Chicken Scallopine Piccata with Caper Berries

By Charleen - October 24, 2021

The first time I had this lemony rich version of chicken piccata, I fell in love with Cerignola olives and caper berries. We had just eaten at the now closed Lidia's Pittsburgh, and I immediately bought Lidia's Italian-American Kitchen. Making this dish at home is even more satisfying. It is a surprisingly easy way to get a kid- and nanny-pleasing meal on the table! And its rich flavors & do ahead ease with a quick finish make for a great, visually pleasing meal for guests as well.

Gluten-free chicken scallopine piccata

At its simplest, chicken piccata is flavored with lemon, capers, butter and maybe some wine. This is the most robustly delicious version I have ever tried, and it is rather easy to make.

I did not expect that the strong flavors in this dish would appeal to so many -- from young children to a nanny that likes plain hamburgers with all the toppings removed. I started off making the dish simply because I loved it, expecting perhaps some complaints because pickled items with a strong flavor often do not appeal to kids. But these flavors marry so well with the rich lemon and briny olive notes (x3) perfectly counterbalanced against the soothing buttery olive oil, all carried to the mouth by extremely tender chicken.
After browning the scallopini, a pan sauce is made. To finish the dish, rewarm the chicken in the sauce and top with parsley.

The true secrets to this dish are the lemon slices fried in butter and olive oil and the large buttery Cerignola olives. Pounding the chicken into thin slices means they cook very quickly are stay amazingly tender. And of course, the caper berries add another level of excitement. Although the recipe says to remove the lemon slices along with the garlic, I think they look beautiful and have caught people fighting over who gets to eat them!

The Restaurant

There are lots of chicken piccatas out there. But the lemon-butter-caper sauce of versions I had tried growing up came across as rather pedestrian and bland, weighed down by excess breading, despite the promise of those three ingredients. Everything changed for me when my husband and I dined at Lidia's Pittsburgh for the first time about 20 years ago. Lidia Bastianich is a popular PBS cooking star, and it was exciting to discover her newly opened restaurant in the Steel City.
Lidia's on May 21, 2019. This would have been my last time eating here before they closed in Sept. 2019, but unfortunately the broken water main down the road took out their water.

This sublime dish is simply entitled Pollo al Limone on the menu, consisting of chicken breast, roasted lemon, capers, Cerignola olives and served with a side of velvety spinach. The flavors were bold - briny, lemony and rich. And the mound of bright green spinach was truly velvety, complementing the chicken perfectly.

There were three different sources of green-olive-like flavor: the sliced olives, tiny round capers with lemony floral overtones, and occasional rich bites of something else...  
Flavor bombs: garlic, olives, caper berries, capers, lemon, dry white wine

When we first enjoyed the dish, we noted some stemmed, olive green, teardrop-shaped fruits that were full of tiny, edible seeds in addition to the usual small round capers. We inquired with the waiter, who informed us that they were caper berries. While capers represent the unopened flower bud, caper berries are formed from the fertilized fruit of the caper plant.

For my husband, the caper berries are a must, and he never ordered this dish again after Lidia's Pittsburgh removed the caper berries, saying he thought my version was far better. Apparently they could not get caper berries in Kansas City, so they removed it from both menus for uniformity.

The Cookbook

Lidia's Italian-American Kitchen is a fantastic cookbook, although the few items we have cooked from it have been so delicious, we tend to go back and keep making the same thing. The book is organized by the type of course (Antipasti, Soups, Pasta & Risotto, Pizza, Entrees, Sides and Desserts). 

Here is an online version of her recipe for Scallopine in Lemon-Caper Sauce (Scallopine Piccata). The recipe is a bit hard to follow, as you have to go to another page to learn how to make scallopine. However, in the introduction, she discusses the nutty, buttery flavor of Cerignola olives. While these large olives are sometimes difficult to find, they are totally worth it. Briny, and yes, buttery in both appearance and flavor. 

