This City Chicken Is a Gravy-Covered Taste of My Western Pennsylvania Childhood

This Depression-era Rust Belt specialty of breaded and skewered pork or veal was created when those meats were cheaper than chicken—now it’s a prized local specialty that’s worth making even if it’s not cheaper.

A plate of city chicken (breaded, skewered pork)
Serious Eats / Casey Barber

“Wait… there’s no chicken in this at all?”

My husband’s confusion as he was served a platter of city chicken was understandable. After all, the dish has always been intentionally deceptive, intended as a way for budget-minded home cooks to mimic the taste and texture of chicken drumsticks.

If it sounds weird to try to fake chicken drumsticks when they’re so readily available and relatively inexpensive for home cooks, it helps a little to know the background of this homespun recipe. City chicken was born of frugality in the early 20th century and exploded in regional popularity during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when pork and veal prices were much lower than that of chicken.

Those who grew up in the Rust Belt encircling the Great Lakes—anywhere from Indiana to Ohio to western New York—are likely familiar with this somewhat unusual but utterly delicious comfort food. I’m from western Pennsylvania and (like most yinzers) feel like city chicken is a distinctively Pittsburgh dish, though we really can’t lay full claim to it.

So what is city chicken? This 1932 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette newspaper ad spells it all out: “Tender, choice pieces of fresh veal and pork are cut into neat squares and alternated on skewers… four or five to the skewer. All you do, then, is dip the meat in egg and bread crumbs, brown quickly, add water, cover pan and simmer until tender and juicy.” You'll still find city chicken fitting this simple description being turned out in home kitchens across the Rust Belt today, served on its own or dressed up with a quick pan gravy, as in the recipe I'm sharing here.

A dish consisting of pork and veal in place of chicken might seem unbelievable considering the current price per pound of veal. But when I called Chuck Conzatti, second-generation owner of Conzatti’s Italian Market in Johnstown, PA to get some background on the dish, he explained why veal used to be so cheap. Dairy farmers didn’t want to spend valuable money and time raising male calves that wouldn’t produce milk and therefore revenue. “They didn’t have any need for them, so they just got rid of them,” he said, sending the calves off to auction to be slaughtered. (While male calves are still unwanted by most dairy farmers, the market for veal is not as large today as it once was and the dairy industry as a whole is dealing with a different consumer landscape now, so—long story short—veal is no longer a cheap surplus meat and is now a pricy specialty meat. ) Pork was likewise inexpensive because it was cheaper to raise pigs and a more efficient revenue stream when using all parts of the animal.

Breaded, browned, and baked, these skewers of veal and/or pork were meant to be a filling meal that cleverly used excess meat scraps. But city chicken has endured, despite the fact that you can now get a package of chicken drumsticks for far less than you’d find veal and even pork at most grocery stores. You’ll still find prepackaged city chicken skewers and DIY city chicken “kits” in meat departments throughout the Pittsburgh area that use pork and veal cubes.

A plate of breaded pork skewers with gravy (city chicken)
Serious Eats / Casey Barber

Tips for City Chicken That’s Tender, Juicy, and Perfectly Cooked

If you grew up eating city chicken, you’ll notice the method that follows is slightly different than the one probably used by your grandparents. One tweak was mostly about cost, but the purpose of my most significant adjustments was to make sure that pork tasted as juicy and tender as possible in the finished dish. Here’s how and why I switched a few things up to bring city chicken into the new century.

Nix Veal in Favor of All Pork: First, I ditched the veal. Unless you really, truly love the taste of veal (and I decidedly don’t), you’ll be fine using boneless pork loin as the only meat in this recipe, and your grocery budget will thank you. It’s less expensive than a whole pork tenderloin or pre-sliced chops, and will yield a more tender result than pork shoulder with this cooking method. However, if you do love veal and want to use it here, I won’t stop you! If you choose to use veal, substitute an equal amount of veal by weight for the boneless pork loin (or use half veal, half pork) and follow the recipe as written. 

Add a Dry Brine: Most historical city chicken recipes didn’t suggest marinating or brining the meat to add flavor, apart from a 1947 Pittsburgh Press newspaper article that recommended sprinkling the skewers with a few tablespoons of French dressing. I, uh, did not do that.

But I did take a page from the Serious Eats playbook and dry brined my pork cubes for 45 minutes, just until the salt was absorbed into the meat. This was the most effective way to season each piece and ensure that the pork stayed juicy and tender after baking. I found it had a much better end result than wet brining or buttermilk brining, which had negligible effects in my tests. This may be surprising, especially since buttermilk is a known flavor enhancer and tenderizer, but I suspect that the effect of cooking the pork for 90 minutes—more on that initial cook time in my tests below—negated any juiciness that would have come from these methods.

Don’t Cook It to Death: The biggest change I made to the traditional city chicken recipe was in the cooking time. Every city chicken recipe I came across called for the browned skewers to be oven-baked for at least 45 minutes or more, even up to two hours in one instance,“until meat is chicken-tender.”

Even on the low end of that spectrum, in my multiple tests the pork came out of the oven overcooked and tough—way beyond the point of chicken-tenderness. So after browning my skewers to crisp up the breaded exterior, I cut the baking time significantly. There’s no need for a long stint in the oven, especially when you’re using a lean cut of pork like boneless loin. My recipe calls for cooking the pork until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the cubes registers 135°F and then letting it rest until the pork reaches 145°F. This shouldn’t take more than about 10 minutes in the oven. 

