The Recipe for Tastebuds Italian Chicken Sandwich...plus words and wisdom from some other legendary Italians including Hank Loconti and Stanley Tucci!
WELCOME TO MY FIRST POST!!!
I AM SO THRILLED YOU ARE HERE AND I HOPE YOU WILL STAY!
I just wanna say, this feels very good and natural. I am going to be talking to you like we’re old friends, hanging out in my kitchen, trying to recreate some Tastebuds magic!
So please, be my guest. Make yourself comfortable, and enjoy!
Has it really been two years? In April of 2020, I made one of the toughest decisions of my life, which was to close Tastebuds Restaurant after nearly 20 years. The only comfort I have, is knowing that a restaurant like mine could never have survived in this post-pandemic world, no way. Also, the way we closed was pretty badass, looking back!
You can read all about it here:
“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”
I hate recipes! I don’t like their tone and I don’t like being told what to do, so rarely do I follow them. You might see a pattern in my behavior, a disdain for rules, regulations and authority figures in general! Rest assured, I graduated at the top of my class from Culinary school, where I learned the rules backwards and forwards. However, my internship at The Baricelli Inn, located in Cleveland’s Little Italy until its closure in 2010, taught me something more valuable, to trust my instincts!
If you learn to season food properly (simply by applying the right amount of salt and pepper each step of the way) and use the best quality ingredients, especially when it comes to your fat, butter or oil, you can begin to improvise and experiment and your food will taste delicious!
While arguably considered one of the best restaurants in America, and owner Paul Minillo, certainly one of Cleveland’s top chefs, The Baricelli Inn was completely void of any structure or standardized recipes! It looked to me, after spending 12 months as a culinary student, like everyone was just kinda nervously winging it! Which is fine for a destination or special occasion restaurant.
Tastebuds was not a destination restaurant. In fact, some customers called it their lunch room or cafeteria, because they ate there day after day, year after year! Consistency mattered more than anything. Yet, it was better for me to show my cooks how to make something, rather than hand them a recipe. I structured the labor, so that the same person did the same job, the same way, at the same time even, every day and that’s how we were able to remain impeccably consistent over the course of 19 years!
Nothing was written down, until I got pregnant, quite unexpectedly at 42 years old. My doctors, specialists in Geriatric Pregnancies (how insulting), insisted I stay off my feet and avoid all stress! I learned rather quickly, to delegate all of my responsibilities to other members of my staff. This meant writing down recipes and detailing procedures, that I thankfully can draw from now and pass on to you!
It is my intention to give you every bit of information you need, so when you take that first bite, it tastes just like you remember, or, if you were never at Tastebuds Restaurant, you see what you were missing!
“Perfection is the enemy of progress.”
Hank Loconti, the wise and generous owner of the legendary Agora Theatre and Ballroom in Cleveland, was a fan of the restaurant and was one of my biggest cheerleaders. He was always offering me opportunities to expand, which I always politely passed on, which he found fascinating!
We became quite close, in the time we spent together looking at properties and meeting hopeful landlords or prospective investors. He was always trying to get me to work more, and I was always trying to get him to work less!
A few years before I met Ari’s father, Hank asked me why I didn’t have any children. He obviously adored children, he had twelve of them! He beamed about his kids and the joy, love and sense of purpose they gave him!
I gave him a lot of answers that I thought were pretty funny, but he didn’t laugh. At the time, I was nearly 40 years old and had been abusing alcohol pretty regularly for more than half my life. I told him (half kidding) that I was pretty close to perfecting my alcoholism, and I didn’t want any kids getting in the way of that!
He looked heartbroken. I swear, he had tears in his eyes when he held up his hand in front of me, making a circular motion, and shaking his head slowly, side to side. He said, “No, no! This simply cannot die when you go. You’ve got to pass this on. This is too good to end with you, the world needs more of this!”
Honestly, I had a pretty low image of myself back then. I didn’t understand what he saw or what he meant. It was only recently, when I saw myself in Ari, in the way that he believes it’s his job to bring joy wherever he goes, that I began to understand!
Hank left this world too goddamn soon, but not before leaving a world renowned legacy. He truly gave everything he had to this world, to his family and to everyone who was lucky enough to know him!
His beautiful wife Bonnie arranged for me to visit Hank in his final days, and to introduce him to my newborn son. His last words to me, as he held Ari’s tiny fingers and shook his tiny toes, were, “Ya done good kid!”
I hear Hank’s words again, when I think about the stories and recipes that are just swirling around inside my head, or on the pages of the journals, over 140 of them, that I’ve been keeping since I was 22 years old! “They are too good, not to pass on. They cannot die with me,” I now tell myself.
So, this is why we are here, my friend!
