If ever there was one perfect expression of Chicago on a dinner plate, it’d be Chicken Vesuvio: a meat-and-potatoes dish from a meat-and-potatoes town.
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The dish has benefitted from excellent P.R. How else can a plate of humble ingredients, most of which currently sits in your pantry, get turned into an entree that demands downtown prices? How does this assemblage of chicken, potatoes and white wine — a combination found in no less than a half-dozen cooking cultures — become a dish for corporate card-wielding types?
If you think we’d sneer at this beloved Chicago restaurant staple, let us not equivocate: Chicken Vesuvio, when done right, is delicious. There’s baked chicken fragranced with garlic, oregano, and wine. The crisp skin. The hearty wedges of potatoes wading in a luscious pan sauce just waiting for torn bread to slosh through. Its greatest triumph, though, is how Chicagoans took a dish easy enough to cook at home and presented it as a regal offering, worthy enough for heads of states.
For the latter half of the 20th century, Chicken Vesuvio was found on practically every block in Chicago’s Loop and River North. Of course, much of fine dining then came in the form of steakhouses or Italian, before Peruvian restaurants and artisan doughnut shops arrived in the neighborhood. In 1987, a restaurant opened on the corner of Kinzie and Dearborn Streets in a building once owned by the gangster Frank Nitti, an Al Capone associate. That restaurant was Harry Caray’s, named for the Chicago Cubs play-by-play announcer. Its menu is classic Italian steakhouse fare: fried calamari, Caesar salads, bone-in ribeyes, and the like. For decades, this was high society eating in Chicago.
But Harry Caray’s grew on the reputation of one dish. The Chicago Tribune’s longtime restaurant critic, Phil Vettel, once declared its Chicken Vesuvio the best in the city, as did the late WLS-TV food reporter James Ward. Two blurbs from restaurant critics grew into legend, and legend more or less became accepted fact: Chicagoans now regard Harry Caray’s as serving the finest Chicken Vesuvio extant. Few in the city would dispute that, though I’m guessing fewer would investigate whether this was actually true.
There is no uniform agreement on the origins of Chicken Vesuvio. The Chicago Food Encyclopedia says it may have first appeared on a menu in the 1930s at a Loop restaurant called Vesuvio (though it couches the claim with “Chicken Vesuvio is so simple it seems likely to have been served elsewhere before…”). Most Chicago food historians would agree the dish likely did not come from Mount Vesuvius, the greater Naples area, or anywhere in Italy.
What’s true is that these days, Chicken Vesuvio isn’t on the forefront of minds among the hip foodie crowd. Rarely do you see the dish posted on an influencer’s Instagram. But if I’ve learned anything about dining culture (and I was a longtime food writer at the Chicago Tribune), it’s that vogue, trendsetting food is just as much about social cachet. Tasty food, however passé, is still tasty. I remember in my early 20s, I was invited to an old-school Italian joint — the type of place with checkerboard tablecloths and a violinist playing tableside for tips. I muttered under my breath, condescendingly: “Here we go…” Well, guess what, the meal was freakin’ fantastic. Veal Marsala. Baked Alaska. Steak Diane! I gasped aloud when the Courvoisier hit the pan and flames shot up. Unlike the forward-thinking gastronomy I had sought out, this old-school Italian joint offered clear, direct paths to deliciousness. Like Steinbeck or the blues chord progressions, the classics endure for a reason.
And so I found myself sitting in the outdoor patio of Harry Caray’s in Rosemont, not far from O’Hare International Airport (there are seven restaurant locations in Chicago). Chicken Vesuvio was my intention.
The dish arrived aglow in gold, with green accent marks from the peas. I’ve seen preparations of Chicken Vesuvio where Russet potatoes are cut into long wedges, but here, there were whole Yukon Gold potatoes flecked with parsley and oregano. The centerpiece is the bone-in half chicken, quartered into the standard breast-thigh-leg-wing configuration and sitting atop that olive oil-white wine pan sauce. (“The Harry Caray’s Restaurant Cookbook” offers one explanation to the Vesuvio name: “When arranged on a plate hot from the pan it looks like a huge, steaming food volcano.”)
The promise of crispy skin was sadly unfulfilled, softened by its braising liquid. The textural variance is part of the joys of Chicken Vesuvio — crisp potato wedges and chicken skin, tender meat and creamy potato interiors. But it only reminded me of another chicken-wine dish: coq au vin. Viewed through those lenses, Chicken Vesuvio almost becomes a comforting autumnal dish. The 10 whole cloves of garlic are rendered mellow and permeated throughout the buttery (with no butter) sauce.
Perhaps we’re veering into overintellectualizing. Only the most pretentious among us would find Harry Caray’s version not satisfying. In the dish’s simplicity lies its sophistication. But does Harry Caray’s really serve the best Chicken Vesuvio in Chicago? Maybe that’s not the question to ask. A better one might be: Of all the great dishes to sample in this great food city, why take a flyer on Chicken Vesuvio? To me, it’s a stalwart entree that tells the story of a place and time — That place being Chicago, the time “back then.” All these years later, it remains our city perfectly expressed on a plate.
Harry Caray’s: Various locations, including 10233 West Higgins Road, Rosemont. www.harrycarays.com