Cerignola olives are most frequently found in the bulk olive section, but we have once been able to spot a jar of them. With the pandemic, however, most olive bars whether in the regular grocery or in specialty ethnic groceries have resorted to prepacked containers, resulting in fewer options. Giant Eagle, the chain grocery that once had both green and red Cerignola olives, no longer carries them. Even small Italian specialty shops such as Labriola's have favored milder green olives such as the Sicilian. Upon tasting, I discovered that the Sicilian is indeed tastier than the typical green olive that has to be stuffed with cheeses to perk up the flavor. But it did not at all compare to my memory of the Cerignola.

So we kept searching, and were happy to find pre-packed Cerignola in exactly the quantity we wanted (10) in a Greek specialty shop called Stamoolis.  Not trusting to memory, we held our own side-by-side comparison, and the Cerignola was definitely richer and more complex in flavor.
Cerignola olives on the left and Sicilian olives on the right

One of the other dishes we made is the Chicken Scarpariello. And this dish introduced us to another long term favorite from the deli case: the pickled cherry pepper. These are sweet, cup shaped peppers -- often red, but also yellow or green, with just the slightest hint of hot spiciness. We like to buy these and eat them plain or tossed in a salad, but see below for a simple appetizer that kicks it up.

More recently, my husband has discovered Lidia's Italian-American Meat Sauce (Sugo di Carne), with its blend of meat from pork neck bones, ground beef and ground pork, this sauce is really worth the time to make. We made it for the Italian-American Lasagna recipe, and found that the extra sauce froze extremely well in our Homelux reusable zip-lock bags
Making Lidia's Italian-American Lasagna. Meat from the pork neck bones used to make the stock is combined with tomatoes, seasonings and ground beef and pork to form a rich red gravy. A portion of this gravy is then layered into a 9x13 pan of lasagna.

Scaling up to feed the family.

As a busy, working mom with husband, two young children, 2 chows and a live-in nanny to feed, I was always searching for satisfying meals that could be finished relatively easily after a long day's work. This often meant recipes that could be adapted so that I could do some of the food prep the night before. This elegant restaurant meal fit the bill completely.  And a side benefit is that the do-ahead prep and quick finish also make for an excellent dinner for entertaining guests. 

Advance prep time includes measuring and chopping all the ingredients, washing the spinach or otherwise prepping the veggies, and pounding the chicken. I love her trick of doing this inside a zip lock bag to keep the chicken juice from flying all over the place. Then, it's just a matter of cooking the rice on the back burner, griddling all the chicken pieces, making the sauce and finishing the vegetable. 

The first time I made the dish may have been the tastiest. I added all 6 tablespoons of butter instead of just 2 in the beginning...  I have a sticky pad note indicating that this dish took me 1.5 hours to make, with only 30-35 minutes of active cooking time standing at the stove. 
Space was tight on my old stove, just enough room for the griddle on one side, rice on the back burner, and frying pan on the front burner. Now I use an Instant Pot to cook the rice.

Since the part that took the longest was browning each scallopine, I switched to using a griddle so that I could cook them all at the same time. But that would also mean a loss of that beautiful fond to incorporate into the sauce. So I would use a large frying pan for the 2-3 that fit in there, while cooking the rest on the griddle. I would then make the sauce in the frying pan, as I wilted the spinach on the griddle beneath a wok lid. 

After years of not making this dish (when I discovered the wok, I have to admit my cooking leaned distinctly more Asian and Asian-American), I recently made chicken scallopine piccata with caper berries for some friends. 

