This sandwich, like many sandwiches I have written about, is something that I’ve only heard about and never actually tasted. I must have been watching the Food Network show called “The Best Thing I Ever Ate” and I saw someone on the show mention a restaurant in Whitestone, Queens, New York called the Varsi Deli because I have a mention of it in my sandwich notes. This deli makes an “Italian chicken sandwich” and the description really must have excited me because I took notes about it in my digital sandwich notebook.
I was undoubtedly watching a rerun, but I dug through the Wikipedia archives for The Best Thing I Ever Ate and have now learned that I was watching season 10, episode 12 and the episode was called “Yummy in the Middle” and as you can surmise, it was a sandwich themed episode. We love sandwiches around these parts.
Anyway, the sandwich description got my attention, so I decided to make it.
What is this sandwich?
This sandwich contains a pan-fried chicken cutlet, topped with prosciutto, slices of fresh mozzarella, and roasted red peppers inside of a long hero roll that you might expect to see in New York City sandwich shops. I’ve never actually tried the official Varsi Deli sandwich, but I think we can use it as inspiration to make our own sandwich that will be very similar when we’re finished.
On that episode of The Best Thing I Ever Ate; I remember the owner or chef of the Varsi Deli making a point of the fact that their roasted red peppers were seasoned very well with oil and red wine vinegar. This reminds me of other Italian-based sandwiches that I have written about where the vegetables pull their weight in the flavors of the sandwich because they are dressed well and full of a tang and zip that nothing else in the sandwich could provide.
First, we need to make some bread.
Semolina hero roll
I have baked and written about this roll recipe a couple of times. It’s a normal, long sandwich roll with the addition of semolina flour which lends a slightly denser texture to the final roll that works well in a sandwich like the one I’m writing about today.
Other than the addition of semolina, the other thing that defines these rolls are the sesame seeds coating the outside. Normally, for something like a hamburger bun, you paint egg wash on a fully risen roll right before baking and sprinkle sesame seeds on at that point—the egg helps the seeds adhere to the surface. But for this style of roll, you roll the shaped dough log in sesame seeds prior to final rise. This ensures that sesame seeds are covering the entire roll instead of just on top.
When you make bread like this, just be assured that there will be a lot of sesame seeds loose in your kitchen. Because these sorry seeds will get everywhere when you bake the rolls and when you slice the rolls. Just be prepared for this.
Here’s my semolina hero roll recipe. It’s an entry-level recipe that should be easy for beginning bakers because the dough is very easy to work with.
Roasted red pepper slices
Roasted red peppers are a super easy addition that you can prepare way in advance for sandwiching. In my experience, they are up there with pickled red onions as some of the more versatile and low-effort ingredients that you can make at home for a much lower price than buying them from the store. You can also buy them from the store. I won’t judge.
To make these peppers, you literally just roast the red peppers and then slice them. There are recipes out there for marinated and roasted red peppers where you package and jar them in with a marinade and I do think that’s a good way to tackle peppers, but I generally like to keep them simple, and then when it’s time to choose what sandwich I’m putting them in, I toss the red pepper strips in a basic dressing right before serving.
For this batch of peppers, I used them in the sandwiches that you’re seeing here, and I also used them in multiple breakfast burritos with sausage, egg, and cheese and then I also used them in a chicken tender wrap with sliced-up chicken tenders, romaine lettuce, crunchy rice noodles, and homemade ranch dressing. This is personally why I do not flavor these roasted peppers in the jar with a dressing because I prefer them to be in my fridge ready to be versatile for the next opportunity.
I roasted these peppers on top of my stove directly on the gas stove eye. But that’s not how I always roast them and, in my recipe down below, I give instructions for how you can do it in the oven instead of on the stove.
Once you’ve fully charred the peppers, you need to get the skin off. The easiest way to do this is by placing them in a bowl that is covered with plastic wrap. The hot peppers will steam themselves which makes the skin much easier to remove. After the roasted and charred skins are removed all you have left is to slice them and then season them and then you’re all set.
Pan-fried chicken cutlet
I used chicken thighs and pieces of chicken breast for these sandwiches. I preferred the thigh, but I know some folks like white meat a lot better. Both work well in this sandwich and the chicken cooks so quickly that you should still end up with juicy white or dark meat.
This chicken is fried, but it isn’t deep-fried. It’s cooked in a pan with 2 or 3 tablespoons of butter and a little olive oil. This makes the cooking process very easy and also minimizes some of the cleanup from regular deep frying, but you still end up with a crispy coated piece of tender chicken.
I season the panko breadcrumbs with salt, pepper, garlic powder, and a little parmesan cheese. This is the source of the seasoning for the chicken in this sandwich so you can’t skip it.
Pounding into a cutlet
The primary feature of this sandwich is the crispy chicken cutlet. To make a proper chicken cutlet, you first need to flatten your chicken before cooking it. The goal here is a flattened and fully cooked, thin piece of crispy chicken that will work well in a sandwich. It can be a bit wasteful, but the best way to ensure you do not get chicken all over your kitchen when pounding it out is to cover it with a freezer zip-top bag.