I loved my time upon the culinary stage in Cleveland, and I’m not ashamed to say that I don’t want to lose that beautiful audience of mine! I feel that if I wait for my stories and recipes to be perfect, they might never make their way into the hearts and homes where they would be welcomed. So forgive their imperfections, and know that I will work hard and I will get better!
I found out about Substack through another writer, and I entered a contest to win a creative fellowship being offered by the prolific author Roxane Gay, who I came to know and love by reading her book Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body. If I had won, which I was so sure I was going to do, I would have had her mentorship and all kinds of technical support from Substack.
I would have also received a stipend that would have made it possible to offer my newsletter to subscribers free of charge, which I would have loved to do. So, if anyone knows of any opportunities like that, please let me know in the comment section.
I just need to support myself till Ari is old enough to be home by himself, say like, 20 more years! I’m kidding, it's more like 4, then I look forward to getting a job cooking here in Cork. I am eager to learn how to use local ingredients, especially the fresh seafood and then I hope to get a job teaching at the famed, Ballymaloe Cookery School, which is about 20 minutes down the road from me here in Midleton.
I came across the school when I was researching culinary schools back in 1997. At 26 years old, I already had too many commitments, making it impossible to be far from Cleveland for long periods of time. I attended Pennsylvania Culinary instead, in Pittsburgh, which was perfect for me and prepared me well for the path I chose.
I finally did get to Ballymaloe in 2016, for The Literary Festival of Food and Wine, which was the trip of a lifetime. I fell madly in love with the wild and rugged beauty of Cork and the warmth and humor of its people. There is a vibrant food scene with The English Market, as its main attraction, a formidable contender to my beloved West Side Market in Cleveland!
Ok, let’s see if I’ve got what it takes to be a good teacher!
No one’s chicken was as moist and flavorful as ours was at Tastebuds, or so I heard about a million times! We had strict rules. All the breasts had to be pounded to a uniform thickness. If chicken was to be broiled or grilled, it went into our Italian Dressing Marinade overnight, up to three days. If chicken was to be breaded or sautéed, it went into 2% milk overnight, up to two days.
Here’s a delightful demonstration of Ari tenderizing chicken from May2020!
Disclaimer: Plastic wrap does not prevent annoying your neighbors!
Our original chicken sandwich was pretty plain (because my salads were all I cared about at the time), but one of our first loyal and regular customers named Josh, who’s family owned a carpet store nearby, asked if I could add tomato and melt some mozzarella cheese on it for him, in addition to the spinach and side of basil garlic mayo that it already came with.
Next thing we knew, people started asking for the “Josh” sandwich! These were customers of the carpet store that he and his family so generously referred to us. We were tremendously grateful and happy to do it! The sandwich became so popular that eventually I decided to put it on the menu and give it its current name, no offense to Josh!
Italian Chicken Sandwich Recipe
Makes 4 Sandwiches
8 Boneless, Skinless, Chicken Breasts 4 ounces each, pounded/tenderized and marinated in Tastebuds Italian Dressing Marinade (recipe follows), preferably overnight but an hour or two is ok in a pinch) We used one 8 ounce breast per sandwich, but that’s really hard to find, so using 2 breasts per sandwich will work just as well.
4 Crusty Italian Rolls, Ciabatta or French Mini Baguettes (The rolls we used were called Portuguese Saloio (peasant) rolls, really hard to find, but I’ve seen them at Daves Supermarkets and Galluci's from time to time. Some other suggestions would be Croissant, Rosemary Ciabatta or Cleveland Bagel's incomparable Everything Bagel!)
3 Roma Tomatoes sliced into thin rounds, splashed with olive oil and sprinkled with dried basil leaves and kosher salt and pepper (If I teach you anything, it’s to season everything, every step of the way. Season means sprinkle a pinch of kosher salt mixed with ground black pepper, 10 to 1 ratio)
One 8 ounce bag of shredded mozzarella/provolone or Italian cheese mixture
One 6-8 ounce bag of baby spinach, cleaned and trimmed. You can use any spinach, bagged or fresh, baby or regular.
1 Cup Basil Garlic Mayo (recipe to follow)
2 Tablespoons Butter (Good butter is the key to everything tasting great! I love Kerrygold Pure Irish Butter, I mean, if its good enough for Stanley Tucci!
1/4 Cup Chicken Stock (optional)
Speaking of Stanley Tucci…
If you haven’t seen his movie, Big Night , you are missing out on what I consider to be the greatest food and restaurant movie of all time! Here’s my favorite scene!
Okay, back to the recipe!
Heat oven to 475’ or turn Broiler to High
If you have a grill, great! Continue reading this section. If you don’t, skip down to “Place chicken...”
Clean the grill, oil it, then get it as hot as possible!
