“Wedding soup” is a popular Italian-American dish made with escarole and tiny meatballs simmered in chicken broth and adorned with small pasta, typically of the tiny acini di pepe (or “peppercorn”) type. It is so popular, in fact, that it has been marketed as a canned soup by Progresso under the funny name “Chickarina Soup“. Italian-Americans of a certain age will doubtlessly remember this jingle:
Chick chick chickarina soup!
Chick chick chickarina soup!
With noodles so delicious
And meatballs so nutritious
Mmmm boy, it’s good!
Well, the ancestor of this familiar, homey Italian-American classic, the original Italian Wedding Soup, is an ancient Neapolitan soup called minestra maritata, which actually means “married soup”, not wedding soup, and refers to the ‘marriage’ of meats and green leafy vegetables that comprise its main ingredients. Some say the recipe goes all the way back to ancient Roman times and was made from various leftover scraps of cured and fresh meats (traditionally pork) and a mixture of leafy greens that could be bought in the market or scavenged from the countryside. Minestra maritata is cheap but tasty and very filling, a perfect example of la cucina povera, the cooking of the poor, the kind of stick-to-the-ribs eating that fueled hard-working, hard-scrabble contadini (farmers) and operai (workers) back in the day. It’s the kind of thing that was once looked down on by urban middle and upper class Italians but has lately become very chic, both in Italy and all over the world.
For me the definitive recipe for minestra maritata can be found in the cookbook La cucina napoletana by Jeanne Caròla Francesconi, the doyenne of Neapolitan cookery. The only problem in trying to replicate her recipe outside Italy (or, for that matter, outside Campania) is that it calls for a good number of typical local meats and vegetables well-nigh impossible to find elsewhere, like broccoli di foglia (‘leaf broccoli’), torzella, another kind of local leafy cruciferous vegetable, or scarolella, a local ‘wild’ escarole. And some of the meats, like lardo, can be found but only in the best stocked Italian delis, at a steep price. So I’ve tried to ‘translate’ the original Italian Wedding Soup recipe by substituting reasonably priced ingredients that should be fairly easy to find in a well-stocked in US supermarket and—I hope—elsewhere. And feel free to experiment with ingredients other than the ones I’ve suggested here; this is a poor person’s dish, so if you use what you can find locally, you will simply be carrying on an old tradition.
Italian Wedding Soup is very simple and basic, but it takes a bit of time to make, in particular the initial simmering of the meat, which needs a good 2-1/2 or 3 hours. But the simmering doesn’t require much attention and the dish itself can easily be made ahead of time. Or you can start and stop at various stages as your schedule allows.
Serves a crowd (at least 4-6 people)
- 750g (1-1/2 lbs) of pork ribs
- 350g (3/4 lb) salt pork (or, if you can find it, lardo)
- 3-4 large mild Italian sausages (about 500g/1 lb.)
- 1 large salami
- Salt and pepper
- Aromatics to flavor the broth (see Notes)
- Unsmoked pork rind (optional)
- A prosciutto bone (optional)
- 1 head of escarole. trimmed and roughly chopped
- 1 head of chicory, trimmed and roughly chopped
- 1 small head of green cabbage, trimmed and sliced thin
- 1 bunch of broccoli rabe, trimmed and roughly chopped
To finish the dish:
- 150g (8 oz) of Parmesan, caciocavallo and/or another hard cheese, cut into cubes (see Notes)
- Salt and pepper
Blanch the salt pork for a few minutes in unsalted water to remove the excess saltiness.
Add the salt pork and other meats to a large pot and cover by at least 5cm/2 inches with water. Francesconi says that the water should cover the meats by ‘four fingers’, if you want to measure that way…
Salt the water lightly and bring the pot to a simmer, skimming carefully to remove the scum that will rise to the top. Then add your aromatics. Continue simmering for about 2-1/2 or 3 hours, until the meats are very tender and the broth is flavorful.
Let the soup cool, if possible overnight in the fridge. The fat will have risen to the top of the pot and solidify. Remove most (but not all) of the fat, then bring the pot back to the simmer. Fish out the meats and aromatics with a slotted spoon. Discard the aromatics.
Pull the pork off the ribs and cut up the other meats into bite-sized chunks and set aside, with a ladleful of the broth to keep it moist.
Fill another large pot with water, salt very lightly and bring to the boil. Chop or slice your vegetables and throw them into the boiling water.
As soon as the water comes back to the boil, drain them in a colander, rinse with cold water and then, using a spatula or wooden spoon (or even your hands) press out as much water as you can.
Add these blanched vegetables to the broth along with the cubed cheese. Mix and bring it all to a simmer. Let the pot cook gently for about 30 minutes, or until the vegetables are very soft. About 10 minutes or so before the vegetables are done, add back the meats.
Serve hot, with crusty bread and, for those who like it, some additional grated Parmesan cheese on the side.
The mix of meats and vegetables here, as well as the proportions, are really just guideposts. Feel free to personalize the soup by mix and matching meats that you like, add more or less of this or that. In today’s market, for example, they were out of chicory, so I made due with a combination of the other green veggies. If you can’t find broccoli rabe, feel free to use regular broccoli. And you can try out others that strike your fancy; I’ve read that collard greens are very nice in this soup, for example. As for the meats, other types of cured pork can substitute, although I would stay away from smoked meats, which would give the soup an uncharacteristic taste. In fact, some versions of the dish call for other meats, like chicken and beef, even if, to my mind, pork is what gives this dish its unique character.
And, by the way, Francesconi suggests serving the meats in a separate bowl, so each diner can add as much or as little meat as they would like. I prefer to mix things up—and I would are say, that’s the more usual practice.
Francesconi does not specify the aromatics, but I generally use the typical ones for Italian broths: an onion or two, two carrots, two celery stalks, plus a few sprigs of fresh parsley.
As for the cheeses, Parmesan is always part of the mix. Francesconi suggests a mixture of half Parmesan and half caciocavallo, a very typical Neapolitan cheese that you can usually find in the US in Italian delis. But if you can’t find caciocavallo, you can use another sharpish semi-hard cheese like provolone (also from Campania) or pecorino. I’ve also seen recipes that call for Parmesan only.
Minestra maritata is a soup, but this original Italian Wedding Soup so hearty it’s really a one-course meal or piatto unico. I’d follow it with a piece of fruit, nothing more.