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Dishin’ on the Dish: chicken giardiniera at Franco’s Ristorante and Il Culaccino

Franco Ruffolo’s chicken giardiniera was inspired by his mother’s chicken cutlets and his father’s Italian relish.

A plate of chicken giardinera is served at Il Culaccino in the South Loop.
A plate of chicken giardinera is served at Il Culaccino in the South Loop.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

What’s cookin’ in and around Chicago? Here’s a closer look at one of the area’s delicious dishes you don’t want to miss.

Franco Ruffolo grew up going to his parents’ Bridgeport restaurant, Franco’s Ristorante, and “pretending to help out as much as a little kid could.” The Italian eatery is where he would hang out with family and school friends on the weekends when his mother was working.

“A lot of good memories [there],” Ruffolo said.

As he grew older, he contributed more and more to the family business.

After going to college in Ohio, Ruffolo came back to Chicago five years ago and took over management at Franco’s Ristorante, which originally opened in 1989. He oversaw a full remodel of the restaurant located just a few blocks north of Guaranteed Rate Field in 2016 and opened Il Culaccino, the family restaurant group’s fifth spot, in South Loop in July 2019.

During the relaunch, Ruffolo kept the staple dishes on the menu, including the fettuccini alla Franco, housemade gnocchi and cheese ravioli. But he said he also wanted to add a special menu item of his own.

That’s where the chicken giardiniera comes in.

Franco Ruffolo, photographed inside his restauarant Il Culaccino,at 2134 S. Indiana Avenue, says his chicken giardiniera was inspired by his parents’ cooking.
Franco Ruffolo, photographed inside his restauarant Il Culaccino,at 2134 S. Indiana Avenue, says his chicken giardiniera was inspired by his parents’ cooking.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Ruffolo said the chicken giardiniera is a take on an “old-school Italian dish.”

“That’s something [that] we always ate growing up,” said Ruffolo, who still lives in Bridgeport. “It’s just a great chicken cutlet, and we would put our homemade giardiniera on it, and I put that on the menu at Franco’s I [and] Il Culaccino and it just took off. And we sell a ton of it.”

The dish was inspired by his parents’ cooking. Growing up, he said he loved his mother’s chicken cutlets — a meal he said is “a simple Italian dish that’s just a staple. You have to know how to make it.” And the giardiniera is an old family recipe that he said goes back to some of his uncles who owned pizza restaurants.

“You always have a batch of giardiniera sitting [in your house],” Ruffolo said. “That’s just like a little family tradition... When I opened up the restaurant, I wanted to put something new on [the menu], and it just worked out.”

Ruffolo said his family’s giardiniera is not like most other Italian relishes. The vegetables mix includes fresh carrots, little small cipollini onions, celery and cauliflower, which are chopped into larger pieces, before being pickled.

Don’t worry, though. The family’s giardiniera is not too spicy, according to Ruffalo. The chicken is breaded with a lot of cheese, herbs and spices, making it a powerful punch of flavors when paired with the vinegar and acidity of the giardiniera, he said.

“The chicken alone is great and then once you add something else on top of it, it kind of adds the little kicker that it needs,” Ruffolo said.

The dish has earned his family’s blessing.

“I have a stamp of approval from my mother, my grandmother, my father,” he said, “so I guess it all worked out.”

Franco’s Ristorante, 300 W. 31st St.; Il Culaccino, 2134 S. Indiana Avenue. The chicken giardiniera is $18 and $24, respectively. Visit https://francoschicago.com and https://ilcullaccino.com

Got a favorite dish from a Chicago-area restaurant? Let us know via email at: dishinonthedish@suntimes.com.