I remember the first time I went to Trattoria Sostanza, a one-room, family-run classic trattoria in Florence. I was told by a reputable source that their pollo al burro (chicken in butter) was the thing to have: a double chicken breast in a pool of butter, served still sizzling in a pan. I was intrigued, as chicken is not much of a hero of the Tuscan table these days as it once was.
As far back as the Renaissance, chicken was widely-used in Florence, but when it fells off menus during the two world wars, chicken became a rare, luxury item. Cheaper cuts of meat and offal took over as the more affordable proteins of choice at home, supported by large amounts of bread, which is why a good, juicy sauce is so important in Tuscan main dishes—the bread is a vehicle for sopping up flavor, while also serving to help fill bellies.
But back to the bird at hand. Sostanza's pollo al burro, is as simple as it sounds: chicken, cooked in butter. However, it's much more than just that. The chicken breast, thick and tender, is dusted with flour, dipped in egg, and cooked in bubbling hot butter so that it has a golden brown, slightly crisp, savory coating. The butter sauce is so delicious I could drink it. My Tuscan husband's nonna used to prepare veal fillets, pounded very thin, much the same way—bracioline al burro, she called them. They're legendary, my husband's school friends used to ask to come over to play just as an excuse to stay for dinner so they could eat them.
I've heard Sostanza does a fantastic bistecca, too, but, I've never been able to tear myself away from the chicken to order it and, well, you can get good bistecca in plenty of places in Florence. You can't get this pollo al burro anywhere else, except now you can make it at home. The secret? Simply two main ingredients of such good quality you wouldn't want to mask either.
Elizabeth David's Italian Food (1954) has a recipe for “Florentine chicken breast”, which sounds remarkably similar to the Sostanza dish, with the difference being her's isn't dipped in egg and is finished in the oven. I like the oven finish and the fact it allows the cook to carry on with getting the rest of dinner ready—mashing some freshly boiled potatoes maybe, or tossing together a salad. While simple, the chicken is satisfying and even feels quite decadent, filling the room with that unmistakable scent of caramelized butter when it's placed on the table. There's one thing not to forget: Good bread to mop up all that butter.
- 2 organic chicken breast fillets
- Salt and pepper, for seasoning
- Flour, for dusting
- 3.5 ounces (7 tablespoons or 100 grams) good quality, unsalted butter, chilled
Have you had chicken in butter before? Tell us in the comments!