When you have a sandwich blog, you end up writing about the dredging stations for frying a whole lot. This sandwich uses only two stations instead of three. I like to use pie plates, but any bowl that’s big enough to hold your piece of chicken should work.
The first bowl is just a whisked whole egg, and the second bowl is seasoned panko breadcrumbs.
The biggest takeaway from the dredging process is that you should ensure that each piece of chicken is fully coated with each stage of the process before it moves to the next stage. So, in this case, get each piece fully coated and wet from the egg, and then make sure that there are no wet spots on the chicken after it is fully rolled through the panko breadcrumbs.
Italian chicken sandwich
Newsflash: this sandwich is good. How can you go wrong with a crispy chicken cutlet as the base of a sandwich with cheese, salty meat, and flavorful red peppers?
The components of this sandwich bring a lot of flavor but they also bring crunch and texture that work very well together. I think if I were to isolate one of the weaker points of the sandwich it would be prosciutto. I don’t think it’s necessarily needed, but it does add salt and a little bit of chew.
Wrap this sandwich
One of the reasons that some people don’t think they can make sandwiches as good as those that you can buy in restaurants and delis is because they are not wrapping each sandwich in paper prior to serving. Restaurants do this because it keeps things neat for service. But it serves another purpose as well. A wrapped sandwich helps the ingredients get pressed together slightly and allows the flavors to join a bit more. If there are any liquids or sauces in the sandwich, they blend with other ingredients and often will soak into the bread which softens everything just a bit more.
Here’s the full recipe for this tasty Italian chicken sandwich. If you have all the ingredients ready to go, you can get this sandwich on the table in less than 30 minutes.
This crispy chicken cutlet-focused sandwich is inspired by a menu item from Varsi Deli in Queens, New York. Crunchy, pan-fried chicken with prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, and seasoned roasted red peppers stuffed inside of a semolina hero roll for a great sandwich experience.
- 1 boneless, skinless chicken thigh or breast piece (see notes below)
- 1 whole egg
- 1⁄3 cup panko breadcrumbs
- 2 teaspoons parmesan cheese, grated
- 1⁄2 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1⁄2 teaspoon salt
- 1⁄2 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- roasted red peppers
- 1 teaspoon olive oil
- 1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
- salt and pepper (to taste)
- 1 six-to-eight-inch sub roll
- mayonnaise (optional)
- chicken cutlet (from above)
- 2 or 3 slices of prosciutto
- 2 or 3 thin slices of fresh mozzarella
Chicken cutlet: pound out the piece of chicken until it's a uniform thickness of around 1/2-inch thick. To pound the chicken, I usually use a piece of plastic wrap or a zip-top bag on top of the chicken and pound it that way so that nothing splatters. The plastic should also keep you from tearing the chicken up too much. You want a consistently sized piece of meat that's about the width/length of the roll that you're using.
Set up the panko breadcrumb dredging station with two bowls that are big enough to hold the piece of chicken. In the first bowl, crack and whisk one egg. The second bowl should contain the panko breadcrumbs, parmesan cheese, garlic powder, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon black pepper. Stir the panko and seasonings.
First, dip the chicken in the bowl with the whisked egg. Flip the chicken a couple of times to ensure that it is fully coated with egg.
Next, move the egg-coated chicken to the bowl with the seasoned panko breadcrumbs. Again, flip the chicken several times to make sure it is fully coated with breadcrumbs.
In a medium pan over medium heat, add two tablespoons of butter and one tablespoon of olive oil.
When the butter is fully melted and bubbly, add the panko-crusted piece of chicken. Cook for 4 minutes on the first side and then flip. Cook an additional 3 minutes on the second side.
After the chicken has cooked on the second side, remove it to a paper towel-lined plate or a cooling rack to rest while you prepare the rest of your sandwich ingredients.
Roasted red peppers: in a small bowl add a couple of forkfuls of roasted red peppers. Sprinkle some olive oil and red wine vinegar on top and season them with salt and pepper. Toss to coat the peppers evenly with seasoning, oil, and vinegar.
Sandwich assembly: slice your roll to prepare for the ingredients. Add mayonnaise to the bottom of the roll (if using).
Add your fried chicken cutlet to the bottom of the roll and top the chicken with slices of prosciutto.
Top the meats with thin slices of fresh mozzarella and then add your seasoned roasted red peppers to top everything off. Cover with the top of the roll and serve.
Chicken breast: if you are using a piece of breast meat or a whole chicken breast, you should probably butterfly the breast first to help the chicken piece be a little thinner. Then you will have one big flat piece of chicken that you can either separate into two pieces or cook the whole large piece after pounding it a little thinner. Once it is cooked you can cut the big chicken piece into shapes that will fit your bread.
Chicken thighs: sometimes chicken thighs are really small. If yours are way smaller than your bread, you can use two thighs. Just pound them out thinner and you should be able to follow the recipe the exact same way as the instructions and with the same ingredients.
Check back next week for a new sandwich
I believe next week will be a fiery steak sandwich, but you’ll have to stay tuned to find out. My patrons over on the Bounded by Buns Patreon will know first though because they get behind-the-scenes content.
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