Jul 30, 2016

Pollo alla Cacciatora

I've been verbal in regards to misconceptions about Italian food and how foreigners mutilate Italian food names. I've written a lot about how some dishes change over time and evolve into new recipes after crossing oceans. The usual suspects being fettuccine Alfredo, spaghetti with meatballs, chicken or veal parm, shrimp scampi... One that seldom is mentioned in the list of Italian-American dishes is chicken cacciatore.

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.

Buon appetito!

Images courtesy of AIFB


  1. Ciao, Eleonora! I grew up with the tomato version and what I "tried" to eat were these little birds I believe were caught "hunter style". The reason I say tried is that I was around 4 years old and this little bird sitting on my plate covered in seasoned tomato sauce was not visually appealing to me. Mamma took pity on me and gave me some bread to dip in the sauce. I'm not sure what kind of bird it was. But I do have some pet peeves when it comes to Italian food and also pronunciation. If I can't say something nice I won't respond but it galls me to think someone titled their post Sweet peach bruschetta dessert. Do you think garlic goes well as a dessert? I love your articles when you post. Buona giornata!

  2. Looks delicious! Love the simplicity of the Roman version of the dish.

    I've always found the idea of chicken as a hunter's dish kind of funny. I imagine a man with a shotgun furtively following his prey around the hen house until the moment is just right, and the bam! ;-)

    1. The image you paint is hilarious!

      I like the Roman version the best, but that's because I grew up eating that mostly

    2. Roman's my favorite too! My father used to love the cacciatore version of a restaurant in Paestum. The cook there used to brown the chicken in the morning, reheating and finishing it when the customer's order came in. It was perfect and delicious every time.

    3. P.S.: I always thought it was called "hunter's style" because hunters often come home hungry, but without having caught anything wild. ;-)

    4. That's a very plausible origin for the name Merisina!

  3. Thank you for presenting such an authentic rendition of your version of this iconic, often misinterpreted dish.

  4. Sounds so delicious. I will try your version as my husband is not really fond of the North American versions we have tried.
    I like the clarification that cacciatore is the method and not an actual name.... in the hunter's style. It evokes all kinds of wonderful images of a table laden with the fresh ingredients ready to cook up into a pot of tender, flavorful chicken.

    1. This is pure comfort food, I'm sure your husband will love it. Let me know how it goes.

      E xx

  5. My dad hunted in late fall and winter, and brought home all kinds of animals he shot, and mushrooms he foraged. So his bounty became the meal, with whatever herbs and aromatics available. Our cacciatore included plenty of jarred tomatoes and plenty of vino.

    1. That sounds delightful, and I don't just mean the recipe... Sweet memories!

  6. This sounds delicious. What do you serve with it?

    1. You mean what wine, or what side dish?
      I would serve this with a simple white or a light red, and a crisp salad on the side, dressed with a mild citronette (olive oil, salt, lemon juice)