uring the 1938 Giro d’Italia bicycle race, an Italian journalist concocted a wonderful and mouthwatering story. While riding through Tuscany, two hungry competitors got so far ahead of the main pack that they hatched a little plan in keeping with local culinary traditions.
They parked their bikes, absconded to a nearby cave, lit up a fire, and cooked pollo alla diavola, devil’s chicken. They managed to grill and eat their sumptuous little dish before the rest of the riders got there. Newspapers in the nearby Tuscan city of Pistoia ate up the story, since that stage of the race wasn’t particularly interesting.
How did the riders come upon a chicken? No one ever filled in that blank, though the Italian countryside is filled with them.
Legends aside, deviled or spatchcocked chicken — that is, open along the middle, flattened and pan-roasted with spices — is cheap, quick and ridiculously tasty. It’s also very popular.
Tuscans (including bored and hungry bike riders) roast theirs on a spit, but the recipe that follows is more typical of the pan-frying in Rome. As for the chicken’s satanic roots, some point to the recipe. Having to cook the bird over a high flame gives it a Lucifer’s kitchen dimension. Others more sensibly suggest the moniker comes from the inclusion of peperoncino, or chili spice.
Whatever the naming roots, pollo alla diavola is a classic Italian dish, and idea if your pantry is nearly empty. The recipe is low on ingredients but high on technique. It’s also perfect in winter when warmth still seems weeks away.
Pollo alla Diavola
Some open the bird by carving it down the back and removing the spine. I prefer opening it down the breast (sternum) side, which gives a more uniform texture to chicken’s juicy tissue and also yields a better-looking final shape. You may carve the chicken any way you wish so long as it can be butterflied, flattened and properly cooked.
— Place the flattened chicken on your work surface, cover with parchment paper and bash it flat with a mallet. Focus on the fleshy parts. Avoid breaking too many bones at the risk of having to pick the bits out later.
— In a small bowl mix 3 tablespoons of olive oil with the Cayenne pepper and salt. Rub the entire surface (front and back) of the flattened chicken with the mixture, massaging it into the flesh and into every nook and cranny. I use surgeon gloves to avoid tearing the skin.
— Film a large, non-stick pan with the remaining tablespoon of olive oil.
— Fire up the heat and place the prepped chicken, open-side down. It’s important to weigh down the bird (a heavy of pot of water, foil-covered bricks, or any clean, heavy object). Cook the weighed-down chicken over high heat for 5 minutes.
— Using hefty tongs, flip the chicken, weigh it down and cook the other side for 10 minutes. Flip every 10 minutes for an hour. Do not use a fork as you may pierce the flesh and lose tasty juices. To check if the chicken is ready, poke the sides: the juices should run clear.
The result is a reddish, spicy, crisp exterior with tender juicy flesh. This dish should be served hot, adding chili oil or red pepper flakes if necessary. It’s a sin — or at least un-devil-like — to use utensils (a worse sin is removing the skin).
Pick the light red or white wine of your choice, but whether it’s red or white the wine should be full-bodied enough to hold its own with the spices. Now then, sit down and await the riders.