The day we found butter in Florence
I spend a good portion of my days researching our next meal, whether it is where I will shop for the produce to cook at home, or which restaurants we have to try. It’s become a little bit of an obsession, and almost a game- how can I discover the most authentic, delicious meal without looking at the horribly biased and uneducated reviews from TripAdvisor and Yelp. Dining in Italy is truly a word-of-mouth, or a take a chance and hope you had good instincts type of thing. Anyways, late one night, while I was listening to the soothing sounds of Chris snoring, I landed upon this “butter chicken” dish somewhere 6 degrees deep on the internet. This dish comes from Trattoria Sostanza, an old school authentic Tuscan restaurant that happened to be around the corner from our apartment. This was one of the places we casually tried to walk into without a reservation one evening, hoping to satisfy our craving with instant gratification, just how us Americans like it. Yeah, no. We booked a table for a few days later and salivated over the anticipation of this meal, and just the thought of butter in general, as it is a rarity when dining out in Italy. I love and appreciate Italian culture, don’t get me wrong. But I also LOVE BUTTER. Olive oil has a big role in Italian cuisine, as it should. But, butter should not be forgotten, and this restaurant definitely speaks to my soul.
Our 9:30pm reservation rolled around- standard dinner time for Italians, and after aperitivo with conversation centered around this meal we were about to have, it was time for Trattoria Sostanza to fulfill the high expectations we had selfishly set for this quaint eight table, cash only, one of a kind Florentine meals. Florence has not disappointed yet, so I had faith that this was going to be no different.
This meal was one of those roll your eyes in the back of your head, fill your heart with joy types of experiences. It was exactly what we had dreamt it tasted of. Buttery, rich, and made with so much love.
Here’s how the magic went down:
We were sat at the only empty table in the tiny dining room, and were handed a hand written menu (in Italian of course). The menu was extremely simple- the kitchen made a few things, and they made them well. We started by sharing tortellini in meat sauce (pasta al sugo). The other pasta option was tortellini in a butter sauce, and though Chris was all for that one, in the effort of not completely overdoing it with the butter, we chose the modest ragu. It was the perfect start. Yes, pasta is a starter in Italy. It’s a dream. This tortellini was executed to perfection, cooked to a slightly firm but tender al dente, with this rich meat sauce that needed not one more grain of salt, paired a nice light Chianti. It’s hard to tell which restaurants have trustworthy and quality house wine, but what we are learning- after about drinking about 50% house and 50% bottles of local reds- is just like the meals, Tuscan wine hasn’t disappointed. It’s all good, even the humble litre of house wine, and its perfectly appropriate to enjoy with your meal. Plus, it saves you a few euros to splurge on dessert. But I’ll get to that later.
Now for the main event: this fricken bubbling brown butter chicken (petti di pollo all burro), in all its glory, came out in a sizzling skillet with nothing more than 2 simple ingredients: butter & chicken. It was perfection, even before we tasted it. Browned and crispy, the juiciest boneless skinless chicken breast I’d never guess could hold so much flavor. The waiter squeezed some lemon over the top, a necessary step when consuming massive amounts of savory brown butter. We paired our fat bomb entree with an artichoke pie (tortino di carciofi), another famed dish for this restaurant, which consisted of souffléd eggs, artichokes, and also massive amounts of butter. Upon first bite, we both paused, inhaled with eyes closed, and smiled with greasy salty lips. There is nothing more satisfying than satisfying a craving. Trattoria Sostanza, I came to you with dreams of this meal being as good as I dreamt, and you delivered in all the ways. The waiter brought us out a side of sautéed spinach, probably bursting at the gut watching us down all of this butter.
We finished our meal with one of the best desserts I’ve ever had, the simplest meringue cake with fresh strawberries. These strawberries were home grown, tinier than what we see in the US, and much darker. They were something else. As was this melt in your mouth sugary delight of a cake.
We left this meal transformed. Bellies happy, and blown away by the simplicity of good ingredients, cooked well, with love. This is Florence (but with butter).
For the next few days, Chris wouldn’t let up on the idea of me recreating this dish at home. Our conversations were dominated by two subjects: Harley & what he must be doing at that very moment, and how great that damn butter chicken was. I’m not one to eat or cook the same thing twice very often, which is common for a chef, especially one who has just left the repetitive restaurant cooking lifestyle. I am especially not inclined to recreate a meal that lived up to so much internal hype, and mess with the memory of that moment. But, I love this man, and also I love a good challenge, so he got what he wanted.
The following recipe is my version of butter chicken, still simple, but with a few added ingredients because that’s what’s amazing about cooking. There’s always room to explore and enhance, while still giving a nod to one of the best dinners we will never forget in Firenze.
This recipe is a nod to one of the best meals we've ever had, inspired by the simplicity of good ingredients, cooked well, with love. As always, but especially with simple meals like this one, it is best to buy the highest quality ingredients you can find and afford. Buy the good butter, trust me (Kerrygold, French, grass-fed, etc.), it is worth the extra dollar. Try to find a medium sized artichoke, with the stem still attached. The stem is like an extension of the heart, which is obviously the tastiest part. Buy good air chilled free range chicken, and please, for goodness sakes do not buy Foster Farms.
- 2 ea Boneless skinless chicken breast
- 4 tbsp Butter
- 2 ea Artichokes
- 1 ea Lemon
- 1 tbsp Parsley
- 1 tsp Garlic
- 1 tsp Capers
Clean your artichokes: cut the top of the leaves to remove the spikes, pop off the outer layer of tough leaves, and peel the tough skin of the stem. Cut the artichoke lengthwise, exposing the heart and the choke. Clean the spiky part of the artichoke heart, gently, with a spoon. Start with a pot of cold water, seasoned with salt and acidulated with lemon, and simmer your artichokes at medium/low heat until they are tender enough to poke through with a fork, but still with a little give. We are going to cook them again in butter, so cook them al dente. Depending on the size of your artichokes, this should only take about 10-15 minutes.
While your artichokes are cooking, get the rest of your mise en place ready. This is a fairly simple meal that all comes together quickly and at the same time, so you want to be ready. Chop your garlic, parsley, and capers. Season your chicken breast liberally with salt.
In a stainless steel skillet, add a drizzle of vegetable oil (this helps the butter not burn as fast), and once hot, add your chicken. Add the butter, as much as your heart can handle, enough to cover the entire surface area of the skillet, and then some, so the chicken can essentially shallow fry. Leave the chicken be, and while the butter melts and bubbles, start basting it with a spoon, to begin cooking the other side. Once you have a nice sear on one side, turn your chicken and baste, once again, at a medium heat, as to not burn the butter too fast. This is a dance with the heat, because it is important to not burn the butter that becomes your sauce. It is ok to take your pan off the heat for a moment if you feel your butter is browning too fast. Basting helps cook the chicken from all sides, and in total, the chicken cooking process should only take about 8 minutes (it takes A LOT less time to cook a chicken breast than you think).
At this point, your artichokes should be done and ready- when they are, take them out and dry them on a towel... butter + water are not friends. Cut them in half lengthwise once again, leaving you with 4ths, and throw them into the bubbling butter skillet. It doesn't take long for these to fry to a crispy brown, and just when you feel your chicken and artichokes are complete, your butter should be a nice deep hazelnut color, just on the brink of being too dark.
To finish, pull your pan off the heat, toss in the garlic and the capers, and let them fry for 15 seconds, off the heat, before squeezing 1/2 a lemon to quickly cool down the butter and stop the garlic from burning. Finish with a heaping tablespoon of parsley, and serve.