Pollo al burro (chicken in butter)

You know when you have a dish in a restaurant that you can’t stop thinking about and every time you go you can’t bear to veer away from that dish so you keep ordering it, never trying anything else because you have been constantly thinking about it since your last visit? Well this, for me, is one of those. It is quite simple – chicken in butter, presented just as it sounds, a tender chicken breast floating in a delicious sauce of butter. I’ve never had it anywhere like the way they do it at Trattoria Sostanza in Florence.

chicken in butter elizabeth david

In the introduction to her ‘Poultry and Game’ chapter, Elizabeth David says, “The best chickens in Italy come from Tuscany.” Chicken is not what I would call a hero of the Tuscan table today. It once was, and you can go back as far as the Renaissance to see it was a much-appreciated ingredient in Florence. From what I understand, it fell off menus during the two world wars, when people not only ate less meat in general but when they did it was more likely cheaper off cuts of beef or pork (to turn into ragus and stews), offal or game. My mother in law remembers when she was young that a whole chicken rarely made an appearance at the table – it was simply too expensive.

It hasn’t really re-appeared in terms of classic dishes on trattoria menus. Any trattoria that calls itself Tuscan will have bistecca alla fiorentina on the menu or perhaps arista (roast pork) or a mixed grill featuring more beef and pork. You commonly find other poultry, particularly game, such as guinea fowl, pheasant or duck, more often on a menu than chicken.

chicken in butter sostanza style

I remember the first time I went to Trattoria Sostanza; I was told their pollo al burro was the thing to have. I was intrigued, I’d never really had any star chicken dish in Florence. And it sounded so humble and well, to be honest, a bit ordinary. But all it took was one bite and I was hooked. I’ve heard they do a fantastic bistecca there too but, well, you can get good bistecca elsewhere too. You can’t get this pollo al burro anywhere else. And incidentally, in artichoke season, they do another unique dish which is worthy enough a reason to visit — tortino di carciofi (it’s worth checking out this post that Elizabeth Minchilli has dedicated just to this dish to see why).

While skimming through Elizabeth David’s Italian Food (1954) recently I noticed a recipe that I had never really paid attention to before: a small description for ‘Florentine chicken breast’. As I read it I thought it sounded remarkably similar to Sostanza’s famous dish. It’s simple and, yes, humble, but it actually feels quite decadent, with that unmistakable scent of caramelised butter filling the room when it is placed on the table. Pair it with some creamy mash potato or some sauteed greens and some crusty bread to mop up the butter, “Nothing too powerfully flavoured to detract from the delicacy of the chicken”, points out Elizabeth David. A glass of young vernaccia or trebbiano alongside will refresh the palate.

chicken in butter - pollo al burro

Pollo al burro (Chicken in butter)

Inspired by Elizabeth David’s ‘Florentine chicken breast’ from Italian Food. I season the chicken at the end rather than before flouring as ED does. And if you like, although it’s not in the original (or the Sostanza version), a bit of lemon juice squeezed into the pan juices makes a lovely addition to the sauce and gives it a bit of lift. 

Serves 2

  • 2 chicken breasts, flattened out a little
  • flour for dusting
  • 100 grams cold butter
  • juice of 1 lemon, optional

Heat the oven to 160ºC.

Dust the chicken breast lightly in flour on both sides.

Melt 2/3 of the butter in a heatproof skillet over medium heat. As soon as it has just melted but is still pale, add the chicken breast. Let cook on this side until the butter begins to brown (Elizabeth David instructs “Let them cook quite fast for the first 2 or 3 minutes, until one side is brown”). Watch it for another moment and when it is a caramelised, hazelnut colour, turn the chicken, add the rest of  the cold butter, cover the pan with a heatproof lid or foil and place the pan in the oven for a further 15 minutes.

Remove from the oven and remove the chicken to a warm plate and keep covered with foil while you prepare the sauce.

Optional — Squeeze the lemon juice into the pan juices while simultaneously swirling the pan; this will create a creamy sauce (emulsion) with the caramelised butter. Season with salt and pepper and serve the chicken breast with the sauce poured over.


  1. Mmmm….butter chicken. I have the same problem as you do. But not only do I order the butter chicken every time I’m at Sostanza, I end up going to Sostanza when what I really should be doing is checking out other restaurants in town. In fact, I’m heading up this weekend, for Taste, and will of course be eating Butter Chicken on Saturday. And thinking of you!!
    I’ll try to get a video of them making it this time around. They are very wary of me with my camera in the kitchen.

    • Emiko says:

      I know exactly what you mean! Lucky you, will expect to see a photo of your butter chicken on Saturday! 😉 A video would be amazing, though understandably they are protective (funny though, considering anyone who has to go to the bathroom gets to peek right over their shoulder!). I wonder if they do it like Elizabeth David’s description.

  2. rach says:

    ED, emiko and chicken with butter – done deal, today possibly.

  3. This sounds like a great recipe to use some high quality cultured butter instead of the regular sweet cream or unsalted. It definitely shines through when it’s used in a recipe with only a couple ingredients. Looks delicious!

  4. Valeria says:

    I have never eated in that restaurant but you make me want to buy a ticket to go to Florence just for this!

  5. Daniella says:

    I made this tonight with a boneless pork chop — although I have never had the original, this was quite satisfying. I served with some pureed favas beans. Although I was heavy handed with the salt in both dishes (and am quite thirsty now as a result), this will be in my rotation. My meat and potato loving husband was very, very pleased.

  6. How deliciously simple. I adore butter so this little wonder is very likely to happen in my kitchen very soon

  7. janie says:

    Ever since I read about this dish on Elizabeth’s blog I’ve wanted to try it. Now I will go ahead and make it! Thanks Emiko.

  8. Sabry says:

    Ciao Emiko, i made this plate just yesterday, it’s so deliciously and soft and sometimes i made it with milk. Bravissima! (i have opened my own blog, finally)
    Sabry – Florence

  9. alexandra says:

    I was taken to this restaurant years ago by a local and it made a huge impression.
    The chicken especially, i even wrote about it in my first cookbook which was published a 2 few years ago .

    Thank you, i had no idea what the restaurant was called so now when i make it back to italy i will be able to go there.

  10. Thom Steele says:

    I was just at Sostanza this past Tuesday, March 17th and had the table right next to the kitchen so I saw well how they prepared this dish. I don’t think this dish works in an oven; better on a hot gas/electric/fire stove. They dredged the chicken in a large bowl of flour first, then dipped the breasts in beaten eggs. Next, the cook tossed the medium sized breast into the already bubbling butter in the very small two handled skillet. Seasoning with salt and other unknown spices came next. Because the chicken fills up so much of the skillet, it’s hard to tell how much butter is used: enough to cover the bottom and bubble up on the sides. The hot temperature sears and browns the chicken to a medium brown and leaves a very thin crust on the top and bottom, but not the sides.

    Attached is a link with pictures of the process that correspond well to what I saw last week. I’d eat this once a week.

  11. Kathi says:

    I can’t wait to give this a try..I love simple, humble foods..so comforting

  12. I was in Florence last week and I excitedly made the short pilgrimage to Sostanza because I adore the place. I knew my very simple order well before I arrived: 1/4 Chianti, fagioli freschi all’ olio (seasonal white beans in olive oil), and of course, Petti di pollo al burro, the famed chicken breasts in butter. I am a dark chicken guy; I don’t order chicken breasts…except for here, where they are still extraordinary. In fact, I’d say that Sostanza’s Petti di pollo al burro is one of the three great chicken dishes in the world.

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