After last week’s look at gnocchi alla sorrentina, Sorrento’s classic gnocchi dish, let’s travel across the Bay of Naples to the lovely island of Ischia. During our years in Rome, Ischia was one of our favorite spots for a getaway from the city. A bit less touristy and more rustic than its more famous “sister” island of Capri, it doesn’t lack for charm or scenic beauty with its gorgeous beaches and medieval Aragonese Castle
The original dish, coniglio all’ischitana, is made with rabbit, but I’ve adapted it here for easier-to-find chicken. Like last week’s gnocchi, Ischia-Style Chicken is brimming with the sunny flavors of fresh tomatoes and basil so typical of Campania. You will no doubt notice more than a passing resemblance to chicken or rabbit alla cacciatora, and, in fact, the dish is also sometimes called coniglio alla cacciatora di Ischia. This cacciatora is simpler, with most versions eschewing the usual soffritto, getting their savoriness from the use of lard, the traditional cooking fat of Campania. Don’t be afraid of lard—besides the delicious flavor it lends to the dish, it has less saturated fat than butter, and it browns meat like no other fat.
Serves 4-6 people
- 1 young chicken (or rabbit) cut into serving pieces
- 250g (1/2 lb) fresh tomatoes, cut roughly into chunks (or more, if you like)
- Several large sprigs of fresh basil, leaves removed and torn into pieces
- White wine
- Salt and pepper
Melt a good dollop of lard in a sauté pan or braiser large enough to hold all the chicken pieces in one layer. When the lard is melted and hot, add the chicken pieces and brown them well on all sides. Season the chicken pieces well with salt and pepper on all sides, turning them as you go. Now add a good glug of white wine and the tomato.
Let the chicken simmer uncovered in the wine and tomato over moderate heat, turning them from time to time, until the meat is quite tender, about 30-45 minutes, depending on the size and age of your chicken. By the time the chicken is cooked, the tomatoes will have melted and the wine will have reduced down to glossy sauce that should cling nicely to all the chicken pieces. Just a few minutes before the chicken is done, add the fresh basil and mix well.
Adjust the seasoning and serve right away, napping the chicken with any sauce that is left in the pan.
There are a few variations on Ischia-style chicken (or rabbit). Some versions call for browning garlic in the lard before adding the chicken and some call for a sprig of fresh rosemary; some use olive oil rather than lard. Many versions suggest some hot pepper as well. My own feeling is that the garlic, rosemary and olive oil are nods to modern Italian cooking conventions (although, I have to admit, I don’t have any proof of this) and that the hot pepper, while probably traditional, takes away from the ‘fresh’ taste of the sauce. For the same reason, I have tweaked the usual recipe by having you add the basil at the end of the cooking; traditional recipes have you add it with the wine and tomatoes. But, of course, these things are all very subjective.
If you want to make this recipe the original way, with rabbit, bear in mind that rabbit is tougher and leaner than chicken so it will take a little longer and needs to be covered to keep the meat moist, so cover the pan and let it simmer 45 minutes to an hour, or until tender. If there is too much liquid left in the pan, raise the heat to reduce the sauce.