This is a photo of Lydia [Belbusti] Barbaresi (on the right) with her sister Rose [Belbusti] Bernabucci in New Haven, CT in the 1940s. Lydia was my great grandmother and Nonni’s mother. The sisters were heading back to Italy for a wedding, and it was, I believe, the first time they had been back since emigrating in 1910. This is the only picture I have of Lydia smiling. She always looked very serious, like here and here (of course, if I had that many kids, I wouldn't be smiling, either).
Today, I’m sharing her recipe for Chicken Potacchio, pronounced “po-TAH-key” in their Marchigiano dialect. You have no idea what I had to go through to get this recipe. First of all, I didn’t even know it existed. I had already interrogated Nonni multiple times to make sure I had all of the family recipes written down, when this chicken dish suddenly appeared on the table. I had never seen it before in my life.
Once I tasted it, I knew I had to include it in the cookbook. It was mop-up-all-the-juices scrumptious. Lydia had taught Nonni how to make it, of course, and Nonni made it for her kids growing up, but not so much after that. In fact, she had forgotten about it entirely.
Nonni gave me the run-down, but my first attempt to duplicate it was lackluster, with the chicken cooking way before the potatoes were done. Turns out, there weren’t even supposed to be potatoes in the recipe (you may recall this conversation).
So, I nixed the potatoes, made it again, and it still wasn’t up to snuff. More phone calls. We played this game of culinary Marco Polo for quite some time. With each conversation, a new ingredient or technique was discovered. Peeled garlic cloves turned into unpeeled garlic cloves. Uncovered pots suddenly had covers. Preheated ovens were abandoned for the stovetop.
But, the recipe still wasn’t right.
I was about to give up, drive down to New Haven myself, and videotape the whole production, but I decided to make a last-ditch attempt from afar. When I called, Nonni’s sister-in-law Regina was there. Regina had also learned how to make the dish from Lydia. When Regina heard what Nonni was telling me, she interjected her own instructions, which (surprise, surprise) were completely different. Suddenly, there’s salt pork instead of oil and red wine vinegar instead of white.
Nonni, who’s pushing ninety, laughingly shouts: “She’s always been jealous of me...My shape...Now, she’s trying to take away my chicken.”
Ultimately, there was consensus on the technique. Even some of the ingredients! I tried the recipe again, and guess what? It was perfect. Finally.
I haven’t asked much of you, dear readers, but somebody, somewhere, please make this. It may be the most over-researched recipe in the whole world, but so very well worth it.
This is Lydia’s original version. Nonni makes it a bit differently with a few tablespoons of oil instead of the salt pork, and the same amount of white vinegar instead of the red wine vinegar. Serve this with Italian bread to soak up the sauce. For the garlic, squeeze it out of its skin and eat it whole or spread it on bread.
2 oz. salt pork, cut into a small dice
2 lb. boneless chicken breasts, cut into two or three pieces
1 head garlic, separated into cloves with skin still on (DON’T YOU DARE PEEL THEM)
½ cup red wine vinegar
½ cup water
1 Tbsp. dried rosemary leaves
Salt and pepper
In a large skillet (with lid) over medium-high heat, fry salt pork (uncovered) until it starts to turn golden and there’s a thin layer of fat rendered at the bottom of the pan. Season the chicken pieces and add them to the pan with the salt pork along with the unpeeled garlic cloves. Don’t cover the pan (I’ll tell you when, okay, just hold your horses). Brown the chicken on both sides, taking care not to let the garlic burn. You can do this in two batches, if necessary.
With the chicken in the pan nice and brown, add the vinegar and water, and sprinkle the rosemary on top. Cover the pan (yes, now) and reduce the heat to a gentle simmer. Cook until chicken is done and sauce has reduced and thickened, 20-30 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
Lydia [Belbusti] Barbaresi
New Haven, Connecticut (by way of Castelvecchio, Le Marche, Italy)
1883 - 1974
Next: Making Pasta
(Previously: Italian Bread)