Like any lifelong love affair, chef Michael Schlow’s relationship with chicken Parmesan has had its ups and downs. The James Beard Award-winning restaurateur originally had no intention of ever serving the dish.
“For a long time I would never have chicken Parm on a menu,” Schlow tells Eater. “Then when COVID hit, I put it on the menu because I knew it was comforting and it’s something that travels well.”
That pandemic-era decision has paid off. Each area Alta Strada in Mt. Vernon Triangle and Fairfax averages 750 chicken Parm orders per month. It’s now the most popular item on the menu by far, followed by its homemade garlic bread and penne vodka. During Restaurant Week months of January and August, that number surges to 1,000 sales.
Growing up in Brooklyn and New Jersey, Schlow understood Italian cuisine to be the food from his local pizzeria or heavy-handed red sauce joint. Early on in his career, Schlow worked for Pino Luongo, the lauded chef credited with bringing regional Tuscan cuisine to the states.
“I learned the hard way that what I thought was Italian was Italian American,” Schlow said. “When I worked for Pino, I started to see the simplicity of authentic regional Italian cooking.”
The food was almost exclusively from Tuscany “and a little bit of Amalfi coast,” and he was told Italian American dishes were a no-no.
But over the years, Schlow found locals were frequently pining for familiar Italian American touches. Alta Strada, open since 2016, represents one of the longer-lasting, more resilient restaurants along the K Street NW corridor. In 2017, Alta Strada expanded to suburbia with a location in Virginia’s Mosaic District. (Two other standalone Alta Stradas sit near the Boston-based chef’s home base in Connecticut and Massachusetts.)
Today Alta Strada’s right-handed side of the menu is dedicated to Tuscany, with dishes like a wild boar pappardelle and slow-cooked cannellini beans stewed with sausage. Glancing to the left tells another story, featuring garlic bread, Nonna’s meatballs, baked ziti, and that top-selling chicken Parmesan.
Excluding Italian American favorites from his menu “is a fight not worth having,” says Schlow. Alongside with dishes synonymous with the 20 provinces of Italy, “there’s [also] this beautiful, beautiful, delicious cuisine that we created here called Italian American food. I love them both equally,” he says.
Many of regional Italian techniques were carried over to Italian American cuisine, he points out, but ingredients changed based on what was available. Breaded and fried slices of eggplant were swapped out for breaded and fried chicken when Italian immigrants came to the U.S. and found cheap and accessible poultry.
“I think Italians are some of the original locavores as they cook with what’s available to them and that’s how all these dishes like chicken Parm came about,” he says.
When the time came for Schlow to put chicken Parmesan on his menu, he wanted to make sure he kept the parts people loved about the dish — while avoiding the greasy over-sauced pitfalls of a standard chicken Parm.
“My attitude was if we’re going to do chicken Parm, we’re going to make it the best damn chicken Parm you ever had in your life,” he says.
To achieve his mission, Schlow pounds the chicken just thick enough that it doesn’t dry out — but not too thick that the breadcrumbs burn when trying to fully cook the cutlet. He then grinds up panko crumbs with Italian breadcrumbs, followed by cooking it in olive oil and thoroughly patting it dry to avoid lingering grease.
To maintain a crispy exterior, Schlow only lightly coats the top with a spicy San Marzano tomato sauce and avoids excessive amounts of fresh mozzarella and Parmigiano on top. He also serves it with olive oil-tossed broccoli rabe. Serving pasta as a side, instead of the traditional Italian pasta course, is where he draws the line. There is no side of bland, plain spaghetti in sight at Alta Strada. Instead, patrons are encouraged to pair the Parm ($29) with one of its six pasta courses.
Schlow plans to update the Alta Strada menu this winter with dishes focusing on the Bologna region, but it’s safe to say the revision won’t edit out his popular chicken Parm.