In Italian Food, the 1954 book that introduced the English to real Italian cookery, Elizabeth David includes a recipe for petti di pollo alla fiorentina, or Florentine-Style Chicken Breast. She says it is a “lovely way of cooking a good chicken, and has a nice, extravagant air”. And indeed it is. But the dish passed little noticed, as far as I am aware, until recently, when a slightly more elaborate version of the dish offered by Trattoria Sostanza in Florence under the name petti di pollo al burro became a minor gastronomic legend, and made Sostanza an obligatory stop for foodies visiting Florence.
It’s an incredibly simple dish. Nothing more, in essence, than chicken breast seasoned and floured, then browned and braised in copious amounts of butter. But the result is a revelation. The butter bath transforms a normally bland cut of chicken into something extraordinary and yes, extravagant. Italian cookery is renowned for this kind of simple recipe that produces almost magically exquisite results.
- 2 boneless chicken breasts
- 1oog (1 stick) of butter
- Salt and pepper
- A squeeze of lemon juice
- A sprig of thyme or sage
- An unpeeled clove of garlic
To start, trim the chicken breasts of any stray gristle and remove the ‘tenderloins’ if you find them still attached to the breasts. Flatten them out slightly with the back of a skillet.
Season the breasts generously with salt and pepper. Flour them lightly.
Melt half the butter in a braising pan over medium-high heat. When the butter has stopped foaming and begins to turn color, add the chicken breasts, ‘top’ side down, and brown them for 5-6 minutes.
Turn the chicken breasts over. Lower the heat to a minimal flame and add the rest of the butter, cut into small pieces, along the thyme and garlic if using. As soon as it melts, baste the breasts with the butter and cover the pan tightly. Let them braise undisturbed for 15 minutes. (Alternatively, you can transfer the pan to a gentle oven about 160C/325F.)
Uncover the pan. Taste and adjust the butter sauce for seasoning, and remove the garlic and thyme if you used it. Optionally, sprinkle the lemon juice over everything.
Serve the chicken breasts right away, napping them generously with the butter.
Notes on Petti di pollo al burro
Needless to say, with a recipe this simple, the quality of the main ingredients—chicken and butter—will make all the difference. Take your breasts from a good free-range chicken. They are far more expensive than factory-farmed chickens but worth every penny, in my book. To save money, buy the chicken whole and cut out the breasts by simply running a knife blade down the breast bone to split the skin, then slide it down between the breast and the rib cage. The breasts should come out quite easily. The skin can be left on if you like, but generally the breasts are cooked skinless. I usually cut up the thighs, legs and wings and save them for a braised chicken dish such as pollo ai peperoni (Chicken with Bell Peppers) or pollo all’ischitana. I use the carcass for making homemade broth.
As for the butter, cultured butter—that is, butter made from cream that has been allowed to ferment slightly—has so much more flavor than so-called ‘sweet’ butter. It works wonders in a dish like this. Cultured butter is sometimes marketed as ‘European-style’ or ‘Old Fashioned’ butter.
Elizabeth David’s recipe calls for petti di pollo al burro none of the optional ingredients—just chicken, butter, salt and pepper. At Trattoria Sostanza they dip the chicken breasts in egg after flouring them, in the manner of pollo fritto alla toscana (Tuscan Fried Chicken), before searing and braising them in the butter. The lemon juice is a suggestion from Emiko Davies (although some sources say this is how it’s done at Sostanza). The addition of garlic and thyme or sage to the butter is my own humble contribution to the canon.
A quick tip
Sometimes chicken breast gives off liquid when it cooks; if it’s excessive, remove the breasts before reducing it down to concentrate the flavors.
The ‘tenderloin’ of the chicken breast is that smaller filet that lies underneath the larger, main breast, closest to the rib cage. You can easily remove it with either a knife or your fingers. If you like you can leave it on the breast if you like, of course, but the breast will cook more evenly without it.
- 2 boneless chicken breasts
- 100g (1 stick) of butter
- Salt and pepper
- A squeeze of lemon juice
- A sprig of thyme or sage
- An unpeeled clove of garlic
- Trim the chicken breasts of any stray gristle, remove the 'tenderloins' if they are still attached to the breasts. Flatten them out slightly with the back of a skillet.
