Early summer is a great time for grilling -- either outdoors, where it's not too sweltering, or indoors in a grill pan, when the night may be a little too crisp for lingering outside. Either way, a great dish perfected by the Italians and beloved by everyone who enjoys a delicious, flavorful, juicy chicken dish (and who in their right mind doesn't -- vegetarians excluded, of course...though you really must know you're missing out)? Pollo Al Mattone, or chicken cooked under a brick, in English.
Most likely Etruscan in origin (there are frescoes depicting the cooking of this dish in ancient Etruscan tombs), this dish in modern times is very Tuscan: simply prepared, using a few top-quality ingredients, with rosemary and lemon as prominent flavorings. Italians in central Italy have mastered the art of grilling, and this method is a wonderful way to create a crisp, flavorful, charred skin while keeping the meat juicy on the inside.Opening the chicken up by removing its backbone allows the chicken to lay flat on the grill or grill pan. The flattening of the chicken allows for even cooking. You can find terra cotta weighted covers for grill pans both in the U.S. and in Italy, but it's just as easy to use the weight of a cast iron pan, or an actual brick to weigh down the chicken. (If the brick is not used specifically for cooking, you can wrap the brick in foil beforehand). Even better is placing a brick on top of a cast iron skillet to really weigh things down. Just make sure to place the "bricks" on the chicken from the very beginning of its cooking time to flatten it -- this is essential for even cooking and crisping the skin properly.
And don't be shy on the seasonings. Lots of salt and pepper, particularly on the skin side, will offer great payback at the end of cooking. I love to add lots of dried peperoncino (chili pepper) flakes to make the chicken spicy, which then makes the chicken dish Pollo alla Diavolo al Mattone. Once you flip the chicken to cook the other side, adding some rosemary and lemon is always a good idea. Other tasty additions would include fresh thyme, a little chopped garlic, and even more peperoncino. Brushing with a good, peppery Tuscan olive oil helps to keep the chicken moist.
Enjoy the cooking process by sipping a chilled Vernaccia di San Gimignano, the Tuscan white of choice, or try an Orvieto Bianco from nearby Umbria. Since Tuscany's wine production is 80% red, however, you could also match the smoky fire and spice of the diavolo with a hearty red like a Brunello di Montalcino, a Sangiovese (the grape comprises the majority of Chianti Classico wine), or a Morellino di Scansano, a lesser-known wine from Maremma in Southern Tuscany. Nibble on some prosciutto and salame toscana, and maybe some piave vecchio cheese and wait for your chicken to cook. Serve with some wilted greens or a salad of arugula and tomato with great olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and you have a fantastic, casual meal. This is the bella vita...and the start of summer!
POLLO AL MATTONE (Chicken Under a Brick)
1 whole chicken, 3-4 lbs.
fresh herbs – thyme, rosemary, and/or sage
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt & pepper to taste
1 lemon, cut into quarters
- Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.
- Wash the chicken and dry thoroughly.
- On a cutting board, with the chicken facing breast side up, cut along either side of the backbone to remove it and open the chicken up. (Alternatively, have your butcher do this for you, so you can lay the chicken flat).
- Rub the entire chicken with olive oil, even under the skin of the breasts. Fit herbs into the cavity and under the skin if you like. Sprinkle generously with salt and pepper (and peperoncino, if desired).
- Put a heavy skillet, large enough to fit the chicken when opened flat, onto a burner on high for 3-4 minutes. Add a glug of olive oil to the pan and allow to heat for another 30 seconds.If using a grill, heat on high so it's searingly hot when meat touches the grate.
- Place the chicken, skin side down, into the skillet (or on the grill). Cover with another skillet, as heavy as you can find, and then place a brick or heavy stone or piece of marble or granite on top to weigh it down. The idea is to flatten out the chicken as much as possible while it cooks.
- Cook for approximately 15 minutes like this (you can turn the heat down to med-high if your stove burns hot).
- Remove skillet and weights from the stove, still in place, and put into the preheated 450 oven, or on the grill, for approximately 10 more minutes.
- Remove skillet and weights from oven/grill, take off weight/brick and top pan, and very carefully turn the chicken over in the skillet or on the grill.
- Return to oven without anything on top, simply in the skillet, and cook for another 15 minutes to let the skin side continue to crisp up.
- Remove from oven and let rest for 5-10 minutes outside of the oven or grill before carving. Serve with lemon quarters if you like.