I HAD A RABBIT in my freezer. As I pondered what to do with it, I remembered my mother’s rabbit cacciatore.
“I make it the way my father did,” she said when I called her for the recipe.
My grandfather, Joe Poli, was a big man who looms larger than life in my memory, maybe because I was just 12 years old when he died. One of my earliest memories is sitting on his shoulders as he strode into the ocean. An immigrant from Lucca, Italy, he cooked, hunted, fished and made wine — and he did it all with brio. He loved to feed people — family, friends, customers, even the parish church where he organized an annual chicken dinner as a fundraiser for the school his children and grandchildren attended.
Born in 1897, the eldest of seven children, Joe Poli came to America alone at 16. He worked first for his uncle, a produce vendor, hawking fruits and vegetables on a street corner in downtown Pittsburgh. In 1921, he opened Poli’s, a luncheonette, in the city’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood. After Prohibition ended, the lunch counter became a bar, and over the next decades, Poli’s grew into a full-fledged restaurant with two dining rooms downstairs and a second-floor banquet room. But the cozy, booth-lined balcony, with its aerial view of the bar, was our favorite place to sit as kids. Famous for seafood (motto: “If it swims, we have it.”), Poli Restaurant became a local landmark and a special-occasion dining destination for generations of Pittsburghers until it closed in 2005.
My mother, Rosemary, was 3, and her brother, Larry, was 5 when the family moved from an apartment above the store to a new, three-story house on a wooded hilltop not far from the restaurant, where both parents worked. When they cooked family dinners in their small kitchen at home, my grandfather took charge of the stove and my grandmother made pasta, laying out dainty cappelletti or ravioli on white linen cloths. “He left the kitchen a mess,” my mother recalls. “They bickered a lot together in Italian. That’s how I learned the language.”
She also learned to eat “weird meats,” rabbit among them. “They would tell me it was chicken, but even I knew, at 6, that chickens didn’t have legs that small.” For Easter, the main course was always lamb. One spring, her father brought home a live baby lamb. The kids played with it, then one day it disappeared. She didn’t think anything of it until Easter dinner, when the meat was served. As her father carved, “My brother leaned over, poked me with his elbow and said, ‘Baaaaa.’ ”
My grandfather often hunted game birds, but sometimes he would sit under a tree in the backyard with his gun and shoot what he called uccellini — little birds. According to my mother, he would pluck them, clean them and store them in the freezer. When he had enough, he’d cook them for family and friends, but he’d only invite people he knew would really appreciate them. “The birds were so small, you could almost eat them bones and all, or so they told me,” she says. “I wouldn’t eat them. I would only eat the sauce and the polenta.”
He cooked the uccellini the same way he cooked pheasant and rabbit, alla cacciatore, or hunter-style. His sauce is a simple one: just garlic, onion, canned tomatoes, a glug of red wine and lots of crinkly oil-cured black olives. “Chicken was everyday fare, but rabbit was for special occasions,” says Mom, who turns 90 this month. She never did grow very fond of rabbit, but she is happy to make rabbit cacciatore for people who appreciate it, and always makes sure there is plenty of sauce and polenta for those who don’t.
My Grandfather’s Rabbit Cacciatore
This is a very basic recipe that works as well for chicken as it does for rabbit. My mother wouldn’t mess with tradition, but I can imagine tweaking this dish by using bacon fat to brown the rabbit, for example, or adding red pepper flakes, oregano, thyme or rosemary to the sauce. It would be good — maybe even better than this simple version — but it wouldn’t be what I remember.
1 whole rabbit, cut up, or 4 rabbit hind legs
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, chopped (about 2 cups)
5-6 garlic cloves, minced
½ cup dry red wine
1 28 oz. can peeled whole tomatoes with juice
½ cup (or more) oil-cured black olives
½ cup chopped parsley
1. Season the rabbit with salt and pepper. Add the oil to a deep skillet, and brown each piece on both sides, working in batches, if necessary, to avoid crowding. Set rabbit aside.
2. In the same pan, sauté the onion over medium heat with ½ teaspoon of salt until soft. Add the garlic, and cook until fragrant, about a minute more. Add the wine, and cook for about 2 minutes. Crush the tomatoes between your fingers, and add them to the pan with their juice. Stir in the olives and at least ¼ teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper. Submerge the rabbit pieces in the sauce, and simmer uncovered until the olives are plump and the rabbit is tender, about 30-40 minutes. If the sauce is reducing too much, cover the pan. Adjust seasonings, adding more salt or pepper to taste.
3. Garnish with parsley, and serve with creamy polenta or crusty bread.
Note: Should you have leftovers, shred the meat into the sauce, and save it to toss with pasta and grated pecorino.