I have found that cooking things all the way on a grill tends to dry out the meat. To me, chicken tastes best when its been cooked using two methods; grilled then finished in a hot oven with some water or stock added to the pan for moisture or sautéed in oil then baked, or boiled and then grilled. It’s quite easy to do in a fully equipped commercial kitchen. I’d say, if you want to fully cook it on the grill, go for it!
So, the best method is to start by marking the chicken on the grill about 30 seconds per side, lightly seasoning with a sprinkle of kosher salt and pepper, changing its position twice per side (picturing a clock, taking the top corner of the breast from 10:00 to 2:00 after 10-15 seconds then flipping over and repeating) We aren’t cooking it all the way, we are just wanting to get good grill marks and that nice smokey flavor.
Place chicken (grill marked or not) on a rimmed sheet pan or baking dish big enough that the chicken is not overlapping, and pour some water or chicken stock in pan, just enough to coat the bottom of the entire pan and season with a sprinkle of Kosher salt and pepper.
Cook the chicken in oven or broiler, until an instant read thermometer says 165’ or above when inserted into several breasts stacked up into a pile, around 10-12 minutes, less if you had them on the grill prior to the oven.
While the chicken is cooking slice your rolls if they are not pre-sliced, then re-assemble and place on unlined baking sheet.
Melt the butter in a small pan or microwave if you must (I am not a fan of the microwave)!
Using a pastry brush, butter the tops of each roll liberally.
When the chicken is finished, slide the rolls into the oven for just a few minutes till golden brown.
Meanwhile (leaving them on the same tray), pair up the breasts to fit on your sandwich roll. Then arrange the sliced tomatoes onto each set of 2 cooked chicken breasts followed by a generous handful of cheese.
Then, remove the rolls from the oven and put the chicken back in, just a minute or two till the cheese is melted.
Remove the top portions of the rolls laying them just above their bottom halves (see photo below), lay down a bed of spinach on the bottom halves, followed by the chicken breasts and tomatoes covered by the melted cheese. Replace the lid after giving the cut side a good smear of the basil garlic mayo, or serve the sauce on the side.
Tastebuds Italian Dressing Marinade
One 9 ounce bottle of low calorie or light Italian Dressing (We used Ken’s Reduced Calorie Italian Dressing, but any light Italian dressing will work. Sugar burns at high temperatures, so we don't want a lot of sugar in our marinade)
2 TB Za'atar (I will be talking a lot about this dynamite culinary herb, it’s my favorite seasoning, my secret weapon and you can get it at your high end supermarkets, but the best place to shop for it is Alladin's Bakery in downtown Cleveland, where its sold in large pouches for a fraction of the price. We used the Salloum Brother's brand from Lebanon.
1 TB finely chopped garlic (I just buy the peeled garlic in the jar, then chop in a food processor and keep it in an airtight container in the fridge for a week or so. Really nice to have on hand if you use a lot of garlic!)
BASIL GARLIC MAYO
People often bought several sides of this to use at home. There were a few people who called it crack sauce because of their addiction to it. You’re gonna freak, when you find out how easy it is to make! This recipe is easily enough for four sandwiches and can be made days in advance.
1 cup of Your Favorite Mayonnaise (I prefer Hellmann’s)
1 Tablespoon Fresh Chopped Garlic
2 Tablespoons Dried Basil Leaves
2 teaspoons Kosher Salt
Mix everything together and serve with Italian Chicken Sandwiches. Refrigerate any leftover (yeah right!) and use within a couple of weeks.
I was sitting in a hair salon in Cork, when they first reopened, after one of the longest and harshest Covid lockdowns in the world, when this song came on and commanded all of my attention. Though I’d never heard it before, the singer’s voice sounded hauntingly familiar and it stopped me from hearing anything else.
Her powerful and poignant lyrics gave a sudden and unexpected voice to my own pain and suffering.
I had been strong for so long, navigating my way with Ari in tow, through Covid and the decision to close Tastebuds, through the killing of George Floyd and the riots that followed. I just kept moving forward, pushing toward safety and refusing to lose sight of my dreams; finally arriving in Ireland, beginning a new life, but one of self-isolation and government mandated restrictions.
So much of my life, and life as I’d known it, was disappearing in the rearview mirror. The question remained to be answered, “Who am I without my restaurant, without my family and friends, and my home of nearly a half century ?” I did feel lost, and in that moment, away from Ari, in a salon full of strangers, I cried, and it felt amazing!
Sometimes you just need a good cry, and here’s the perfect song for it! Enjoy! I’m serious!!! Then care and comfort yourself by making these recipes!
I cannot thank you enough for being here with me! If you enjoyed this post, please consider supporting my passion project by becoming a paid subscriber and telling everyone you know to do the same! I’ll have a new post every other Friday and they won’t all end in tears, I promise! But seriously, didn’t that feel good?
Made this chicken and grilled it. Excellent!
Thanks! Love the post and looking forward to more Tastebuds!