the origins of piccata, marsala, and parmigiana and found some intriguing and interesting backstories that we want to share with you.
The stories will give you some insight as to the history of these dishes and how they traveled through time and space to deliciously arrive at your table.
At Frankie Bones we know it as delicate slices of chicken or veal sauteed in a buttery pan spiked with lemon juice, white wine, and capers. It is probably a dish (or so we thought) created for the Italian nobility during the Renaissance.
We began our research by talking to chefs (ours and others at Italian restaurants) and even a few food historians. When we didn’t learn anything definitive we perused more than a dozen classic Italian cookbooks. Surprisingly, those cookbooks did not contain even one recipe for chicken or veal piccata. The origin of the dish remained vague. One food historian even said that it was not a dish easily found in restaurants in Italy and seldom in people’s homes.
We thought the history of piccata would be easy
Piccata, though, is an Italian word meaning larded. It seems to be a translation of the French word pique (sharp, as in piquant). When used in a reference to a way of preparing food (particularly meat or fish) it means sliced and sauteed in a sauce containing lemon, butter, and spices.
All our research indicated that the dish originated in the United States in the 1930s. It appears to have been created by Italian immigrants, and it was originally prepared with veal (which during that period in history was much cheaper than chicken – imagine that).
While no search we conducted reveals an inventor, we feel it’s safe to assume he or she was most likely Sicilian because the ‘piquantly flavored’ dish contains tart and zesty ingredients, commonly used in Sicilian cuisine.
This is most likely to have happened in America because veal and chicken (both) were well out of the price range for most Italians in Italy. Lemon, white wine, capers, shallots, and garlic were staples in the Italian kitchen but the addition of veal or chicken added in front of the word piccata made it a classic Italian American dish.
While the origin of piccata remains cloudy, one thing is clear: one bite of our veal or chicken piccata and you’ll forget history and just enjoy the delectable taste.
We all love chicken or veal marsala (what’s not to like??) but nobody is quite sure where it comes from. Is it Sicilian? In a Way. French? A little bit. American? Sort of. So just what are the roots of chicken and veal marsala?
The town of Marsala is found on Sicily’s western tip. It served as a major port city after the fall of the Roman Empire. Marsala wine, the classic ingredient in all recipes, was produced in this part of Sicily but was primarily a regional drink.
Marsala wine owes its renown to a storm which, in 1773, forced John Woodhouse, a rich and famous merchant of Liverpool, to land his ship in the port of Marsala instead of Mazera del Vallo where he was going to close a business deal. When he landed in this Sicilian town, in order to celebrate his lucky escape, Woodhouse went to a tavern where he tasted “Perpetuum,” the strong local wine.
It was similar to Madeira or Port, which were greatly appreciated by the English people. He decided to buy a large supply of the wine which he transported to England. He fortified it with spirits to prevent spoilage. All the barrels of this fortified wine were sold in a few days and convinced Woodhouse to return permanently to Sicily in order to develop the new business.
At the end of the 18th century, Marsala wine was habitually drunk on all Her Majesty’s ships. Admiral Nelson used to celebrate his victories with Marsala wine, and just after the great victory at Trafalgar the Marsala became known as the “wine of victory.”
A sauce using Marsala wine might be traced back to the introduction of French chefs into high Sicilian culture in the early 1800s by Queen Maria Carolina of Naples and Sicily (a sister to Marie Antoinette). As Queen, she did not believe the local cuisine to be sophisticated enough for her court.
Although it has Italian roots (via those imported French chefs) it never really caught on in Italy. However, it became a truly Italian American dish served in restaurants across America even though you would be hard pressed to find a restaurant serving it in Italy.
Chicken and veal Marsala was originally immigrant fare. The dish enjoyed throughout America is the product of immigrants recreating flavors from their childhood (the sauce), but with access to different ingredients (veal, chicken).
Admiral Horatio Nelson, famous for his “wine of victory”
For many people, chicken or veal parmigiana is their introduction to Italian cuisine.
Variations and offroots aside, parmigiana dishes contain certain basic ingredients: chicken breast or veal scallopini (or eggplant), breadcrumbs, Italian seasonings, tomato sauce, and mozzarella cheese. When you order a “chicken parm” at Frankie Bones (or your mom says it’s what’s for dinner) you know what you’re getting.
But it wasn’t always that way. If you hopped on a foodie time machine to pre 20th century Italy, a chicken parm would be as out of place as a chicken satay. So how did this dish get on every restaurant and pizzeria menu and in kitchens across the globe?
What came first, the chicken (veal) or the Parm?
Let’s try some reverse engineering. The basic ingredients of the dish reveal its origins. In the Old World, prior to Italians coming to America in droves, proteins like chicken and veal, as we have seen, were not available to the masses. As such, a Parmigiana was made with breaded and fried slices of eggplant for a dish called melanzane alla Parmigiana.
And what about the Parmigiana moniker?
Why was it called Parmigiana when it was typically made with mozzarella cheese? The cheese known as Parmigiana (or Parmesan) is named after the city of Parma in northern Italy. So that would lead us to believe the dish was named for the city. Right? Maybe, but probably not. Food historians contend that the dish couldn’t have been named after Parma, simply because melanzane alla Parmigiana was not eaten that far north in Italy. Instead, the dish was a staple of Campania and Sicily, both southern regions of the country. This is a mystery and it seems no one has an answer.
The New World
While the precise reason for attaching “parmigiana” to the dish has proved to be elusive, one thing we are sure of is when and how chicken and veal replaced eggplant as the centerpiece of the dish.
When Italians arrived in America in the 1920s and 1930s, they found that the expensive meats of their homeland were far more affordable (and accessible) in America. Pork, beef, veal, and chicken became wildly popular ingredients in many “new” favorite renditions of Old World dishes. Italian American homecooks devised unique dishes based on familiar cooking traditions but adopting the New World’s meat-centric availability.
Originating in the Italian neighborhoods along the east coast, veal parmigiana (veal then being cheaper than chicken) eventually spread into restaurants and published cookbooks by the 1950s.
Before long, veal parmigiana was everywhere, and with chicken prices coming down, that dish also came to the forefront.
A quintessential chicken or veal parmigiana encompasses everything we love about Italian food in one bite: the juicy interior of the chicken or veal, the crisp coating of fried breadcrumbs on the meat’s exterior, the bright and slightly sweet flavor of the rich tomato sauce, and the silky texture of the slightly browned cheese. Here at Frankie Bones, we’ve raised the whole game by using provolone.
Piccata, marsala, parmigiano….all scream comfort, but each in its own elegant way. They exude what we are all about here at Frankie Bones. Despite some hazy beginnings, all three styles have found a place of honor in culinary history. In the end, it comes down to taste and so we say to you: tutti a tavola a mangiare (everybody to the table to eat)! Hope this food journey was enjoyable and that we will see you soon.