When National Chicken Wing Day soars in on July 29, you can bet your bones that social media feeds will overflow with photos of all that is spicy, sticky and crunchy in the poultry world. Chicken wings have a special place in the hearts and arteries of fun-loving, finger-licking eaters across the nation. No longer relegated to football Sundays, the mighty chicken wing has flown to the top of the menu with iterations that go well beyond that standard neon orange-tinged buffalo sauce.
Restaurants experiment with Thai chili tastes, garlic Parmesan recipes and even peanut butter and jelly concoctions—the possibilities are endless and the rules are nonexistent when it comes to the flavor foundation of chicken wings. But a more complicated wing doesn’t necessary mean a better wing, that is why the classic buffalo and barbecue tossed wings are usually the most popular orders, with piles of napkins building at the bottom of the eater’s barstool.
And while almost everyone knows and loves wings, few people know the ubiquitous snack’s origin story and even fewer know that they have Italians to thank for its creation.
Picture this: It’s late at night at a bar in Buffalo, NY, sometime in the 1960s. Frank and Teressa Bellissimo have, for some reason, ordered way too many chicken wings from their meat distributor. What are they to do with all of the bone-in morsels at their mainly Italian eatery, Anchor Bar? As most Italians would, they found a way to transform this less-than-desirable cut into a gourmet watershed moment in the culinary timeline.
Another legend of how the chicken wing as we know it was invented says that as one of Frank’s poker games was going later into the night than usual, and he and his buddies were imbibing more alcoholic beverages than usual, Teressa went into the kitchen, grabbed some chicken wings she had planned to use as a base for chicken stock, and whipped up the spicy wings on the spot in order to soak up the booze in Frank and crew’s bellies so that they would sober up and leave the restaurant. No record exists if the ploy actually worked, or if the poker-playing drunkards instead kept the party going until the next morning. Judging how wings and alcohol are consumed these days, I’m guessing the amount of booze ingested increased after the wings were served.
Whatever the true story, thanks to the Bellissimos, we have a versatile protein base—easily enhanced by professional chefs and creative home-kitchen cooks—that entire franchises have been built upon. Buffalo wings are now ubiquitous menu items at nearly every restaurant—whether that’s a pub, chain, Italian, Greek, Chinese, etc.
Unfortunately, to sample the originators of the proud wing and to soak in the spicy and jubilantly messy inspiration of the Anchor Bar, one has to travel upstate to the far off land of Buffalo, which might as well be Jupiter when you live in Nassau County.
Luckily, there is no need to ever go to Buffalo, as we have more than enough restaurants dishing out exceptional wings right here on Long Island. Some of my personal favorite restaurants that either specialize in wings or just happen to serve exceptional versions include the crown jewel of wing dealers, Brews Bros. in Franklin Square; Spanky’s Food Factory in Garden City Park; Press 195 in Rockville Centre; Patrizia’s in Hicksville; Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza in various locations; Smoke Shack Blues in Port Jefferson; LL Dent in Carle Place; Spicy’s in Riverhead; Charlie Meaney’s in Valley Stream; and Dirty Burger in Plainview.
Of course, if you are kitchen-inclined it could be just as easy to invent your own killer wing recipe. There’s an innumerable array of sauce and rub combinations waiting to be invented, refined and perfected, along with preparations that range from deep-fried to baked and everything in between.
But if you are not a mother of invention like the patron saint of wings, Teressa Bellissimo, there are plenty of professionally curated recipes to choose from online, offering step-by-step instructions that any football-watching, beer-swilling wing fanatic can surely figure out, with minimal trouble.
One of those recipes is by Food Network personality, cookbook author and highly acclaimed Italian chef Scott Conant, whose Calabrian Chicken Wings (recipe below) utilizes a spreadable, particularly fiery sausage known as ‘nduja from the Calabria region of Italy. Adding sausage to a wing marinade is more than inspired, it’s downright obscene in its evil genius.
‘Nduja is a pork sausage that graciously uses meat from the head of the pig—minus the jowls, which of course is used for guanciale—along with other various meat trimmings, some skin, a dash of fatback and the roasted red hot peppers that give the sausage its signature kick.
For his char-grilled chicken wing recipe, Conant incorporates the sausage spread into a marinade that teems with tart lime juice, ginger and garlic. The peppery pork marinade adds a decidedly succulent essence to the classic wing experience, with those Calabrian spices flourishing across your palette. Eating Conant’s recipe clues everyone in on what has been missing from chicken wings this whole time: pork sausage.
Leave it to an Italian to finish what another Italian started more than 50 years ago—thereby bringing the art of chicken wing invention full circle, sticky fingers and all.
Scott Conant’s Calabrian Chicken Wings
Time: 1 hour
¼ cup turbinado sugar, such as Sugar in the Raw
1 oz. fresh ‘nduja sausage, minced
¼ cup red wine vinegar
1 tbsp. fresh lime juice
1½ tsp. fish sauce
1 tsp. Calabrian crushed hot chili peppers
1 tsp. kosher salt
½ tsp. crushed red chile flakes
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 scallion, thinly sliced
One 1-inch piece ginger, peeled and minced
1 lb. chicken wings, tips removed and drumettes and flats separated
1. In a medium skillet, heat the turbinado sugar over medium-high, swirling, until it turns to a dark caramel, about eight minutes. Stir in the ‘nduja, vinegar, lime juice, fish sauce, chili peppers, salt, chile flakes, garlic, scallion and ginger, and cook, stirring, until smooth, six to eight minutes. Remove the marinade from the heat and let cool.
2. Meanwhile, in a four-quart saucepan, bring two inches of water to a boil over high heat. Place a steaming basket in the bottom of the pot, and place the chicken wings in the basket. Cover and steam the wings until cooked through, about 15 minutes. Using tongs, transfer the wings to a large bowl along with the marinade, and toss to combine.
3. Light a grill. Using tongs, transfer the wings from the marinade to the grill, and cook, turning, until the wings are charred on the outside, 12 to 15 minutes. Transfer to a platter and serve while hot.