- Season the breasts generously with salt and pepper. Flour them lightly.
- Melt half the butter in a braising pan over medium-high heat. When the butter has melted and begins to turn color, add the chicken breasts, 'top' side down, and brown them for 5-6 minutes.
- Turn the chicken breasts over. Lower the heat and add the rest of the butter, along the thyme and garlic if using. As soon as it melts, cover the pan tightly. Let the chicken breast braise undisturbed for 15 minutes.
- Uncover the pan. Taste and adjust the butter sauce for seasoning, and remove the garlic and thyme if you used it. Optionally, sprinkle the lemon juice over everything.
- Serve the chicken breasts right away, napping them generously with the butter.
I am not a fan of chicken breasts for the reasons that Frank mentioned. But if you have some from a whole chicken and need to eat them, this is a fine way to do so. Do take care as it is still possible to overcook them a bit as I found out.
Frank, thank you for your inspiration. It was delicious! The only way to eat chicken, budda!!,
So true, Joan… 😉
This looks amazing. If I want to double the recipe and use four chicken breast, is it safe to assume that I would not double the butter? I would think I would use the same amount of butter and just add two more chicken breasts. Please let me know what you think. Thanks!
Well, I’d just double everything, so people get the same amount of butter as sauce. But if you used the same amount of butter, sure, that should also work.
Well, I happen to cook chicken breasts all the time. All the time so this is now printed and on my to-do list. And the butter – oh my! Will do all of the add-ins (admitting that chicken breasts need some help). Many thanks.
I’m sure you’ll enjoy it, Claudia. I don’t particularly like chicken breasts, but this I love!
Your recipe looks wonderful! I’ve had the food fortune of eating this dish at Sostanza. Make sure you have crusty bread to scoop up the buttery heaven after the chicken is gone! That was the best part.
Indeed it is… 😉
It’s been ages since I last cooked a chicken breast. This recipe, however, just may be the one to get me to buy them again. Thanks for the recipe, Frank, and for my next cookbook purchase.
Enjoy, John! I’m not big on chicken breasts, either, but this changed my mind.
A regal yet simple to prepare chicken dish, any night of the week. Bathed in butter is the operative phrase…. Thank you Frank.
Thanks for stopping by, Paula!
Che bontà! Guess who is going to be making this dish very soon! Thank you Frank.
You’re welcome, Jo!
Simple is always the best. Thank you, Frank, for reminding me … we tend so easily to forget that ….. Grazie mille !
Wow! I usually prefer chicken thighs to breasts, but this looks amazing! I’ll be trying it soon. I’m so glad this popped up in my email today. I missed it when you posted a year ago.
I usually prefer thighs, too, but this recipe may change your mind about the breast, as it did me…
I got excited just seeing burro! Sounds like a perfect recipe.
Ha! Butter makes just about anything taste good, doesn’t it?
I made this tonight. Seriously, this is probably the best chicken I’ve ever made. So simple, clean, and delicious. Thank you for your site! It is amazing!
And thank you for your kind words, Lauren!
Fixed this last night and it was the best boneless chicken breast dish I have ever had. Used Kentucky Kernel seasoned flour, fresh tarragon, and a bit of fresh sage. Did the braising part in the oven. Thanks so much for this recipe.
That’s fanatastic, Edward. Glad you like it.
Did you say BUTTER? Oh my, I’ve never tried this, but I know I’d love it! So simple, it has to be fabulous! 🙂
It is… everything seems to taste better with butter, doesn’t it?
Some people don’t like this part of the chicken because it’s not the flavorful juicy part, but I’ve always preferred it, probably because I like cooking with fillet. I’m actually planning to experiment with some chicken dishes for a coming dinner party with friends, and I can’t wait to try this.
Thanks for sharing this!
That exactly why I like this treatment. It really does turn an otherwise bland cut of meat into something tasty and juicy. Hope you enjoy it. And thanks for your comment, Christine!
