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3 Classic Italian Chicken Dishes and How to Pair Them

A major influence on winemaking the world over, Italy’s enduring and evolving vinous culture is often the central focus. But the country’s dining traditions have no doubt been just as impactful.

Between 1880 and the dawn of World War I in 1914, millions emigrated from Italy to the U.S. and forever changed the country in myriad ways—not least its wine and food. Chicken cacciatore, piccata and saltimbocca are just three examples of the many Italian dishes that have since become an enduring part of the American culinary canon.

While several variations exist, read on to discover the essential components of each alongside intel to help you match them expertly with wine.

Chicken Cacciatore

Carmine De Falco’s Chicken Cacciatore
Carmine De Falco’s Chicken Cacciatore / Photo by Jens Johnson / Food Styling by Elizabeth Bell

What It Is: Today, cacciatore is taken to mean a wide variety of preparations. James Beard, an American chef and cookbook author, once said, “practically everything but a henna rinse has been given the chicken which goes by this name.” Technically speaking, however, cacciatore translates to “hunter.” And in the culinary world, it’s often understood as chicken or rabbit braised with tomatoes, herbs, onions and garlic, a nod to hunters’ use of garlic and strong herbs to season game. Several regions of central Italy, especially Tuscany, Umbria and Lazio, claim to be the origin of cacciatore, but it’s a dish with nearly as many versions as there are cooks.

How To Pair It: Regardless of your exact preparation, a safe bet would be a young Sangiovese, like Rosso di Montalcino or Chianti. Sangiovese is a classic pairing with tomato sauces, as it often boasts flavors of roasted tomato, and it stands up well to garlic, spices and dried herbs. Another option is Primitivo. The popular Puglian pour is perfect with roasted, braised and grilled meats, especially those with powerful, concentrated flavors.

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Image Courtesy of Cantina Zaccagnini Pinot Grigio

Pinot Grigio

An Italian classic, Cantina Zaccagnini Pinot Grigio is fresh and well balanced with a crisp and refreshing finish. The perfect pairing for chicken, prepared in a variety of ways, such as piccata, Milanese, alfredo or saltimbocca. The tralcetto (stick) on every Zaccagnini bottle is an actual grapevine cutting from the vineyards. The stick is tied by hand on to each bottle, and represents the connection between the wine and the land.

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Chicken Saltimbocca

Chicken Saltimbocca alla Terza 
Chicken Saltimbocca alla Terza  / Photo by Jens Johnson / Food Styling by Elizabeth Bell

What It Is: Saltimbocca, “jump in the mouth,” is an apt name for this lively dish made originally with veal layered with prosciutto and sage. Though many consider it a Roman classic, historians trace it to Brescia, in the Lombardy region. Regardless, it’s now beloved throughout Italy. As with piccata, the veal has been largely supplanted by chicken in the U.S., though flattened pork cutlets are also a popular variation. The chicken can be prepared flat or rolled like roulade. In some versions, sage is replaced with basil, and cheese is also a popular addition.

How To Pair It: Saltimbocca has several powerful flavors. You’ll want something with some intensity and body but also with enough acid to cut through richer characters. The white blends of Collio, a region near the Slovenian border in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, can be beautiful with saltimbocca. They’re bold and structured, with elegance, refreshing acidity and complex minerality. Another interesting choice would be Timorasso, a lesser-known Piedmont white. Intense and full bodied, it shows crisp acidity among flavors of creamy stone fruit, cooked apple and wildflower honey with a savory herbal undercurrent that would pull out the sage.

Chicken Piccata

Chicken Piccata alla Siciliana
Chicken Piccata alla Siciliana  / Photo by Jens Johnson / Food Styling by Elizabeth Bell

What It Is: Piccata essentially means “sharp” or “piquant.” In Italy, many different cuts of meat can be used, with the commonalities being the piquant addition of citrus and capers. But in the U.S., piccata most closely resembles piccata Milanese, a regional Lombardy take featuring thin pounded veal, chicken or thin-sliced swordfish cooked quickly in butter and seasoned simply with lemon and capers. As American veal consumption started to decline in the 1960s, chicken became increasingly popular. Now, it’s likely the most common piccata stateside.

How To Pair It: Lemon and capers are what complicate things. The zippy pops of flavor heed a wine with enough acidity to match. However, chicken browned in copious amounts of butter or oil needs wine with some structure. While an oak-aged Chardonnay could merge well with the citrus and butter elements, a lighter-bodied red wine would contribute tannins to help cut the fat and refresh the palate. Nerello Mascalese, a dark-skinned Sicilian grape, offers a solution. It makes crisp, light-bodied wines that can be intensely aromatic and flavorful, and would lend fresh red fruit, herb and spice notes. Also try Valtellina Superiore, elegant, Nebbiolo-based wines made in the mountains of Lombardy that can be lighter-bodied alternatives to Barolo or Barbaresco.


This article originally appeared in the August/September 2021 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!