For Some of the Best Fried Chicken, Look to...the Tuscan Jews?

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Lemon-marinated fried chicken, a gift from the Tuscan Jews. [Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

New York, circa 2004. I'm the sous chef at Beppe, chef Cesare Casella's now-closed Tuscan restaurant on 23rd Street just west of Park Avenue South, and the menu overflows with his signature dishes. There's the seven-bean salad that could convert any legume-hater into an acolyte; there's the pasta e fagioli that Ruth Reichl told him was the best she'd ever had; there's the spaghetti with a hearty pork ragù that Jimmy Fallon, still in his Saturday Night Live days, eats about once a week, by himself, while studiously poring over what look to be scripts; and then there's the fried chicken that makes it onto just about every annual best-of list published by NYC's press outlets.

Most people don't think of fried chicken as a particularly Italian dish, but the lemony version Cesare serves is one he grew up eating as a child in Lucca, Tuscany, where his family ran a celebrated restaurant. It's a brilliant preparation, and incredibly simple: The chicken is marinated with lemon juice and garlic, then battered and fried in a simple dredging of flour and beaten egg, the bright citrus cutting through all those juicy, meaty, greasy layers, balancing it all out. At Beppe, Cesare serves it with heaps of fried herbs and garlic on top.

Then, one day, he asks me to dig through some old Italian cookbooks to do a little research on the lesser-known dishes of the Maremma, a coastal zone that runs from southern Tuscany to northern Lazio. As I flip through the pages, I stumble across a recipe titled Pollo Fritto per Chanukkà—fried chicken for Hanukkah. And there it is, the very same recipe as Cesare's, calling for chicken marinated in lemon juice and seasonings, then battered and fried in nothing more than flour and egg. Turns out, the fried chicken of Cesare's childhood isn't just a Tuscan dish, it's a Tuscan-Jewish dish, the product of a centuries-old community that is almost completely gone today.

Since then, I've found more examples of the recipe in a handful of cookbooks, including English-language ones, with only subtle variations. Some, for instance, call for marinating the chicken in the lemon juice overnight, while others say an hour or two will suffice. And many add a subtle touch of warm spices, like cinnamon or nutmeg, to the marinade, which isn't something I ever saw Cesare do. Originally the chicken would have been fried in olive oil, as so many of the famed Roman-Jewish fried foods are, but many of the versions designed for English-language audiences have replaced that with cheaper, more neutral-tasting oils, like vegetable or canola. (A few also add olive oil to the marinade, which I tried in one test batch, but I didn't notice any difference in flavor once the chicken was breaded and fried.)

Overall, it's a very simple recipe, so the two main things I wanted to test out were the marinating times and the inclusion of spices. I've already done a fair amount of testing around frying in olive oil versus other oils, so I already knew what the effect of that would be: If you fry in olive oil, your fried foods will taste of that oil. Which tastes good, but also covers up some of the other flavors in the dish. Whether that's a desirable trade-off is a matter of personal preference, so I'll leave it up to you (and I wouldn't worry about whether it's safe to fry in olive oil or not—there's no conclusive evidence in the scientific literature to support the idea that it's harmful).

To test the marination time, I set some chicken to marinate overnight with the lemon, then let another batch stand for just over an hour in the same marinade. Both versions fried up nicely, but the overnight batch, while juicy, had a texture that I associate with dry, overcooked bird.

Strange, right? Dry, yet juicy at the same time—how could that be? My best guess is that it's due to the marinade itself. See, I added salt to the marinade, which effectively turns it into a brine, and a brine, as we know, dissolves muscle proteins, helping the chicken retain more moisture as it cooks. But since the marinade was mainly made of high-acid lemon juice, it was simultaneously "cooking" the chicken during that overnight marination, just as lime juice does to fish in ceviche. In essence, the longer marination in a strongly acidic brine was tightening up the muscle proteins, leading to an overcooked texture, at the same time as the salt was helping the meat retain moisture. Well-done and juicy, simultaneously.

Meanwhile, the chicken that was marinated for just over one hour still came out with an amazing lemony flavor, but had none of that tight, overcooked texture of the other sample. The shorter marination definitely wins here.

As for the spices, my tasters and I all enjoyed the extra layer of depth that cinnamon and nutmeg added to the chicken—mysterious whispers of the Middle East in a dish that comes from the Tuscan Jews, and, incidentally, bears more than a passing resemblance to Southern fried chicken. Anyone wanna wager on whether there's a connection to Africa that ties all of this together? Well, betting or not, the spices are all-in.

After marinating, the rest is very easy: I pull the chicken from the marinade and, working in batches, dredge it in flour.

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Then dip it in beaten egg...

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...and fry it in oil (whether it's olive oil or a more neutral one).

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I continue to fry it, maintaining an oil temperature of around 350°F and turning the chicken from time to time, until it's browned outside and registers an internal temperature of 145°F on an instant-read thermometer for breast meat and 155°F for the dark meat. This takes around 15 minutes or so, depending on the exact oil temp and the size of your chicken pieces.

Then I drain the chicken on paper towels and sprinkle it with salt.

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You can serve the chicken after letting it rest for a few minutes, or let it cool to room temperature and then re-fry it for just a minute or two right before serving. This may sound like a bad idea, but it actually crisps the crust up even more—that's how we used to do it at the restaurant, and it's a fried chicken method we fully support here at Serious Eats as well. Plus, if you're entertaining, your life as a host will be a lot easier if you cook the chicken in advance and then give it a quick re-fry at the last minute.

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In the end, who gets the credit for this great fried chicken preparation? Well, it was a team effort, obviously. So, thank you, Cesare, for introducing me to it so many years ago, and thank you, Tuscan Jews, for being good enough cooks to realize that Hanukkah is a damned fine occasion for frying up some chicken, just like every other time of the year.

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