Columbus Day Special: Chicken Parmesan

FrankItalian-American, secondi piatti17 Comments

Chicken Parmesan

It’s become a tradition on this blog to dedicate a post every Columbus Day to Italian-American dishes like the iconic “Sunday Sauce” or the San Franciscan fish stew Cioppino. This year, we present Chicken Parmesan. While Sunday Sauce and Cioppino remain pretty much staples of the  Italian-American community, it’s hard to think of an Italian-American dish, other than pizza or perhaps spaghetti and meatballs, that has become more of a fixture on the tables of Americans of all stripes than this one.

Many Americans think this dish is “Italian”, but although it has Italian roots, it is entirely American. The flavorings and techniques of the original dish, parmigiana di melanzane (Eggplant Parmesan) were adapted by Italian immigrants for veal instead of eggplant and, in more recent years, veal has given way to that quintessential modern American meat, chicken breast

This transformation is, in many ways, typical of the changes in the diet of the Italian diaspora in America, in particular the way in which the community embraced meat. The traditional diet of poor southern Italians—who made up the vast majority of immigrants to the US—was largely vegetable based. (Think of last week’s post on scarola aglio olio.) In the old country, meat was a special treat reserved for Sundays and holidays, but the New World brought work and income enough to indulge several times a week, if not every day. The ‘native’ cookery was mostly meat-based, and the consumption of meat was, besides a way to delight in their new-found prosperity, a way for Italian immigrants to integrate into the larger culture. And although we now know better, at the time meat was considered a much healthier, more ‘nutritious’ option than vegetables.

In any event, on to the dish. You proceed very much as if you were making eggplant parmesan, only you substitute chicken breasts, pounded thin, for the eggplant slices. You also need to make some adjustments to account for the particular ways in which chicken breast behaves: The chicken breasts are placed side by side, or just slightly overlapping, since they are served whole, and the sauce is fully cooked and rather thick, as the dish spends only 5-10 minutes in the oven, just enough to melt the cheese and warm everything through.


Serves 2-4 persons

  • 4 chicken breasts, pounded thin
  • Flour
  • 4 eggs, beaten and seasoned with salt
  • One batch of a simple, southern-style tomato sauce, such as a marinara or a pummarola (sauces #2 or #3 in the post Tomato Sauce 101)
  • A ball of fresh mozzarella, sliced or shredded
  • Salt
  • Olive oil


Heat a large skillet with enough olive oil to come about 1 cm/1/2 inch up the edge until the oil is quite hot. Take the chicken breasts, one by one, flour them lightly and then dip them in the seasoned egg. Then place them gingerly into the skillet.  Fry them over a lively flame until they are golden brown on both sides. As they are done, drain them on paper towels. (NB: Don’t worry about cooking them fully through, as the chicken will cook some more in the oven.)

Arrange the fried chicken breasts in a baking dish, either side by side or (as pictured below) slightly overlapping like roof tiles. Nap the chicken breasts with the tomato sauce, making sure to cover them completely. Grate a generous amount of parmesan cheese over the top, then top with the mozzarella. Sprinkle the whole thing with salt and drizzle over some olive oil. Now you’re ready to bake. (NB: The dish can be made ahead up to this point.)

Pop the baking dish into a hot (200C/400F) oven (use the convection function if you have one) for about 5-10 minutes, until the mozzarella is fully melted and the sauce is bubbling away. Remove from the oven, allow the dish to cool for about 5 minutes, and serve.


Aficionados of chicken parmesan will notice that I’ve deviated from the typical recipe, which calls for breading the chicken breasts after they’ve been dipped in the flour and egg. I wanted to stay closer to the original Italian technique and, besides, I simply don’t like the flavor of breaded foods in tomato sauce. Just doesn’t taste ‘right’ to me. In this country you will find eggplant parmesan made with breaded eggplant slices as well, which is no doubt a case of ‘reverse engineering’ and—as far as I’m concerned—an abomination.


17 Comments on “Columbus Day Special: Chicken Parmesan”

  1. Hi Frank,
    We must had this for dinner last night and it was a big hit with my Italian husband 🙂 (Since we were short on time and I didn’t have any good ideas for how to dress the pasta as a separate primo, we just ate everything at the same time and dressed the pasta with the ample tomato sauce. Embracing the blasphemy!)
    I was just wondering about the number of eggs in the recipe. Do you really use 4? I just used one and that was all I needed. Next time I might also season the egg or flour more generously, as my chicken turned out a bit bland. No misses with the sauce though, it was really delicious!

    1. Ha! Well, eating this together with spaghetti is the way most people do it here in the US. 😉 The number of eggs is really just as many as you need. I always call for more than you probably really need just to be sure. (And of course eggs vary a lot in size.)

  2. Dear Frank,
    I have just started cooking Italian (il mio professore italiano mi ha ispirato). I have tried several of your recipes and I lean on your web-site to explain many Italian customs. My question today: why is it called Chicken Parmesan when there is no parmesan cheese? This is one answer I found on-line; do you agree? It’s either from Parma . . . or possible Sicily, where they get the name “parmiciana” which referred to the wooden shingles of blinds. Eggplant was sliced thin and stacked as the wooden blinds where, and that may be how it got the name. While “parmigiana” does itself refer to the region, it’s very possible that it was orginally “parmiciana.”

    1. Thanks for your message, Katherine. It’s awesome that you’re getting into the wonderful world of Italian cookery! And I’m so pleased you’re finding the site useful. 🙂

      I’ve heard several stories about the “parmigiana” part that I outline in my post on Eggplant Parmesan, but one I think we can discount is that the dish is from Parma. The style of dishes from that area is completely different. Bear in mind, Chicken Parmesan is not from anywhere in Italy, it’s an Italian-American invention. The original eggplant dish is, as you say, possibly from Sicily, and the Sicilians tells the story about the shingles. But the dish is also possibly from Campania, where my grandmother was from. And the eggplant dish does have a fair amount of Parmesan cheese, so that may be the reason, too. I guess we’ll never know for sure!

  3. what a fabulous recipe. 1 hour 20 minutes later….deliciousness. (I posted a pic of the final dish on FB, which got a whole lot of likes ; )
    Love your website. thank you!

    1. Thanks so very much, Jenn! So glad you’re enjoying the site—and most of all, cooking from the recipes with success. Happy cooking, Frank

  4. I have made your Parmigiana di melanzane and it’s the best I’ve ever had. Now I’m trying the chicken!

  5. This recipe looks easy to follow… I wanna know how the taste if I use fish or pork instead of chicken.. (later it’ll called fish/pork parmesan LOL..) .. sorry I’m messing up your recipe.. for me cooking chicken is too ordinary and my family love pork very much.. Who knows you’ve ever tried to combine fish/pork with mozzarella.. Would you help me please.. Thanks

  6. This brings me home – not to Italy but to my Italian-American childhood in NYC. This was a staple when the eggplant season went away. And you know Frank – I am just a sucker for melted cheese.

  7. I will surelly try this dish…Your “Parmigiana di melanzane” is delicious…I've made some people happier with it!
    Beatriz Tavares

We'd love to hear your questions and thoughts! And if you tried the recipe, we'd love to hear how it went!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.