Perhaps no ingredient is more quintessentially Italian than garlic.
Critics say the bulbous herb is stinky and overpowering. Admirers say it is strong yet satisfying and enhances the taste of every dish.
Lombardi’s Italian Restaurant and Wine Bar recently marked 30 years of offering authentic Italian fare and fine wines. In celebration, the restaurant offered some of its favorite dishes from over the years — some with garlic and some without.
Although it’s safe to say the restaurant’s head chef, Andy Hilliard, stands in the garlic-lovers camp: One of Lombardi’s throwback dishes is made with an entire head of garlic.
“I use garlic in everything. I love it,” he said. “I wouldn’t cook without it.”
Garlic aficionados have been enjoying 40 Clove Chicken with abandon for 25 years. The dish features a chicken breast stuffed with a garlic cheese spread, roasted with crispy skin in a cast iron skillet, with Yukon gold potatoes, zucchini, yellow squash, carrots and Italian herbs.
But don’t be fooled by the name: There aren’t actually 40 cloves of garlic in the dish.
In actuality, Hilliard cooks up about a head of garlic per chicken breast. Just how many cloves are in a head of garlic? The average bulb grows around 10 cloves.
The garlicky dish made the restaurant’s anniversary menu because it reflects how Lombardi’s has changed over the past three decades to make its recipes with more authentic ingredients and advanced culinary techniques.
“We eventually ended up making a hybrid of two or more past dishes,” Hilliard said of the updated recipe for 40 Clove Chicken.
“Stuffing the chicken breast was what sent this one over the top. So, our 40 Clove Chicken was reborn for our 30th anniversary, a new dish with tastes of the past.”
The dish has been showcased in several of the restaurant’s garlic festivals since it was added to the menu in 1992.
When the flagship restaurant opened in Ballard, Lombardi’s was missing a signature theme. Italian cuisine wasn’t as popular in 1987 as it is today, so founder Diane Symms turned to the powers of garlic to promote her business.
Symms fashioned her promotion after the famed festivals held in Gilroy, California, and Long Beach, Washington. The first of Lombardi’s garlic festivals was held over a three-day weekend in 1988. The last promotional festival in 2013 was six weeks long.
“We’ve had recipe contests, we’ve had cooking contests, we’ve had garlic-eating contests, we’ve had coloring contests for kids. We’ve done all kinds of things over the years,” said Symms, owner and CEO of the restaurant. “The biggest prize we ever had was a Vespa scooter for a guess-how-many-garlic-cloves contest.”
Lombardi’s has a lot to be proud of after staying in business for 30 years: The restaurant is family-owned, makes just about everything from scratch and gives back to the community.
The restaurant was named after the grandfather of its original chef. After opening in Ballard in 1987, Lombardi’s expanded to Issaquah in 1990, Everett in 1998 and Mill Creek in 2012. Lombardi’s now solely operates in Snohomish County — in Everett and Mill Creek.
“When we signed the lease on our first restaurant in Ballard, it was a 30-year lease,” Symms said, “and I thought, ‘Oh my goodness — 30 years. A lot will change; I probably won’t be doing this.’
“It’s a lot more fun than 30 years ago because you’ve got the confidence and the experience and lots more people around doing the things you used to do every day just to survive. So I’m really very proud of what we’ve accomplished, and now my job is to enjoy it.”
Hilliard was named Lombardi’s executive chef last year, although he took charge of the kitchen in 2014. He’s had a knack and love for cooking for as long as he can remember. Working in restaurants since he was 14, Hilliard moved up the ranks from dishwasher to head chef in just 11 years.
“I can’t explain why I was drawn to the kitchen — I just was,” Hilliard said. “The kitchen has always been home for me.”
Sara Bruestle: 425-339-0346; email@example.com; @sarabruestle.
Lombardi’s 40 Clove Chicken
For the chicken brine:
4 cups water
½ cup kosher salt
4 cloves garlic, peeled
1 sprig rosemary
4 (6 ounce) chicken breasts, boneless, skin on
For the vegetable medley:
4 large Yukon potatoes
2 large carrots
3 celery stalks
1 yellow squash
40 garlic cloves, peeled
For the garlic cheese spread:
3 ounces ricotta
3 ounces cream cheese
3 ounces Gorgonzola or blue cheese
2 tablespoons chopped garlic
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
For the chicken breast:
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon ground black pepper
1 shallot, chopped
2 tablespoons rosemary, thyme, sage mix, chopped
1 cup chicken stock
1 tablespoon lemon juice
3 cups arugula
For the chicken brine: In a large bowl with a lid, stir together water and salt. Stir well until salt is dissolved.
Smash garlic cloves and add them to the water whole.
Juice one lemon into the bowl and throw in the peel as well. Break rosemary into 1-inch pieces and add them to the brine.
Place the 4 chicken breasts in the liquid, cover and refrigerate for 6 hours.
For the vegetable medley: In a pasta or sauce pot, bring salted water to a boil while you are preparing the potatoes.
Cut potatoes into ½-inch thick wedges and partially cook until al dente. Drain and set aside.
Peel carrots and cut in half lengthwise, then cut on the bias (45-degree angle) into ¼-inch thick medallions.
Cut celery ¼-inch thick on the bias.
Cut zucchini and yellow squash in half lengthwise, and then cut on the bias into ¼-inch thick medallions.
Mix all vegetables and garlic except potatoes. Set aside.
For the garlic cheese: In a bowl, mix all ingredients until they are well incorporated. Refrigerate until needed.
Stuffing the chicken breasts: Drain the chicken from the brine and discard the aromatics. Pat the chicken breasts dry with a paper towel.
Gently lift the skin from the skinnier side of each breast, working your way to the thicker side, leaving one end still attached to the breast.
Place about 1-2 ounces of garlic cheese spread on each chicken breast where the skin would be. Evenly distribute the cheese so that it will melt. Place the skin flap over the cheese, making sure that it covers all of it.
Use a toothpick to seal the skin in place where the flap is no longer attached. Set aside.
Cooking the chicken: Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Preheat cast iron skillet on the stove on medium-high heat.
Place butter and olive oil in cast iron skillet. Wait for the butter to start to brown.
Season the chicken breasts skin-side up with part of your salt and pepper. Place skin side down in the pan and season the bottom side. Gently lift the corners to check progress intermediately. When the skin is golden brown, flip the breast and repeat.
When both sides are seared, remove the breasts from the skillet and set aside on cooling rack or plate.
Add the potatoes to the skillet and brown all sides.
Add the remaining vegetables and saute until they begin to sweat. Add shallots, 1 tablespoon of herb mix, salt and pepper.
Add chicken stock, lemon juice and arugula, and stir well.
Place the chicken breasts back into the cast iron pan, nestling them into the vegetables. Make sure that the bottom of the breasts touch the pan. Dust the breasts with remaining herbs. Place the skillet in the oven for 15-20 minutes or until center temperature reads 160 degrees.
Pull skillet from oven and let rest for 10 minutes before serving.
Plate each chicken breast with ¼ of the vegetable medley. Serve with lemon wedges. Makes 4 servings.