All of which suggests that, like baked ziti and garlic bread, chicken francese is an Italian-American invention that was probably called “French” because of its luxurious, buttery sauce.
In the New York Public Library’s database of 45,000 restaurant menus dating back to the 1840s, the first reference to “scaloppine alla francese” is on an undated menu from Trattoria Gatti, a Midtown Manhattan restaurant that The New York Times reviewed affectionately in 1964. (The ambience featured “strolling musicians and waiters in peasant‐style striped shirts and cummerbunds,” and the pasta was housemade.)
Another thing no one knows for sure about francese is how to pronounce it. In New York and New Jersey, it’s fran-CHASE; if you were saying it in Italy, it would be fran-CHAY-zay; most of America says fran-CHAYZ.
No place has embraced chicken francese more warmly than Rochester, N.Y., a city with an illustrious history of great Italian-American cooking. According to The Democrat & Chronicle in Rochester, veal francese was first served there around 1967, at a restaurant called the Brown Derby. It became the signature dish of the restaurant and of Chef Vincenzo (real name James Cianciola), and soon was on menus all over town.
Mr. Cianciola told The Democrat & Chronicle in 2005 that he had learned the dish from visiting New York City cooks, while working at a restaurant near the grand Eastman Theatre. (“Liberace told me this was the best veal he’d ever had,” Mr. Cianciola said.) In the 1970s, the appearance of animal-rights protesters prompted many restaurants to switch from veal to chicken, but the dish’s popularity did not falter.
At some point the dish underwent one other change. Continuing the region’s tradition of giving its favorite foods less-than-appetizing names (see: garbage plate, chicken riggies, sponge candy), the dish was renamed “chicken French,” and so it remains.
“It was called chicken French as far back as I can remember,” said Kristen Hess, a food stylist in New York and Florida who grew up in Rochester. She said that chicken French was (and remains) a staple there — at white-tablecloth restaurants, diners and everything in between.