Produced in and around western Sicily, Marsala wines come in varying degrees of sweetness, but all contain at least four times the residual sugar of standard dry wines. These (heavily) fortified wines have a long history in Europe, but most Americans associate them with an iconic Italian-American dish: chicken Marsala.
By most accounts, Marsala wines owe their international footprint to English wine merchant John Woodhouse, who came to Marsala, Sicily in 1773. Specializing in sherry, Port, and Madeira, Woodhouse was surprised to discover a Sicilian wine produced using a similar aging process to sherry’s solera method. Sensing there was money to be made — sherry was the height of U.K. fashion at the time — Woodhouse purchased some barrels of Marsala and fortified the wine with a grape spirit to help preserve it during the journey to England. Marsala soon became massively popular in Victorian and Edwardian Britain.
Nowadays, Marsala is best known as a cooking ingredient, particularly in the context of classic chicken and veal Marsala at red-sauce Italian-American restaurants nationwide. (This is not to say that fine Marsala drinking wines don’t exist — they do; they’re just nowhere near as coveted as in Woodhouse’s day.)
“It’s a dish that’s meant to be hearty — rich in sauce and flavor,” says Glenn Rolnick, director of culinary operations for Carmine’s, an Italian-American chain with five locations in the U.S. and one in the Bahamas. Founded in 1990, Carmine’s mission could easily be a metaphor for the dish itself: “We want every day to feel like a Sunday afternoon at Grandma’s!”
Carmine’s chicken Marsala features chicken scallopini, made by slicing the breast in half lengthwise and seasoning with flour, salt, and pepper. Before cooking, Rolnick lightly coats the meat in this mix — “We don’t want any excess flour to burn,” he says — and then sautés it until golden brown in a preheated pan with a splash of canola oil.
To create the sauce, Rolnick starts by caramelizing onions and button mushrooms. “A hot pan is extremely important because you don’t want all the juices and liquid to come out of the mushrooms,” he says.
After a few minutes, he adds the dish’s name-giving ingredient. “We add a full cup of Marsala, which creates a rich savory flavor,” Rolnick explains. The wine cooks down to half its volume before a rich house-made veal stock is incorporated, adding color, depth of flavor, and a viscous texture. In addition to chicken, the sauce “can be accompanied by fresh pasta, risotto, noodles, or even a vegetable on the side,” he says.
Like spaghetti and meatballs or penne alla vodka, chicken Marsala is immigrant fare.
“It’s an Italian-American dish,” Fortunato Nicotra, executive chef at New York institution Felidia, says of chicken Marsala. A Sicilian native, Nicotra believes the version of chicken Marsala enjoyed throughout America is likely the product of immigrants trying to recreate a flavor from their childhood, without access to the relevant ingredients.
“In Sicily, we cook with Marsala but usually to braise lamb or pork,” he explains. “The result is great — probably much better than chicken Marsala!”
Tough words, but he makes a solid point. Braising, or cooking in liquid for a long time at a relatively low temperature, turns meat tender without drying it out. One of the main advantages is that it also infuses the meat with the flavor of the cooking liquor. This isn’t possible when quickly sautéing thinly sliced chicken and using the wine as sauce.
In Sicily, Nicotra says, the type of meat used depends on the season — lamb in spring and early summer, and pork in fall and winter. (Best of all, Nicotra says, is the Sicilian black swine, native to the island’s Nebrodi Mountains. “It’s a little gamey, so, combined with the sweetness of Marsala, it’s a really great combination.”)
When making an Italian American-style chicken Marsala, the type of Marsala you use is important. “I usually like a medium or medium-dry Marsala, and obviously don’t use anything too expensive,” Nicotra says. Carmine’s Rolnick prefers sweet Marsala to create a slightly sweeter sauce.
CHICKEN MARSALA RECIPE
- 1 ¼ pounds chicken breast, sliced lengthwise and pounded to ¼ inch thick
- Salt and black pepper, to taste
- 1 ounce all-purpose flour
- 3 tablespoons canola oil
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
- 1 ½ ounces shallots, finely diced
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 8 ounces button mushrooms, sliced
- ¾ cup medium dry Marsala wine
- 1 cup veal or chicken stock, preferably homemade
- Season the sliced chicken breasts with salt and pepper. Coat with flour, and dust off any excess.
- Heat the canola oil over medium-high heat in a heavy-bottomed sauté pan. When pan is very hot, add the chicken and cook until golden brown on each side (roughly 1 or 2 minutes per side). Be careful not to crowd the pan: This will reduce the temperature, eventually resulting in overcooked meat with little color. Cook in batches, instead, if necessary.
- Remove the chicken from the pan and set aside on a plate lined with paper towels. Pour out the used canola oil and wipe the pan clean with a paper towel.
- Add 3 tablespoons unsalted butter to pan and return to medium-high heat.
- When the butter melts and starts to sizzle, add the shallots. Sauté for one minute, and then add the garlic. Lower heat to medium and cook for another few minutes, until the vegetables caramelize.
- Add the sliced mushrooms and cook over high heat until they caramelize. Add the Marsala wine and raise heat to bring to a boil, and then reduce by half.
- Add the stock, and cook until the sauce reaches a spoon-coating consistency, roughly 3 minutes.
- Season with salt and pepper to taste, then remove from the heat and whisk in 1 tablespoon of butter.
- Add the chicken to the sauce and allow it to warm for 30 seconds. Serve over pasta or risotto.