My great grandfather, Carmine Battaglia, came over from the wee town of Salle, in Abruzzo (that’s the calf of the boot, for the visually inclined) at the tender age of 16 in 1906. I never knew Grandpa Battaglia — he passed when I was just an infant — but the stories about him are legendary. A man of lusty appetites, he fancied himself quite the ladies’ man (though the ladies perhaps did not see things quite the same). At the dinner table, he would consume not only the meat from a chicken, but noisily crunch down the bones as well.
He also notoriously loved his wine and whiskey. In fact, the family would often say that his car wasn’t capable of making it up Broadway hill in my hometown of Schenectady, NY, to the house, as Cappie’s bar was halfway up. He was an avid hunter, which in itself is not a bad thing, but in combination with his drinking had unfortunate results. When he’d return home from the hunt short one of his dogs, he’d say that it got "gun-shy," which no doubt any creature would be after being shot by a crazy, drunk paisan’.
Still, he managed to bring home the occasional rabbit (at least, I hope they were rabbits), and when he did he would prepare them, aptly, in the hunter’s style, or alla cacciatora. This quintessentially rustic Italian preparation has been popularized with chicken in restaurants everywhere, but really lends itself to any small game. Since we prefer to keep our dog, we decided to get our rabbits the new-fashioned way: at the meat market.
Rabbit is not commonly cooked in American homes these days, and finding it can be a challenge. Luckily, when I called Golden Gate Meats to inquire whether I would need to special-order it, I was told that they always have it in stock. Perfect.
Now, when you attempt to butcher a rabbit of your own (and you will have to), you may think you have found yourself on the set of Alien Autopsy. The instinct is to dissect it much like a chicken, but this is no fowl. Do yourself a favor and procure a copy of the excellent Essentials of Cooking by James Peterson and follow the exceedingly lucid step-by-step instructions there.
Not long ago, my aunt decided to make Giada De Laurentiis’ chicken cacciatore recipe after seeing it on the tube. From the first Proustian bite, she was transported back to childhood and Grandpa Battaglia’s rabbit. The only difference, I’m told, true to his lusty nature, was that he had a heavier hand with the red pepper. That is one trait I myself have inherited.
2 rabbits, quartered and trimmed
Flour, for dredging
1 green bell pepper, diced
1 large sweet onion, diced
several cloves garlic, finely minced or crushed
3/4 c. dry white wine
3/4 c. chicken stock
1 28-oz. can chopped tomatoes
3 Tbsp capers, rinsed and drained
2 Tbsp dry oregano
2 Tbsp fresh oregano, chopped
good pinch red pepper flake
salt and pepper
Season the flour with salt and pepper, and dredge the rabbit pieces, shaking off any excess flour. Let rest on a drying rack for a few minutes. In a wide, deep skillet, heat a few tablespoons of olive oil until shimmering. Add the rabbit and brown on all sides. Remove the rabbit.
Add the bell pepper, onion and garlic and saute until softened and the onions are translucent. Add the white wine and simmer until reduced by half. Add the stock, tomatoes, capers, red pepper and oregano, and bring back to a simmer. Season to taste. Add the rabbit and simmer all together until the rabbit is cooked through and the sauce is thickened, about 20 minutes.
Serve on a heated plate with a grating of Parmigiano Reggiano.