Skirt the Potential Sogginess: Many historical city chicken recipes also called for adding a few tablespoons of water or broth to the casserole in which the skewers were baked and covering the dish with foil during the baking process. In theory, this was intended to add moisture to the meat, but in practice, it backfired. Adding water and covering the skewers while baking softens the crisp breading, and doesn’t do anything to restore moisture to meat that’s overcooked.

The solution is simple: With a quick bake time, the problem of overcooked meat is avoidable and there’s no need to steam the meat and sog things up. The breading remains crunchy and there’s just enough time to make a simple pan gravy to serve with the city chicken.

Make a Quick Pan Gravy: Many city chicken aficionados serve their skewers with a pan gravy made from the drippings in the casserole, which I suspect was originally a way to try to salvage the overcooked meat. Here, I’m making it because a gravy made from a tasty pan fond makes everything better. I first brown the skewers in a skillet, then transfer them to a baking sheet to finish in the oven. While the pork skewers cook, I use some of the oil from frying the skewers to sautée a handful of slivered onions. It’s a simple way to boost the flavor of the gravy. The onions impart a little sweet caramelization and melt into the gravy as it simmers. It’s a homespun touch that really seals the deal.

The nebby yinzers (that’s a term for a nosy Pittsburgher, if yinz don’t know) might come after me for switching up this classic recipe, but I’m not scared. Once they see how much more juicy and flavorful this old-school recipe can be, they’ll be calling me a hometown hero. Serve with mashed potatoes or, for a true Rust Belt touch, pierogies.

Remove fat cap from pork loin as well as any connective tissue or silverskin, then cut into approximate 1- to 1 1/4-inch cubes.

A cutting board with a knife and a pork loin roast
Serious Eats / Casey Barber

Set a wire rack inside a rimmed baking sheet and place the pork cubes on the rack. Sprinkle salt (about 1 tablespoon) all over pork, turning cubes to ensure even coating. Let rest at room temperature or in the refrigerator until the surface moisture has dried, about 45 minutes.

Cubes of raw pork on a rack set inside a sheet pan
Serious Eats / Casey Barber

Preheat oven to 350°F (180°C). Thread pork onto each skewer (you should be able to fit 5 to 6 pieces on each). Set up a breading station with 3 wide, shallow bowls or 1/8 sheet pans. Add 1/2 cup flour (2 ounces; 60g) to the first bowl or pan; the beaten eggs to the second; and the bread crumbs to the third.

Person putting pork on wooden skewers on a wooden cutting board
Serious Eats / Casey Barber

Working with one skewer at a time, dredge each skewer in flour, turning on all sides and spooning flour on top to make sure all crevices are coated. Gently shake skewer to remove excess flour, then coat thoroughly in egg wash. Roll in bread crumbs, again using a spoon or fingers as needed to cover evenly. Place the breaded skewers on a clean plate or baking sheet. 

Breading city chicken (pork) skewers in three sheet pans
Serious Eats / Casey Barber

Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper or foil. In a 12-inch cast iron or stainless-steel skillet, heat oil over medium heat until shimmering. Add 4 skewers to the pan, and cook, turning occasionally, until breading is toasted and brown, about 2 minutes per side. Using tongs, transfer skewers to prepared baking sheet. Add more oil to skillet if needed, then repeat with remaining skewers.

Browned skewers of breaded pork in a cast iron pan
Serious Eats / Casey Barber

Transfer skewers to oven and cook until an instant-read thermometer inserted into center of pork registers 135°F (57°C), 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from oven and let rest on the baking pan at least 5 minutes (pork should reach 145°F in this time).

Browned skewers of pork on a baking sheet with parchment paper
Serious Eats / Casey Barber

While city chicken bakes, make pan gravy: Pour off all but 3 tablespoons oil from skillet, return to medium heat, add onions, and season with salt. Cook, stirring frequently, until onions are softened and starting to turn translucent, about 6 minutes. Whisk in remaining 2 tablespoons flour (1/2 ounce; 15g) and cook, whisking constantly, until the roux is just beginning to turn golden, 2 to 3 minutes. Whisk in broth, scraping the skillet bottom to dissolve browned bits. Bring to a simmer and cook, whisking occasionally, until thickened, about 3 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Four images of making gravy in a cast iron pan (for City Chicken recipe)
Serious Eats / Casey Barber

To serve, drizzle city chicken skewers with gravy or serve on the side.

Drizzling city chicken skewers with gravy
Serious Eats / Casey Barber

Use whatever seasoned bread crumbs you prefer. Wegmans and 4C are two brands I like. Bread crumbs labeled as “seasoned” or Italian-style bread crumbs both work well. If using plain homemade or store-bought bread crumbs, season 1 cup plain bread crumbs with 1 tablespoon finely grated Pecorino Romano or Parmesan cheese and 1 tablespoon Italian herb blend or ½ teaspoon each garlic powder, onion powder, dried oregano, and dried parsley.

Special Equipment

Wire rack, rimmed baking sheets, eight 6-inch wooden skewers, parchment paper or foil, 12-inch cast iron or stainless-steel skillet, parchment paper or foil, instant-read thermometer.

Notes

Use whatever seasoned bread crumbs you prefer. Wegmans and 4C are two brands I like. Bread crumbs labeled as “seasoned” or Italian-style bread crumbs both work well. If using plain homemade or store-bought bread crumbs, season 1 cup plain bread crumbs with 1 tablespoon finely grated Pecorino Romano or Parmesan cheese and 1 tablespoon Italian herb blend or ½ teaspoon each garlic powder, onion powder, dried oregano, and dried parsley.