Chicken French

Double Cheeseburger
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2005/01/25 16:25:21 (permalink)

Chicken French

I have mentioned chicken french before and I'm not sure how well known it is. I had heard it was considered a local specialty, and today, the Living section of the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle did a feature story on it. Thiodish is available in most of the italian restaurants in this area, along with veal french, and offshoots such as shrimp or lobster french.

The article in the paper had a nice photo and included a recipe which is not on the web site. Here's the info.

Our (chicken) French Connection

Its origins are debated but its popularity cannot be disputed

Karen Miltner
Staff writer

(January 25, 2005) —

The Garbage Plate may get top billing as Rochester's culinary icon. But if sheer ubiquity is the criterion for ranking hometown grub, then surely the winner would be chicken French.

The thin, lightly battered and sautéed chicken cutlet, served in a sauce of white wine, butter and lemon, is a staple at many Italian-American restaurants.

"Everybody loves it ... men, women and children," says Mike Driscoll, co-executive chef at Agatina's Restaurant in Gates.

Even with the staggering number of Italian-American eateries in this town, many chefs outside the spaghetti and meatballs pedigree are compelled to include it on their menus.

"It's our best-seller," says chef David Bunts of Lola Bistro & Bar, a contemporary comfort food Mecca catering to Monroe Avenue hipsters. "Chicken Rochester, that's what it should be called."

That chicken French is popular is a no-brainer. Where debate, confusion and die-hard loyalty come to play are with questions such as these:

Where did chicken French come from?

Is it only a Rochester phenomenon?

What are the hallmarks of a good chicken French?

With such prominence in local Italian restaurants, it's natural to look toward the boot country for the origins of this dish. But it's rare to find any evidence of this dish in Italian cookbooks, old or new. Perhaps the closest equivalent is veal piccata, a sautéed cutlet served with a wine and butter sauce. Piccata typically includes capers but not batter.

"I would not consider (chicken French) a traditional Italian dish," says Lena Mancuso, assistant to the director at Nazareth College's Casa Italiana. Mancuso, whose parents immigrated from Puglia and whose husband is Calabrian, has never come across the dish in her travels to Italy. Still, she includes chicken French as a special occasion dish, for Christmas and dinner parties.

Penfield's Bernadina Masci, a native of Frosinone and Italian cooking instructor at Casa Italiana and Rush-Henrietta's continuing education program, recalls an aunt from the northern city of Firenza eating veal prepared in a similar way. She believes cooks like her aunt were inspired by tourists returning from Nice, France.

On this side of the Atlantic, early versions of this dish appeared on upscale menus as vitello francese or vitello alla francese, which translates as veal prepared in the French style. More casual restaurants might refer to it as veal francese.

In a 1997 episode of his now-canceled Food Network show Taste, David Rosengarten looks back to 1950s New York City, suggesting that veal and chicken francese were Italian-Americans' response to American culture's post-World War II love of all things French. The light, lemony white wine sauce was no doubt a significant departure from the heavy red sauces that were traditionally served in these restaurants.

New York City radio gourmand Arthur Schwartz agrees that the dish got its finishing touches stateside, but writes on his Web site ( that he found "antecedents" to the dish in Italian language Neapolitan cookbooks.

Recipes from both Rosengarten and Schwartz call for lemon slices instead of juice for the sauce.

Rochester's French
Not surprisingly, the vitello francese eventually found its way to Rochester. Retired chef James Cianciola of Henrietta recalls seeing it on the menu at Infantino's on Lake Avenue in the late 1950s. He then learned how to make it at the downtown Italian Village, preparing it for famous performers headlining at the Eastman Theatre next door.

"(Liberace) told me this was the best veal he'd ever had. That particular recipe stuck with me," recalls Cianciola.

In 1967, Cianciola and his brother Nate opened the Brown Derby in Brighton, where the dish soon took on its Rochester moniker, veal French.

When consumers began boycotting veal in the 1970s, the Cianciolas decided to use the same technique with chicken.

"We'd embellish it with artichokes, and soon customers would ask, 'Can we have a few more artichokes?' So we made artichokes French as an appetizer," says Nate Cianciola.

