What Americans call chicken cacciatore is a broiler bird cooked in a spicy tomato sauce with mushrooms and herbs. In Italian, pollo alla cacciatora is a completely different dish. And when I say different, I mean made in a baffling amount of different ways.
With the premise that Italian cuisine is regional, a characteristic of which is applying twists on many of its dishes, modifying them according to what part of the boot-shaped peninsula they're being cooked in, let me say that there is no correct cacciatora recipe. Each region, each village, even families in the same tenement building cook different versions of a dish. Same can be said for pollo alla cacciatora, which changes enormously according to where it's made.
For example, the people of Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany make their cacciatora with tomato sauce and varying amounts of herbs. Marche, Abruzzo and Umbria cooks omit the tomato element and prepare theirs with garlic and purple olives. In other parts of Italy this recipe is made by not sectioning the chicken in breasts, drumsticks, wings etc, rather by deboning and chopping the meat into small chunks and slow cooking it with in a supple wine, herb garlic and anchovy stew.
Whatever the recipe, the name alla cacciatora – in the hunter's style – denotes a humble, rustic preparation, that requires little skill, lots of patience and good quality ingredients.
I personally grew up eating the "in bianco" version (no tomato) that's traditionally made in Rome. Here is the recipe I learned from my mother and which I like to make for Sunday lunch.
5 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
3 garlic cloves, peeled and halved
1 whole free range chicken, eviscerated
Sprigs of fresh rosemary
Bunch of fresh sage
1 tbsp all-purpose or rice flour
1 glass of white wine + more for stewing
1/2 glass of white vinegar
Salt and black pepper
Burn away any remaining feathers and fuzz by scorching the bird over a live flame on the stove. Wash the bird, pat dry and section into 6 or 8 parts. I leave the skin on, but you may choose to remove it.
Heat the oil and garlic in a wide, heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. The garlic should not burn.
Place the chicken parts in the pot, season with salt and pepper and crank up the heat to brown evenly. Add the rosemary and sage, browning the meat for a few more minutes to sear evenly.
Sprinkle the flour, stir and then splash* the vinegar and wine to deglaze the pot.
*The verb, "sfumare" is a great Italian cooking term. In order to add flavor, cooks add a liquid of some sort (broth, wine, liqueur) in the initial phases of cooking to the heated pot. This operation releases steam, and triggers otherwise trapped flavor compounds. Another reason for doing this is to deglaze the pot. The sugars normally released by cooking meat caramelize on the bottom of the pot. They are precious sugars!
Splashing wine and vinegar will melt the sticky flavor bomb contained in the caramelized poultry sugars and do magic to your dish.
Once deglazed, stir the chicken parts to coat with the drippings. Add more wine, enough to drown by half the chicken parts.
Adjust seasoning, reduce the heat, cover with a tight-fitting lid and cook for 20-25 minutes. Should the chicken lose moisture during this time, add 1/2 glass of warm water. The bird is done if when piercing the thigh juices run clear.
Serve immediately after uncorking the vino.
Images courtesy of AIFB