I started out roasting the broccoli for the salad and these four beautiful butternut squashes from a friend's garden. Setting the oven at 450°F, it took 15 min for the broccoli to soften and begin browning. The butternut squash was tossed in this smoky Campfire salt by Beautiful Briny Sea, and the same amount of Penzey's smoked Spanish paprika, with a drizzle of spring honey from Dandelion Apiary.  I used two partial 1/4 tsp scoops of each, and roasted for about 10 min, stirring in the middle.
Prepping butternut squash and broccoli for roasting with garlic; making croutons.
Smoky butternut squash with a bit of honey and heat - an addictive snack

I then lowered the heat to 375°F, to make delicious homemade croutons after tossing Loafers' struan bread cubes in butter, olive oil and Penzey's Fox Point seasoning. This became wonderfully crisp after only 3 x 5 min, as we had already left the bread on the counter to dehydrate overnight.

When the roasting was done, I covered the vegetables, which could be left a room temperature for a few hours according to a Bon Appetit recipe that I had considered, but ultimately did not make. I then turned my attention to creating the scallopini. I picked air-chilled chicken breasts as I have found that many grocery store chicken pieces have retained water, causing lots of shrinkage and inhibiting the browning reaction as the pieces boil off their water instead of pan-frying. 

Chicken breast halves are typically thicker on the front, tapering to a thinner tail. The trick is to cut a smaller piece from the front part so that when it is flattened by pounding, it is about the same size as the flatter tail piece. Cutting on the bias, or diagonal, allows you transect perpendicular to the direction of the muscle fibers, giving them a direction to smoosh out to the sides as they are flattened. The largest breast piece, I was able to cut into three pieces that were about the same weight as the two pieces from the other breast halves.
There is generally 3 breast halves in a package. While this may be enough for 4, to be certain, it is better to plan on 1 breast half/person. The meat is cut on the bias to form 2-3 equivalent size pieces, and then pounded to 1/4 inch thick before storing in the refrigerator to be cooked later.

To avoid splattering raw chicken juices all over the kitchen, I put each piece inside a ziplock bag with a Tbs of water for lubrication and pounded with the smooth side of a meat hammer until it was 1/4 inch thick. All the scallopine were placed in a sealed container and refrigerated.

The butternut squash formed the centerpiece of a five-part appetizer tray. I borrowed this idea from the Sichuan banquet, wherein the guests enjoy a variety of cold dishes, while the main courses are prepared. According to Fuchsia Dunlop, these banquet serving trays have either 5 or 8 compartments as these are auspicious numbers. So I was pleased to find this tray with 5 generously sized compartments.
A tray of appetizers: blueberries, red grapes, smoky roasted butternut squash and stuffed cherry peppers with provolone +/- proscuitto.

We took a 2 cup container of picked cherry peppers, and stuffed half with sharp provolone wrapped in proscuitto, and half with just the sharp provolone. This was drizzled with my favorite readily available olive oil by Lucini, and some chopped, fresh parsley. The remaining containers were filled with huge fresh blueberries and sweet red seedless grapes. 

The roasted broccoli and a 19 oz can of cannellini beans were warmed in the oven (set at keep warm for the chicken-- but the chicken cooked so quickly that I did not need the warming feature for it). In the meantime, we washed and chopped spinach and restirred the Dijon-caper-hard boiled egg dressing before tossing it all together.
Roasted broccoli and white bean salad with Dijon-caper dressing from Real Simple. The dressing was thick and could have used some vinegar, but I liked the mix of colors and textures.

With my new Wolf stove, the dish took only 24 min to finish, from the time the first cutlet hit the frying pan to plating. And for this dinner for 4, I did not use the griddle, but cooked the chicken in three batches in the frying pan. The chicken only needed a little over 3 min to cook instead of 5, and the stove was so much faster at reducing the wine and thickening the sauce. 
The potato flour tends to burn more easily than all-purpose flour, so I had to wipe out much of the pan before starting the pan sauce with butter and a bit of olive oil. The pan is deglazed by frying the lemon slices and garlic, before adding the three pickled ingredients, followed by wine and then chicken stock.

