Let’s stipulate that chicken parm – crisp chicken served with tomato sauce, draped in mozzarella and anointed with grated Parmesan, served perhaps on a hero roll or beside a tangle of pasta – is among the finest dishes of the Italian diaspora in America. Sweetness and salt, along with the creaminess of cheese and the satisfying crunch of the chicken’s crust, combine to deliver immense satisfaction.
Of course, chicken parms aren’t always perfect, as anyone who’s had a leaden one can attest. But as with pizza and your kind-eyed cousin who’s been to jail but never prison, chicken parms are fundamentally decent. They are never really bad.
I went to Justin Bazdarich to find out how to make great chicken parm. Bazdarich is the chef and an owner of the Speedy Romeo restaurants in Brooklyn and Manhattan, restaurants known for their pizzas and Midwestern interpretations of Italian-American food, cooked almost exclusively over wood fire and coals. His chicken parm is not precisely a traditional preparation but rates among the best in New York. The chicken is cooked over the indirect heat of the restaurants’ fires until the skin is crisp. Tomato sauce serves as a bed for the cheese-covered chicken, which itself sits on top sautéed kale. The result is an Italian flag of a plate, smoke-scented and beautiful. It is a dish that rewards some afternoon planning and precooking with a terrific dinner-party or family meal.
Start by marinating the chicken. Bazdarich massages the flesh with lemon zest and thyme leaves, along with the garlic oil that’s left over from the restaurant’s preparation of garlic chips. Garlic chips don’t play a big role in most home cooking, though, so you can add some minced garlic instead. You could set up the chicken in the morning and be ready to cook it by night. But even 45 minutes of resting in the marinade will deliver good flavor.
For the tomatoes, Bazdarich takes a burr mixer to the contents of a can of San Marzanos. At home, a few pulses of a food processor will do. “We pour the sauce onto a sheet tray and put it in the wood oven,” he said, “though you could do it under a broiler, and allow it to reduce until it’s thick and the fluidity comes out of it.” He puts the cooked tomatoes in a bowl and stirs in good olive oil, then seasons the mixture lightly with salt. “That’s it,” Bazdarich said. And that really is. The high heat concentrates the flavor of the tomatoes, and the olive oil gives it a silky feel: red velvet, fruity and intense.
When you’re ready to cook, light a grill, leaving one burner off or one side free of coals. As it heats, sauté some sliced kale until it’s bright green and softened, then set it aside beneath a small scattering of torn basil leaves — as with the tomatoes there’s no need for the greens to be hot when you put the dish together at the end.
To cook the chicken, Bazdarich salts only the fleshy side of the meat, then places the pieces skin-side down on the cooler side of the grill. He leaves it there a long time, keeping a close eye on the skin. “You want to cook the chicken 85 or 90 percent of the way through skin-side down,” Bazdarich said, “so it gets really, really crisp.” Then he turns the pieces and applies a thin slice of mozzarella to each. You can put the top on the grill for a few moments to allow the cheese to melt.
Service is a cinch. Spread a generous amount of the tomato sauce on a warmed serving platter, place the sliced kale on top of it and the chicken thighs on top of the kale. Bazdarich showers the dish with a mixture of panko and melted, hardened Parmesan he has whizzed up in a food processor, along with a dusting of ground red-pepper flakes. At home, I make do with straight grated Parmesan and whole red-pepper flakes. It’s terrific.
Summer is upon us, and with it the tyranny of the seasonal menu: all burgers and sausages, slaws and burned vegetables. Grilled chicken parm is a great way to declare independence.