First of all, thanx for the tip about Trattoria Sostanza in Florence!:):) Second, we totally agree on paying a bit more and get a good chicken to cook. We grew up with grandparents that had their own chickens, and now Panos’s parents still do have some. They taste fantastic and their eggs are top quality as well. And we totally do the same with the chicken: we either buy them whole (or get some from Panos’s parents) and cut them in portions ourselves. It’s really not that hard, and you save A LOT of money as well, this way.
In simple recipes like this yummy butter chicken, the quality of the ingredients is absolutely crucial, in order to make a tasty dish. And we really liked that you added thyme. Perfect combo.
Thanx for another delicious idea Frank, pinned!
And thank you, guys, for your comment, and for sharing your culinary memories and advice!
I am pinning this recipe, so that I can cook it later. In general I prefer chicken thighs but the simplicity of this recipe intrigues me. Thank you!
I prefer the thighs, too, Gerlinde, but this treatment is worth making an exception for, INMO… Do let us know what you think.
Extremely easy, and unbelievably tasty!! Nice one Frank!!
For those of you that thought boneless chicken breasts are boring and dry, think again!
This is now a family favorite!
That’s fantastic, Wade. So glad you guys liked it. You made my day. 🙂
è incredibile come i piatti semplici e legati all’infanzia vadano sempre di moda e siano apprezzati da tutti, questo è un caso tipico e delizioso ! Buona settimana Frank, un abbraccio
Grazie, Chiara, e buona settimana anche a te!
As many times as I have read through David’s “Italian Food,” I have never paid attention to this recipe. But now that I see your photos I am planning to make the chicken this week. I have recently found small, normal size breast halves that actually taste like chicken!
Glad I could bring this one to your attention, David!
We make this quite often now, Frank – it is so easy, and quite forgiving. The quality of the chicken and butter make the biggest difference – I tend to use unsalted French butter, but it works well with Irish, too. I prefer to add my salt rather than leave it to the butter! Hope you continue to enjoy your journey!
Thanks, David. It was a lot of fun. Now it’s back to snow for the first day of spring… !
Yes, it is all about quality ingredients and simplicity. My mother who was born in Italy and came here as a little girl rarely ate chicken in the United States (with the exception of freshly killed kosher chicken from a local vendor) until free range organic poultry came to the market. She explained later that the oversized supermarket chicken laden with water had absolutely no taste, unlike the chicken she had know as a child.
I shall be serving this for supper tonight. How, traditionally, would an Italian eat this? What vegetables? Would there be pasta?
On the vegetables, you might want to check out the exchange with Stefano below. We were just talking about. And the pasta? Well, in a traditional Italian meal, it (or perhaps a soup or a risotto) would be served before this, as a separate “primo”, or first course.
Sometimes we forget that the simplest ingredients can produce some of the best meals…this is one of them.
Couldn’t agree more, Karen!
Delicious. Food like this is why I will always be a bit pudgy 🙂
To think my mamma was making dishes like this for years. It’s funny how we go back to simple delicious ingredients that take our foods from ordinary to extraordinary. This recipe makes me smile remembering!! Grazie, Frank. Buon fine settimana.
Very true, Marisa Franca.
…still, one of the best books on Italian food (a part from minor odd choices in the dessert section, in my opinion). David was really ahead of her time (I also think of her excellent bread book published in late 1970s, at least thirty years before any “bread revolution” happened): good writing (have u read her articles and essays Frank, they really make the most enjoyable reading, much, much better than Fisher (to my mind hugely overrated)?), good recipes (sketchy, it muse be said), good taste…
+ I am not a great fan of kitchen breast but I can see that this method (butter, butter and more butter..) makes them more interesting: in those rare occasions when I have used them, I have often pre salted them long in advance, even a couple of days… they taste much deeper. the garlic and thyme (maybe lemon thyme?) = nice touch
I’m a great fan of hers. I agree, her writing is wonderful, and an inspiration. I try to emulate her clarity and charm as much as I can.
Having said that, she does express some odd opinions in her book—I’m still wounded by her diss of Eggplant Parmigiana, saying that Italians never evolved an eggplant dish half as good as moussaka… And I couldn’t disagree more when she says that most Italian chicken dishes are “uninspiring”. And her comment that Italians rarely “serve” vegetables to accompany meat made me scratch my head. And I cringed when she recommends adding Marsala to tomato sauces. Still and all, these are fleeting moments in what is otherwise a masterwork.
