Perfect meals exist. I know. I’ve eaten them, thought about them, and even cooked a few. They can be simple, a few slices of mild pecorino drizzled with wildflower honey, or more elaborate, such as a porterhouse steak grilled rare and topped with anchovy butter. It’s 9:30 a.m. as I write this, but just mentioning that steak makes me want to cook one up now. I’ve even got a tub of anchovy butter in the fridge. What Italian girl would be without one?
Fried cutlets are another perfect meal for me. When I was a kid, we had fried boneless cutlets all the time. Every Italian-American family had them, veal on special occasions but more often chicken. They were egged, coated with breadcrumbs and grated cheese, and then fried in olive oil. Their aroma was out of this world. Oily, hot, moist, and salty, and with a squeeze of lemon they hit all the points of delicious. We served them with sautéed escarole or broccoli or a chicory salad. They were one of my childhood dream meals.
At some point, I’m not sure exactly when, maybe in the late ’70s, early ’80s, cutlets with salad piled on top began showing up on Italian menus in and around New York City, usually going by the name veal Milanese (or chicken Milanese, depending). Cotoletta alla Milanese is a real dish from Milan, but traditionally this opulent veal cutlet is cooked on the bone and served with lemon wedges and a side of potatoes or another vegetable. The bone-free cutlet is a humbler slice, and the more recent (in the last 40 years, that is) top hat of greens seems to be a restaurant addition, one I’ve eaten in Naples, Glen Cove, and Manhattan (maybe you can get it in Milan, too). What a great idea. All the lemony dressing trickles down onto the meat, and the contrast between hot and oily and cold and puckery is thrilling when it’s all well put together but depressing when the dish is tough, cold, soggy, unseasoned, or the cook just doesn’t seem to give a crap. There’s a place around the corner from me on 14th Street where that last problem is in evidence. My perfect meal less than perfect. Che vergogna.
That’s why you’ll often do best making the dish yourself. I made it last night. I felt like going with pork this time. Pork cutlets are very good when cooked fast and left juicy. And I thought I’d winter up the green salad topping by adding roasted tomatoes seasoned with rosemary and thyme, strong herbs you usually don’t find tossed with lettuce. It worked because the heat from the tomatoes softened their sharp edges. I also added fresh sage, a classic with pork, to the breadcrumb mix.
Pork Cutlets with Roasted Tomatoes and Wintry Herbs
1½ pints grape tomatoes
Extra-virgin olive oil
3 or 4 sprigs rosemary, the leaves chopped
About 8 thyme sprigs, stemmed
1 medium-size head frisée lettuce, torn into small pieces
2 pounds pork cutlets, lightly pounded (they should be very thin)
¾ cup homemade breadcrumbs
½ cup grated grana Padano cheese
About 6 sage leaves, chopped
The zest from 1 large lemon, plus a little of its juice and 4 lemon wedges
1 small garlic clove, minced
A big pinch of cayenne pepper
A palmful of lightly toasted pine nuts
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Place the tomatoes on a baking sheet. Drizzle on a little olive oil, and sprinkle with salt. Bake until lightly browned and starting to collapse, about 15 minutes. You’ll probably want to shake the tomatoes around a few times so they cook evenly. Take them from the oven, and scatter on the rosemary and thyme. Let cool for about 10 minutes or so.
Put the frisée in a salad bowl. Add the tomatoes.
Dry off the cutlets with paper towels.
Crack the eggs onto a large plate, and whisk lightly.
On another large plate, mix together the breadcrumbs, grana Padano, lemon zest, sage, garlic, black pepper, a little cayenne, and some salt.
Get out two large skillets, and place them over high flame. Pour about ¼ inch of olive oil into each one.
Dip the cutlets in the egg, and then in the breadcrumbs.
When the oil is hot, fry the cutlets, turning them once, until browned on both sides. Lift them out with a slotted spatula. Put them directly onto four plates.
Drizzle about a tablespoon or so of olive oil over the salad. Now add about a teaspoon of the lemon juice. Season with salt and black pepper. Toss, adding more olive oil or lemon juice if needed.
Mound the salad up on the cutlets, and garnish with the pine nuts and the lemon wedges. Serve right away.