Quality Italian's chicken parmesan: classic yes and no...
Updated: Mar 15, 2019
Note: This review was published in the February 2018 issues of Life on Capitol Hill and the Washington Park Profile.
For me, classic simplicity will always win the day. Denver’s cuisine scene is undergoing a revolution, yes, and there are many hot/haute new trends having their day (way). Maybe that’s why I crave comfort more often than not.
My wife and I recently began watching Chef’s Table on Netflix. Great show—it’s a must see. The first episode introduces viewers to Massimo Bottura of Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy. Osteria Francescana is “a three-Michelin-star restaurant … which has been listed in the Top Five at the World's 50 Best Restaurants Awards since 2010,” according to Wikipedia. No small thing.
Yes, this is chicken parmesan. Photo by Haines Eason.
I bring up Bottura because he’s classic and simple, and, yes, sure he’s revolutionary, and for this month’s column, we visit Quality Italian. More on that in a sec. If you’ve seen the episode I reference, you might say, “What?! No way.” Bottura to Italian traditionalists is the Antichrist.
But if you broaden your mindset, you just might see where I’m coming from. Bottura is fond of taking the “best parts” of traditional Italian dishes—the crusty corners of the lasagna, ancient parmesan, for instance—and focusing intently on them through the lens of reinvention. I won’t spoil the experience; watch the episode or, better yet, go drool over his menu: osteriafrancescana.it/menu. He keeps the classic ever in sight even as he puts it through the blender of his creative mind. The result? Exploded, revolutionary versions of what once seemed immovable geographical icons of the Italian cooking landscape.
It’s served pizza style with pizza fixings: mixed herbs, crushed red pepper, dehydrated black olives (nice touch, if a little too earthy). Very unexpected and, actually, innovative... But there’s one thing more: spiced honey. Hold that thought.
But, Quality Italian! I bring up Bottura because, on a recent evening at Quality Italian, I stumbled across a dish both classic and reimagined. Something so simple, and yet, as reimagined by the chefs at QI, so complex and, honestly, so worthy of attention.
Chicken parmesan. If you’re part Italian, as I am, you might think, “Ah, I love it, but why the bother?” You hammer the chicken, bread it, fry it, then the sauce, the cheese and Bam! Dinner.
Not at QI. Their parm, well … see my picture. It’s served pizza style with pizza fixings: mixed herbs, crushed red pepper, dehydrated black olives (nice touch, if a little too earthy). Very unexpected and, actually, innovative... But there’s one thing more: spiced honey. Hold that thought.
The real surprise is inside. The chicken used is a mixture of white and dark meat which is ground, spiced and herbed, then chilled, brought back out, worked round and flat, breaded, fried, sauced and then cheesed, baked and served. It takes, in truth, roughly two days to turn one of these out but who cares, right? The flavor; that’s why you’re here.
The flavor. The bite is full and perfectly balanced: chicken, breading, herbs, cheese… It’s sublime. But, yet, it’s missing something. I went for the toppings. I tried variations of all four, but my favorite? A good dollop of honey and a hefty (HEFTY) tossing of crushed red pepper. The honey … I just can’t explain it. It’s not as hot as they make you think it might be (in fact, I recommend they add more peppers to the mixture) but it adds the “non so cosa” that, yes, is missing from the dish’s as-is flavor profile.
Try it, it’s worth the trip. As is the people watching—an interesting mix of business types, ranchers-with-wives in town for a shop, tech heads… Just go, and tell them I sent you.