Recently I had a conversation with friends who had just been to Italy for the first time and they were telling me how difficult they found ordering food in restaurants because of their lack familiarity with the language. They eventually found a restaurant where they felt comfortable and returned each night to eat various versions of bistecca (steak) – they knew this word.

Pollo can be a young rooster (or cock) or a chicken (or chook) and pollo arrosto is the generic term for a roast chicken. My son Alex, as a teenager would order pollo arrosto each time we ate in a restaurant and all over Italy. He ordered this not necessarily because it was his favourite food, but because he was confused by the choices, and irrespective of what was written on the menu or we discussed beforehand, he blurted out ‘pollo arrosto’.

Interestingly pollo arrosto is not necessarily what many of us recognize as roast chicken; for a start, there are always odori, (smells=herbs as Italians call them), secondly it is likely to be pot roasted or grilled over a fire, or if cooked in the oven it may have a slurp of chicken broth and wine added to keep it moist and be cooked covered for part of the time.

Alex had trouble ordering roast chicken in restaurants in Sicily, in fact I have eaten very little chicken with my Sicilian relatives. If you are sick there is always gallina in brodo (the chicken in broth) or as a pasta sauce made with a young rooster (galletto) cooked in tomato, and if you know someone from Ragusa you may have eaten gallina ripiena in brodo (stuffed chicken in broth) at Christmas.

Here is an unusual recipe for roast chicken reputed to be from Messina, (right, northern corner of Sicily); I found this same recipe in two sources: Anna Pomar’s La Cucina Tradizionale Siciliana and Giuseppe Coria’s Profumi Di Sicilia. Both are sketchy and I have filled in the details.

1.Pre-cook the chicken. Use only enough water to cover the chicken. Add odori (common for broth are celery leaves and a few sprigs of parsley, one carrot and an onion). Add a little salt, bring to the boil  and cook the chicken for 20-30 minutes.
2.Drain the chicken. Cool it so that you can handle it. Save the broth and use elsewhere.
3.Butterfly the chicken: either cut away the chicken’s back bone or cut it along its back, spread the chicken flat (skin side up) and using your hands, press firmly to flatten it.
4.Brush the inside and the outside of the chicken with a mixture of extra virgin olive oil, salt, pepper, lemon juice and chopped parsley. Make about 1 cup altogether, 1 lemon is sufficient.
5.Place on a hot grill and cook on both sides for 15-20 minutes (a moderate flame). An outside BBQ is perfect as there will be smoke. Keep on brushing the marinade over the chicken while it cooks.
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The recipe above  reminds me of pollo alla diavola, my favourite way to eat chicken when I was a child growing up in Trieste and eating in country restaurants. I have also seen it called pollo al mattone (chicken cooked under a brick).

Use a small chicken (younger and small in size – approx 1 k). It does not need pre-cooking. Once butterflied, marinade it for at least an hour. Alla diavola means ‘as the devil cooks it’, therefore add about 1 teaspoon of ground pepper. Once it is on the grill, to keep the chicken flat by placing a weight on top – a brick or wide frypan with a heavy bottom. The chicken will cook more quickly and evenly.


POLLO ALLA MESSINESE (A cold chicken dish similar to Vitello Tonnato from Messina)

I bought a book called Le Ricette Regionali Italiane by Anna Gosetti della Salda in the 1980’s; this large and heavy book was the first of many books which I transported back from Italy over my many visits.

In the Sicilian section of this book, there is a recipe for Pollo alla Messinese, a dish which is well suited when inviting guests, particularly in the hot weather (and in Melbourne we have recently experienced some unusually hot temperatures). It can also be served as an antipasto.

Pollo alla Messinese could well be called Pollo Tonnato and is made with chicken instead of veal. The recipe suggests cooking a whole chicken in broth, but I use large chicken breasts – it is easier to cut the breasts into thin slices and then to layer them with tuna mayonnaise. I use organic chicken (estimate one chicken breast per person) and canned yellowfin tuna, dolphin-safe. I always use greater quantities of anchovies and capers in the mayonnaise than the recipe suggests (recipe below is my adaptation).


I would liked to have had presented information about the origins of Pollo alla Messinese and although there appear to be many recipes, they are usually pieces of chicken stewed or braised in tomatoes or wine and sometimes with olives .

chicken breasts, 6
bay leaves, 2
carrots, 2 halved length wise
onion, 1, cut into quarters
celery stalks, 1 halved length wise
parsley, 2 stalks and leaves
basil, 2 stalks and leaves
peppercorns, 4-5
salt to taste
stock or water to cover
mayonnaise, made with 2 egg yolks extra virgin olive oil, juice of 1-2 lemons and salt and pepper to taste
anchovy fillets, 6
tinned tuna (300 gm)
capers, 3 tablespoons

Place the whole breasts into a large pot and intersperse with bay leaves, carrots, onion, celery, parsley, basil, salt and black peppercorns. Cover the breasts with hot stock or water.
Bring slowly to boil, turn down heat, cover and simmer for 5-10 minutes .
Leave the chicken in the stock to finish cooking.
Cool and leave the chicken in the stock till ready to use (I usually cook the chicken the day before).
When cold, drain well and slice the meat thinly. Keep the broth for another time and discard the vegetables.
Make a thick mayonnaise with the egg yolks, extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice and seasoning. I use my blender.
Drain the tuna and separate it with a fork before adding it to the thick mayonnaise.
Add chopped anchovies and capers. Briefly pulse the mixture in the blender or use a fork to incorporate these ingredients into the mayonnaise – the mixture should be relatively smooth.

The recipe says to place the slices on a large platter and to spread a thin layer of sauce over each slice. I prefer to line a container with foil and beginning with a layer of mayonnaise, make 3-4 layers of chicken slices and mayonnaise.
Cover with more foil and store in the fridge till ready to present.
Turn out the chicken from the container, sprinkle with capers, cut into portions and serve.