I dreamt last night about chicken alla cacciatora (in the style of the hunter’s wife), the first recipe I ever made, at about 8 years old. I don’t remember much about the recipe except it was made like the horrid stuff at many red-sauce Italian joints, and that I confused teaspoons for tablespoons. It was peppery. Most bad restaurant preparations call for boneless, skinless chicken breast, onions, peppers, mushrooms, and some sort of tomato sauce from the steam table. This is generally plopped over “your choice of (pre-cooked) penne, linguine, or spaghetti.”
It was on my first menu at Theresa’s, a short-lived little Italian spot in Glenville where the dish saved my ass (for a short while). I had opened the place too short of financing, and too short of experience, so, within months I was nearing the end. During one of the typical slow winter nights a nice woman popped in and ordered two portions of chicken alla cacciatoa to go, and with the hot meal she was on her way. She called me later that evening blown away by the meal. Mrs. Joanne DeVoe, a self employed public relations consultant, then called Byron Nillson at Metroland magazine and Peg Churchill at The Schenectady Gazette, restaurant reviewers for their respective publications to encourage them to check my place out. They did, were also impressed and people started coming in.
My chicken alla cacciatora is different, authentic, wonderfully complex and earthy. Imagine an old Italian (or French if making chicken chasseur) hunter out looking for rabbits, foraging for wild mushrooms, forest herbs like rosemary and thyme, and bring the bounty home where his wife would prepare it by deeply browning the meat and slowly braising it with mushrooms and herbs with some stewed garden tomatoes, and local wine. I like it with polenta or boiled potatoes, not pasta. I’ve made it with rabbit, venison, and wild boar. On my winter menu at The Wine Bar I’m going to do it with pheasant and serve it with toasted farro and corn polenta. I’m not sure I’ll call it alla cacciatora since there are a lot of bad cooks making terrible versions and evoking visions of something I don’t want to be associated with.