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Chicken Marsala

When I served Chicken Marsala one recent weeknight, Andrew asked if I was working on Italian restaurant classics.  As part of its 150th issue, Saveur magazine had published a collection of 150 Classic Recipes which ran the gamut from Buffalo wings to Middle Eastern Kibbeh, from main courses to sweets and even classic cocktails.   And there in their midst was the recipe for Chicken Marsala, made with delicate chicken cutlets, button mushrooms, shallots, garlic and, arguably, Italy’s most famous fortified wine, Marsala. There’s little question that Andrew and my introduction to the dish was in Italian-American restaurants where, as young boys, we thought ourselves very sophisticated when ordering it.  The truth is, the dish may have given its budding gourmets that impression but it is one of the easiest things you can imagine putting together for dinner.  And it does impress with its pan sauce rich in the flavor of sweet Marsala wine. And while your favorite foodies eat it, you can regale them with the story surrounding the dish.

Marsala, Sicilia
The town of Marsala sits on the western tip of Sicily, an island that, despite its disconnection from Italy, is often considered to be the most Italian of places.  It is filled with beauty and history, some of it truly ancient.  The town of Marsala was a major port dating from the fall of the Roman Empire in 473 AD.   Its name comes from the Arabic “Mars-el-Allah”, the port of Allah.  While many culinary traditions in Sicily have roots in the Arab world, Marsala sauce likely came from the other direction: France.
Queen Maria Carolina of Naples and Sicily
In the early 1800s, Queen Maria Carolina of Naples and Sicily imported French chefs because the foreign-born Queen had little faith in the local cuisine being good enough for her court.  She came from a family of Francophiles.  Queen Maria Carolina was the sister of another well-known Queen, Marie Antoinette.
The making of a classic Chicken Marsala is pure French in technique and ingredients.  The flour-coated chicken is sautéed in butter (not olive oil), then removed from the pan while the sauce is made.   Italian Americans, many of whom have roots in Sicily, took the dish to their American kitchens often substituting white wine for the original Marsala. Chicken Marsala is hard to find in restaurants in Italy. Even in Marsala itself, while it’s still on some menus, it has been eclipsed by recipes from the remarkable melting pot that is Sicily.
There is no real substitute for Marsala: it can only be made with either red or white grapes that are indigenous to Sicily.  It comes in both dry (secco) and sweet (dolce) versions.  Sweet Marsala is what’s called for here. Added to the grapes is brandy and then the Marsala is aged like sherry. It has a high alcohol content of 15 to 20 percent.  It is not particularly expensive. In New York a 750 ml bottle is $13.00 at my local liquor store and $9.00 for 375 ml.  As a drink, Marsala is an excellent dessert wine with a particular affinity for chocolate.
This is an easy weeknight recipe to prepare and takes just a little over a half hour to cook.   The chicken cutlets benefit from being pounded thin before cooking. Deglazing the pan with Marsala and stock after cooking the chicken will give you a quick, yet rich, sauce.  Here is the recipe:


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