Pollo al mattone is supposed to be one of the glories of Tuscan grilling. So why can’t I find it anywhere in Florence? I ask for it at a half dozen restaurants in this medieval city on the Arno. Grill masters proudly gesture at massive hunks of beef, soon to be carved into bistecca alla fiorentina (grilled porterhouse steaks, see page 145), but no one seems to care about chicken under a brick. Until I say I must be mistaken—I must have been thinking of a dish from the Piedmont or Rome. You’d think I insulted someone’s mother. “Oh, no, we invented it!” insist the Tuscans, “and only we know how to do it correctly.” Nothing like wounded civic pride to help you find what you’re looking for. Which is how I wound up at Trattoria Omero, a surprisingly bucolic restaurant a short drive from the congestion of downtown, with stunning views of the hills surrounding the city. Sure enough, logs blazed in the fireplace, and spatchcocked chicken sizzled away on a grill with V-shaped bars to channel the fat off the fire. OK, so they used machined-steel weights instead of the traditional bricks. The crisp salty skin, the rosemary-, sage-, and garlic-scented meat were right on the money. Serves 4
3 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
2 Tbsp. stemmed fresh rosemary leaves, plus the remainder of the bunch for serving (optional)
2 Tbsp. stemmed fresh sage leaves, plus the remainder of the bunch for serving (optional)
2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup coarse salt (kosher or sea)
4 whole baby chickens, poussins, or game hens (each 1 to 11/4 pounds), or 2 whole chickens (each 3 1/2 to 4 pounds)
About 1/2 cup of the best quality extra-virgin olive oil, for serving
2 lemons, cut into wedges, for serving
You’ll also need
2 to 4 bricks wrapped in aluminum foil or metal grill presses
Place the garlic, 2 tablespoons each of chopped rosemary and sage, and the pepper in a food processor fitted with a metal chopping blade and run the machine in short bursts to finely chop. Add the salt and process to mix. Transfer the rub to a jar with a tight-fitting lid. This makes about E cup of herbed salt rub, more than you’ll need for this recipe. The leftover rub is also excellent for seasoning veal, pork, and pheasant and will keep for several weeks in the refrigerator.
Remove and discard the fat just inside the neck and body cavities of the chickens. Remove the packages of giblets and set them aside for another use. Rinse the chickens, inside and out, under cold running water, then drain and blot them dry, inside and out, with paper towels. Spatchcock the chickens, following the instructions on page 370. Generously season the birds on both sides with the herbed salt rub.
To grill: The direct grilling method is traditional, but using the indirect method will give you a crisp, moist bird without the risk of flare-ups or burning.
If you are using the direct method, set up the grill for direct grilling and preheat it to medium. Leave one section of the grill bare for a safety zone. When ready to cook, brush and oil the grill grate. Arrange the birds skin side down on the hot grate at a diagonal to the bars. Place the bricks or grill presses on top of the birds. Grill the chickens until they are crisp and golden brown on the bottom, 8 to 12 minutes, per side for baby chickens; 12 to 20 minutes per side for full-size chickens. Use an instant-read meat thermometer to test for doneness, inserting it into the thickest part of a thigh but not so that it touches a bone. The internal temperature should be about 170°F. Give each bird a quarter turn after 4 minutes on each side to create a handsome crosshatch of grill marks. If you are using the indirect method, set up the grill for indirect grilling, place a drip pan in the center, and preheat the grill to medium. Arrange the birds skin side up in the center of the grate over the drip pan and away from the heat and place the weights on top. Cover the grill and cook the birds until golden brown and cooked through, 30 to 40 minutes for baby chickens; 40 minutes to 1 hour for full-size chickens.
Line a platter or plates with the remaining rosemary and sage sprigs (this step is optional, but it looks great and it adds a fantastic flavor). Place the grilled birds on top, generously drizzle olive oil over them, and serve with lemon wedges.
I like to make this dish with baby chickens, sometimes sold as poussins, which are slightly different in shape and flavor than game hens. Game hens will work in a pinch. You can also use full-size chickens and serve a half bird to each person. Tradition calls for the birds to be grilled using the direct method, but indirect grilling gives you an equally crisp bird without the threat of flare-ups, so I’ve given both options. The recipe makes more herbed salt rub than you need for the birds. It keeps well in the refrigerator and is good stuff to have around—think of it as aromatherapy for the grill.