Pork Chops alla Milanese

[This entry is cross posted at ordinary-times.com]

“Outside Italy, these are known as ‘Viennese chops’ (Wiener schnitzel). It is difficult to know who gave the recipe to whom; Lombardy was in fact under Austrian domination for a long period.”
– The Complete Italy: The Beautiful Cookbook, Patrizia Passigli, Fred Plotkin – Harper Collins

The Italians have cotoletta alla Milanese and the Austrians have Wiener schnitzel. Both are simple dishes of pounded veal, breaded and lightly fried. Both claim that their dish came first and was borrowed by the other.

As evidence of Lombardi origin, the Italians cite a letter written to Emperor Franz Joseph by his aide-de-camp Count Attems extolling a Milanese veal preparation and suggesting the Emperor introduce the recipe at court. The Austrians rightly counter that the letter in which Count Attems mentions the Italian version doesn’t exist and that there was never an aide-de-camp from the Attems family attendant to Franz Joseph. They show that the dish existed in Austria as early as the publication of a popular German language cookbook in 1831. Point: Austria.

I get the feeling that the Count Attems letter was a feint by the Italians to force a misstep by the German speakers because once they fixed 1831 as a near enough date of the Austrian version’s first appearance, the giggling Italians slapped down a copy of Pietro Verri’s History of Milan, published in 1783, which recounts from available records a menu from a feast given at the Basilica Sant’Ambrogio in 1134 featuring lombolos cum panitio which is an obvious ancestor of cotoletta alla Milanese. Point: Italy.

They should probably get a bonus point for going medieval.

But that’s veal. Pork, steak, and even chicken or fish are substituted as a concession to cost. Most in both nations considers anything but veal to be lesser. I don’t. I’ve rarely gotten much out of veal. To paraphrase P.J. O’Rourke, it’s like dating a model: cute and alluring at first, but ultimately boring and expensive. I far prefer pork.

In the Southern Cone of South America they prepare a similar dish, which shouldn’t surprise. There may be partisans in the schnitzel camp and partisans in the cotoletta camp but nothing brings German and Italian speakers together like Argentina. Down there they call any fried thin breaded meat Milanesa. I doubt they favor the Italian claim so much as the Italians called it after the dish they knew and the German speakers didn’t want to call too much attention to themselves.

My great grandparents grew up in the same town in Sicily, moved to Milan at around the same time as each other, and, so at least one so far poorly sourced version of the family story goes, never met until they arrived separately in New York. But they did live in Milan for a while and I’m the one writing this recipe post so as inheritor of a great tradition of smelly subway cars and assiduously graffitied opera houses, I get to call it whatever I want.

Pork Chops alla Milanese

  • boneless pork chops, thin cut
  • all-purpose flour
  • eggs
  • bread crumbs or panko
  • cayenne pepper, to taste
  • sauce
    • ½ yellow onion, diced
    • 1 carrot, diced
    • 1 rib celery, diced
    • 3-4 cloves garlic, minced
    • 1 tbsp. tomato paste
    • 2 cup white wine
    • 2 cups vegetable stock
    • 5 -6 sprigs thyme
    • bay leaf
    • corn starch as needed
  • salt
  • olive oil
  • vegetable oil

Add a few glugs of olive oil to a sauce pan over medium-high heat and throw in the onion and carrots. Usually when sauteing mirepoix I start with the onions and cook until their translucent and aromatic and then add the celery and carrots so the water in the celery will sweat and keep the onion from charring and the carrots from caramelizing but I want dark flavors in this sauce, so let them go without celery for a while, stirring occasionally, until some of the onions start to brown on the edges. No salt yet.

Add the celery and cook until they fade in color; 3-4 minutes.

Add the tomato paste and mix well. Cook another two or three minutes, adding garlic to the pan for the last minute or so. For some reason the garlic is easy to forget, so stay sharp.

Next comes the thyme, wine, and bay leaf. Keep at a medium-high heat until the wine reduces by half.

Add the stock and reduce by a third or so and then strain through a sieve and return sauce to the pan. If you’re like me you’ll save the solids from the sieve to put over eggs the next day. Start with a tsp. of cornstarch and whisk into the sauce. If needed, keep adding little by little until you have the right viscosity. It should coat the back of a metal spoon. I can never manage to break up all the clumps of cornstarch so I usually pass through the sieve a second time. Salt to taste.

Take the pan off heat and set aside. If you’re making this ahead of time it’ll keep three or four days in the fridge.

Take the already thin pork chops and lay them out on a cutting board with a clear plastic bag or cling wrap covering and pound them with a meat hammer or the bottom of a small pan until they’re around 1/8th of an inch thick.

Set up an assembly line. You’ll want a surface to lay out and salt the chops, a plate with flour mixed with around a tsp. of cayenne, a bowl with beaten eggs (I used three large eggs for seven chops,) and a plate with bread crumbs or panko.

Pour vegetable oil into a skillet or Dutch oven style pan. You want enough to submerge the chops to the midway point. Heat the oil to 325°. At least aim for 325°. My oil fluctuated from 300° to 340° and everything worked out.

When the oil is hot, lightly salt the chops, dredge in flour, coat in egg, and then coat in bread crumbs. Do this in batches. The oil should be fine for three to four of the batches before needing to be replaced.

The cooking goes quickly – one or two minutes to a side. At either side of 325° the breading will brown in roughly the same time it takes to cook the interior of the meat properly. As always cut one open and check to be sure, but the inside should keep pace with the outside. Ideally, set the cooked chops on a rack to drain so the bottom stays crisp but if you don’t have a rack, a plate and a paper towel will do the job.

If you’re cooking for a large number, you can lightly brown these in oil so they aren’t all the way cooked. Later lay them out on a baking sheet to finish in the oven. That way they’re all hot at the same time. Since lightly brown is imprecise I’d put them in at 400° and check every five minutes.

Go light on the sauce. I spoon a little on the plate and serve the chop on top. We had some capers and threw those in the oil for a minute once the chops were done to use as garnish and they worked really well. Chopped flatleaf parsley would go nicely too.

A long time ago I looked into the history of Chicken Parmesan (which is prepared the same as the pork finished in the oven but with grated parmesan pulsed in with the bread crumbs, sliced mozzarella laid on top of each piece before baking, and marina instead of the above sauce – I like it best with thighs, but do whatever makes you happy) and I bring this up because, pace billions of Italian restaurant menus, it doesn’t look like Chicken Parmesan originated in Italy.

The earliest printed reference seems to be a restaurant menu in Buenos Aires in the 1950s. I mentioned Argentina earlier and that’s what reminded me of this. Chicken Parmesan quickly showed up in Australia and the U.S. but it was some three or four years later until there is evidence of it’s being served in Italy. Eggplant Parmesan, though unlikely to have originated in Parma where eggplants don’t grow well, has clear Italian roots. It’s my theory that dirt poor Italian immigrants who left the peninsula in throngs during last midcentury’s diaspora got to the New World and saw a land of plenty, subbed suddenly available meat for eggplant, and swapped recipes with fellow immigrant sisters/cousins/friends all over the world in the course of regular correspondence. I wrote about it here  if you’re interested. I was surprised.

Anyway, hope you enjoy the recipe I emphatically call Pork Chops alla Milanese.

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