Soon enough, the Brown Derby and other restaurants started Frenching anything they could: haddock, sole, broccoli, and cauliflower. Some restaurants, including Agatina's, offer French medleys.

But by and large, chicken remains the French of choice. And it appears Rochester is one of the few places outside of New York City where the dish has taken on iconic status, though in other pockets where it pops up it still is known as chicken francese.

"Sounds like chicken French is a wonderful semantic oddity, French translated by Sicilians and then back to upstate appleknocker vernacular," Chris Sherman, food critic at the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times writes in an e-mail. "Chicken and veal francesca is common in Spanish and Italian restaurants here."

The dish took Des Moines (Iowa) Register restaurant critic Wini Moranville by surprise more than a year ago when she came across it at the trendy dish Italian restaurant called Centro (say chen-tro). Her take:

"In most restaurants, when it comes to good value, chicken usually flies high; when it comes to excitement, however, the humble bird often takes a dive. With Chicken Francese on its menu, Centro is upping the ante in the inexpensive chicken-dish category."

What's in the sauce
What makes a great chicken French is a highly subjective matter. Every chef or restaurant owner swears his or hers is the best, suggesting that above all you need confidence to turn out a decent French.

After that, perhaps the most hotly contested ingredient is the type of alcohol used for the sauce. Schwartz of New York City has a recipe for Chicken Francese on his Web site that calls for dry white vermouth.

Locally, the tug of war is between an assertive sherry (the Cianciola brothers swear by Widmer brand) and more subtle dry white wine (Whitey Proietti of Proietti's, insists Chablis is the only way to go).

The intensity of lemon also varies, with those who especially savor citrus adding zest to the eggs, sauce or flour.

"The blend of lemon, butter and wine has to be just right," says Gail Butler, who fancies a French that's light on the lemon and sherry. So far, the 61-year-old Greece teaching assistant has found only two places that fit the bill: Roncone's on East Avenue and Davinci Restaurant in Greece.

Chicken French fanatic Peggi Fournier of Rochester orders the dish anywhere she can. Her litmus test for separating a fair French from a truly fine one? Refrigerated French leftovers with a greasy, congealed sauce, a clear indication that the chef was too heavy-handed with the butter.

"It's good if they can make a really tasty dish without resorting to butter," says Fournier, 54. She and husband Paul Dodd post informal restaurant reviews of area Italian restaurants on their Web site,

Makers of chicken French have additional criteria. Nate Cianciola believes the meat must be tender enough to eat with just a fork.

Dennis Verni, co-owner of the 56-year-old Northside Inn in East Rochester, shuns overly thin cutlets. "It has to be thick enough so the juices get sucked into the chicken."

Many restaurant owners are loath to part with their chicken French recipes. Not Proietti. For years, he's been teaching the dish at Saturday night cooking classes.

According to the Webster restaurateur, the biggest problem is that the egg batter falls off in the frying pan. The culprit is either an egg mixture that is too thin or oil that is not hot enough, which causes the chicken to stick.

Still, says the self-proclaimed chicken French guru, there's no reason to chicken out on trying to French at home.

"It's not rocket science. It really isn't."

3 Replies Related Threads

    Double Chili Cheeseburger
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    RE: Chicken French 2005/01/25 16:37:01 (permalink)
    I have never called it "chicken French" but I certainly have made it and have had it out in many Italian is great!
    Double Cheeseburger
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    RE: Chicken French 2005/01/25 16:38:53 (permalink)
    We have this dish down here in NC but it called by different names, all of which are of an Italian claiming background. Go figure.

    Dennis in Cary
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    RE: Chicken French 2005/01/25 21:54:22 (permalink)
    I had Chicken and Veal Francese on my menu when I was the chef at Bambino's in Boston. It's a very simple yet very good dish and I do not think it is limited to the Rochester area as most Italian restaurants in Massachusetts serve it. I haven't made it in ages but the addition of baby artichokes and crimini mushrooms to the lemon/wine/butter sauce are stellar. A simple side of linguini tossed with a little garlic, parsley and olive oil compliment the dish quite nicely.
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