Also with you on chicken breasts in general. I much prefer legs and thighs myself. But this is one of the few ways of preparing them that I actually enjoy!
apparently (it came out time and time again when I was interviewing older food writers who knew her) she was highly opinionated and rather brisk. Italian food is a gem, with some flaws – but still a gem, I agree. Think of this posh woman who, when England was still under rationing, had the intellectual and practical audacity of going to Italy (a country she did not know and whose food she did not know- according to what she said in later years) and let herself be completely charmed by this still very poor country, still heavily scarred by the war (like England was, to be honest).She was used to Levantine flavors and French food, but the austerity of Italian food (no spices, no sauces, no delicate pastries) was a revelation, from what I understood.
I have never heard of salsa di pomodoro with marsala… who knows? Maybe it is good.. maybe she tasted it in some obscure part of the country and decided to have it on her culinary map…? I scratch my head when I go through her desserts… all those Tommaso Marinetti’s recipes…??? excuse me???
(but her ricotta al caffè and budino toscano (uncooked) and torrone molle are to die for, in my opinion)
I agree: she does not get Parmigiana at all (but, I can tell u, even now, it is a dish English food writers seldom get it right: how many times have I seen recipes where it is recommended to eat parmigiana straight away!?/hoever, even Hazan, to be honest, is not at her usual best when it comes to parmigiana, I remember)
….and her remarks about Italians not eating vegetables with their meat-fish-game dishes… well… I sort of half agree with them, sort of 🙂 : we have lots of salads (of different vegetables), the occasional patate al forno or similar to go with a fish-meat dish, but many vegetable dishes are indeed served separately (at least that is the way I was brought up and they way I have seen most of my friends behave at table): we would have melanzane a funghetto for supper, maybe with some cheese or egg dish, sformato di spinaci and similar/vegetable tortini would always served as separate dishes ecc…. + think for instance this lovely chicken dish u r describing here….in my family it would have been served by itself, followed by some salad/maybe some fagiolini al burro maybe.
Bear in mind that to this day, most English people demand some vegetables on their dish, alongside their meat or fish. It was one of those things that gave us constant headaches, when we had the restaurant: trying to make the average customer understand that a stew/spezzatino, for instance, in Italy is generally not served with potatoes or green beans or carrots… maybe some polenta, the occasional potato mash… but, most of times, by itself, unadorned…
I see what you mean. I suppose in that context her remark about vegetables makes sense. I guess it comes down to what she meant by “accompany”…
I have that book — it’s terrific. Haven’t look at it for ages, though — need to again. Anyway, what a great way to cook chicken. I’ve gotten out of the habit of flouring (or breading) things I cook in the frying pan. But they look SO good! I have to start again. Super recipe — thanks.
It has a few “bloopers” (see my reply to Stefano) but overall it’s a wonderful book, still one of the best on Italian cookery. The flouring here should be very light, hardly noticeable at all in the finished product (unless, of course, you’re following the Sostanza method and dipping the breasts in egg as well.) Now that you mention it, I wonder what the difference would be if you were to skip the flouring altogether. May try it next time and see. Thanks for the comment, John!
Are these boneless, skinless chicken breasts?
Yes, definitely boneless. And usually skinless, although a few recipes recommend keeping the skin on (but I don’t).
Thank you for mentioning Elizabeth David, my favourite cookery writer, I have cooked many of her recipes over the years, with great success. I met her a few times when she had shops in London and always found her charming. In my view, she changed the way the British cook. Her books are worth reading even if you have no intention of cooking anything. I’ll have a go at this recipe, using your mods. Thanks.
! u met Mrs David few times, Gill….!!! super lucky and precious memories! stefano
If you have not read “An omelette and a Glass of Wine” yet, it is often in the top ten cookery books of all time in Britain. It is more for reading than cooking from.
🙂 I am a david fanatic and I even have different editions for each book + I guess I am one of the few people who has gone through her rather stodgy Ice book too….
You’re both incredibly lucky. I would have loved to have met her.
How delicious! I love cooking chicken like this, but not exactly. I have to try it!
Thanks, Jeff. Definitely worth a try.