Utica Greens

Utica Greens

In Italian-American by Frank43 Comments

Long time readers will know that, although Memorie di Angelina is a blog about the cuisine of Italy, around this time of year we feature an Italian-American dish. This year’s entry, Utica Greens, also known as “Green Morelli” or “Greens Morelle” after its inventor chef Joe Morelle, is perhaps the best known example of an intriguing style of Italian-American cooking that has developed in and around the town of Utica in Upstate New York.

As I’ve written about before, extravagance is one of the defining characteristics of much Italian-American cooking, especially if you compare it with the cooking of the Old Country, which values simplicity and balance. And Utica Greens shows how Italian cookery changed when it crossed the Atlantic. The original recipe for scarola in padella is a simple, some might even say austere affair: chicory sautéed in garlic, olive oil and perhaps a pinch of hot pepper. This New World counterpart adds prosciutto, hot cherry peppers, Parmesan cheese and a generous topping of seasoned breadcrumbs run under the broiler until golden brown. Even chicken broth can make its way into the dish. By layering flavor upon flavor, the original is transformed into something completely different, something an Italian would probably find, well, pretty un-Italian.

But that might in fact be part of its charm. As I’ve also written before, Italian-American dishes deserve to be judged on their own merits, not just by comparison with their continental counterparts. And certainly Utica Greens has inspired devotion among the locals, who debate passionately about its seemingly endless variations, and achieved real popularity in the wider world. So, without further ado, here’s my take on this Italian-American classic.

Ingredients

Serves 4-6

  • 1 large or 2 small heads of escarole, about 1-1/2 lbs (750g)
  • 2-3 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
  • 4 slices of prosciutto, chopped or cut into strips
  • 4-6 pickled (or fresh) hot cherry peppers, sliced
  • 1/2 cup (15g) grated Parmesan cheese
  • Salt and pepper
  • Olive oil

For the topping:

  • 1 cup (100g) breadcrumbs
  • 1/2 cup (15g) grated Parmesan cheese
  • Salt and pepper
  • Olive oil

Directions

Trim the escarole head of its core, separate and wash the leaves thoroughly. Cut them roughly. Blanch the escarole in salted water for 2-3 minutes or so.

Meanwhile, in a large skillet or everyday pan, sauté the prosciutto in olive oil until lightly browned, then add the garlic and let it sauté as well, just until it begins to give off its aroma. Drain the escarole  (but not too well) and add it to the skillet along with the cherry peppers. Mix everything well and simmer for 10 minutes or so, or until the escarole is tender. The escarole should be moist but not watery. Add a bit of the cooking water if the escarole is drying out too soon, let it continue simmering if it’s still too wet.

Utica Greens

While the escarole is simmering,  fold together the topping ingredients in a bowl with enough olive oil to moisten the mixture, until it resembles wet sand. A minute or two before the escarole is done, add about half the topping mixture to the pan. Continue to simmer, stirring frequently to prevent the bottom from scorching, until the escarole is tender. Turn off the heat, and add the Parmesan cheese, mixing well until the cheese has completely melted into the greens.

Sprinkle the topping on the greens. Run the greens under a broiler until the top is golden brown.

Utica Greens

Notes on Utica Greens

Let me admit right here that I’ve not tried this dish on its home turf, but I mean to one day. The Italian-American cooking in and around Utica has always intrigued me.

Generally speaking, Italian-American cookery is remarkably uniform, especially as compared with the highly local nature of continental Italian cooking. Take a classic Sunday Sauce, for example. It has Neapolitan roots, but it’s become a favorite among Italian-Americans no matter where in Italy their family is from and no matter where in the US they now live. So it’s rather remarkable to me that, in this corner Upstate New York, the Italian-American community has developed a local cuisine entirely their own, with the possible exception of Utica Greens, hardly known outside the area.

Unlike many iconic dishes, we know very specifically when and where Utica Greens got its start: in 1988, at Chesterfield Restaurant in Utica. And we also know who come up with it: Joe Morelle, the chef at Chesterfield’s. Not that he considered himself an inventor. In a New York Times interview, Morelle modestly said he had just done “something different” with the sautéed escarole he had grown up with. “You can’t really say invent. But I will take credit for popularizing them.”