We ended the meal with some delicious pumpkin cakes with raisins and walnuts, which was provided by our guests, and some Falernum made with limes we had previously zested for Maggie's Farm

The sauce reduced a bit more than is ideal when I was making the salad, but the chicken still tasted divine. 


Love2Chow

Chicken Scallopine Piccata with Caper Berries
For 4: Serve over rice or mashed potatoes to soak up the sauce, and wilted spinach, roasted broccoli or something else green. 

4 chicken breast halves, 6 oz each
fresh ground black pepper and optional salt
4 Tbs flour (all purpose wheat or potato for gluten-free)
1 lemon, plus extra juice if desired
4-5 Tbs olive oil, divided with 1 Tbs reserved for sauce
4-5 Tbs butter, divided with 3 Tbs reserved for sauce
2 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced lengthwise into 2-3 pieces
8 large Cerignola green olives, pitted and cut into strips
2 Tbs small capers in brine, drained
6-8 caper berries (optional)
5 Tbs dry white wine
1/2 cup reduced sodium chicken stock
Parsley, finely chopped for garnish

1. Cut breast across its long axis on an angle to obtain two more or less equal weight pieces. Place inside a large zip lock bag with a Tbs of water. Pound with the smooth side of a meat mallet to 1/4 inch thick. Season both sides with fresh ground pepper and an optional light sprinkle of salt. Press both sides into the flour and shake off excess. 

2. Heat 2 Tbs olive oil and 1 Tbs butter in a 12 inch skillet at medium heat. When butter is frothy, arrange 3 pieces of scallopini so that they do not touch each other and cook undisturbed for 2-3 min. Flip and cook other side for 1-2 min. Remove from pan. Repeat with remaining scallopini, adding 1 Tbs olive oil and 1/2 Tbs butter as needed to keep the bottom of the scallopini frying.

3. Meanwhile, slice the lemon crosswise into thin slices, discarding the tips. Remove seeds from the slices. If you have a large lemon, you can juice the small half and slice the larger half. 

4. Carefully wipe out any black, burnt residue from the flour, if any (potato flour is more likely to burn). Add the remaining 1 Tbs of olive oil and melt the remaining 3 Tbs of butter. Add garlic and lemon slices and stir, scraping the bottom of the pan to help it deglaze for 2-3 min. Add olives, capers and caper berries, if using, and stir gently until they are sizzling. Add the wine and bring to a vigorous boil until reduced by half. Add chicken stock and boil for about 4 min until it starts to thicken to a slightly syrupy consistency.

5. Season with salt or additional lemon juice to taste. Return chicken to the pan to coat with sauce. Serve with spoonfuls of sauce to include the capers and olives with lemon slices (they taste delicious), and top with parsley. Place remaining sauce in a small bowl for guests to help themselves.

6. Serve over rice or mashed potatoes to soak up the sauce, and wilted spinach, roasted broccoli or something else green. 

Leftover pounded scallopini made into another batch of chicken piccata using all-purpose flour and the Sicilian olives.
Leftover salad, freshened up with some stuffed pickled cherry peppers and homemade croutons.

🐾 A very large chicken breast half can be split into 3 pieces. Each piece should be ~3-4 oz. Plan for two pieces per person. Plus it never hurts to have leftovers!

🍃 If you are going to roast vegetables to serve with this dish, use the heated oven to get a head start on other meals. I call this chain roasting. Pans of broccoli, asparagus, small cubes of butternut squash, mushrooms or small cubes of root vegetables can all be roasted at 450°F, stirring after the first 10 min, and then at 3-5 min intervals afterwards. Cubed stale bread for croutons can be tossed with 1-2 Tbs of olive oil or butter and 1/2 tsp of a salted spice blend such as Penzey's Fox Point seasoning, at 375°F x 15-20 min, checking every 5 min until close, and then every 2 min. 

🍃 Save the bits of cartilage, fat and meat that falls off the main portion and freeze for future stock, or cook it up for a handy dog treat.


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