One of the first Italian restaurants I visited was in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire. I was with my uncle’s wife, Clare, whose stylish sister Alison was going out with Vito, whose family owned the restaurant. The tables had red and white checkered tablecloths, and on each was a tall glass filled with even taller packets of breadsticks, several of which I took and crushed on the way home – the clearest memory of an evening almost four decades ago! A vague memory is of eating breadcrumbed chicken and tomato sauce, then neat balls of gelato.
Years later, the Italian American boyfriend of a girl I waitressed with explained that for it to be parm, the chicken must be on the sauce and topped with slices of mozzarella or, better still, provolone, which I had never heard of. That made him laugh, but not in a nice way. He cooked us chicken parm in their kitchen in Homerton, east London, and set off the fire alarm in the process. It was many years before I finally understood that parm was short for parmigiana; probably the invention of Italian immigrants in the US and elsewhere, too (the Argentinian milanesa a la napolitana could well have come first), possibly the fortuitous meeting of a breadcrumbed cutlet with a layered aubergine parmigiana.
Disappointingly, Patty and Patty, my favourite middle-aged Italian American broads living in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, don’t have a recipe for chicken parm on their website. They do, however, offer some wise advice on TikTok about how to stop the chicken getting “mushad”, soggy and soft. They recommend blotting the chicken on a wad of kitchen towel immediately after frying: “You don’t want it swimming in olive oil.” Also, to “bake it after you make it” meaning that after frying, you don’t let it sit around before baking, and to go easy on the amount of tomato sauce (“it is parm, not soup!”). I take all of Patty and Patty’s advice, also that of Australian chef Matt Preston, who notes that you can call it parma, parmi or parmy.
The important thing about chicken parmigiana is serving it just a few minutes after coming out of the oven, so the sauce has stopped spitting and the cheese has cooled a little but is still hot and soft enough to pull into long, memorable threads.
2 chicken breasts
100g plain flour
2 eggs, lightly beaten
100g breadcrumbs (dry or fresh)
2 tbsp grated parmesan
200-400ml smooth tomato sauce
200g mozzarella, drained and thinly sliced
A few basil leaves
Slice both chicken breasts in half horizontally, creating four even pieces. Put the pieces on a board, cover with a sheet of baking parchment and bash with a rolling pin until they are the same thickness, about 3mm all over.
Set out for the triple dip by putting the flour mixed with a pinch of salt on one plate, the beaten eggs in another and the crumbs mixed with the parmesan and some black pepper on a third. Working piece by piece, dip the chicken first in the flour, then the egg and then the crumbs.
You can either deep- or shallow-fry the chicken for a few minutes on each side, or bake in the oven (in which case zigzag with olive oil) at 190C (170C fan)/375F/gas 5 for about 20 minutes, turning halfway, until golden on both sides.
Put a spoonful of tomato sauce on each piece of chicken, then a slice or two of mozzarella and a leaf of basil, and arrange in a baking dish. Alternatively, pour the sauce into a baking dish, then lay chicken in the sauce and top with mozzarella and basil. Return to the oven for 10 minutes or grill for a few minutes, until the cheese has melted.