In the 1980s, Morelle was a chef at another Utica restaurant, Grimaldi’s. A similar sautéed escarole dish was occasionally on special there. When he started at Chesterfield’s in 1988, he tweaked the dish and put it on the menu. It became a local hit. Joe and his dish went on to become famous nationally after that interview in the Times and an appearance on Andrew Zimmern’s Bizzare Foods TV show. Funny thing, Joe Morelle didn’t eat Greens Morelle. Turns out he didn’t like escarole (!) Sadly, Joe Morelle passed away just last year after a battle with lung cancer.

 Variations

For a fancier presentation, you can transfer the cooked greens to a greased gratin dish. Then top them with the breadcrumb and cheese mixture. Run the dish under the broiler before bringing it to the table.

There are lots and lots of variations on Utica Greens, starting with the greens themselves. Escarole isn’t always easy to find. But you can adapt the dish to other greens like Swiss chard, kale, collard greens and chicory, to name a few. Some people boil the greens in chicken stock rather than salted water. Given all the flavors already going on, that seems to me like gilding the lily. Some people use pancetta instead of the prosciutto, which sounds to me like an improvement. And some use pecorino rather than Parmesan, which doesn’t.

You can also use fresh hot cherry peppers instead of the pickled variety. I understand that the locals almost always make Utica Greens with the pickled kind. Indeed, they say that no ingredient characterizes Upstate Italian-American cookery better than pickled hot cherry peppers. But however inauthentic it might be, fresh hot pepper appeals to me, and brings the dish a bit closer to its Old World origins. The pickled peppers add an acidity to the greens I personally found a bit jarring. (No pun intended…) And yet, you’ll find recipes that tell you to add some of the brine for even more acidity.  Different strokes, as they say…

Utica Greens are traditionally served as an appetizer. But if you’re really hungry, you can use Italian sausages, cut into short lengths, instead of the prosciutto. You can also add boiled potatoes or boiled beans along with the greens. That turn your greens into a hearty one-dish meal.

 

Utica Greens

Total Time: 30 minutes

Yield: Serves 4-6

Utica Greens

Ingredients

  • 1 large or 2 small heads of escarole, about 1-1/2 lbs (750g)
  • 2-3 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
  • 4 slices of prosciutto, chopped or cut into strips
  • 4-6 pickled (or fresh) hot cherry peppers, sliced 
  • 1/2 cup (15g) grated Parmesan cheese
  • Salt and pepper
  • Olive oil
  • For the topping:
  • 1 cup (100g) breadcrumbs
  • 1/2 cup (15g) grated Parmesan cheese
  • Salt and pepper
  • Olive oil

Directions

  1. Trim the escarole head of its core, separate and wash the leaves thoroughly. Cut them roughly. Blanch the escarole in salted water for 2-3 minutes or so.
  2. Meanwhile, in a large skillet or everyday pan, sauté the prosciutto in olive oil until lightly browned, then add the garlic and let it sauté as well, just until it begins to give off its aroma. Drain the escarole  (but not too well) and add it to the skillet along with the cherry peppers. Mix everything well and simmer for 10 minutes or so, or until the escarole is tender. The escarole should be moist but not watery. Add a bit of the cooking water if the escarole is drying out too soon, let it continue simmering if it's still too wet.
  3. While the escarole is simmering,  fold together the topping ingredients in a bowl with enough olive oil to moisten the mixture, until it resembles wet sand. A minute or two before the escarole is done, add about half the topping mixture to the pan. Continue to simmer, stirring frequently to prevent the bottom from scorching, until the escarole is tender. Turn off the heat, and add the Parmesan cheese, mixing well until the cheese has completely melted into the greens.
  4. Sprinkle the topping on the greens. Run the greens under a broiler until the top is golden brown.
Schema/Recipe SEO Data Markup by Yummly Rich Recipes
https://memoriediangelina.com/2018/10/13/utica-greens/

SaveSave

Enter your email address below and you'll receive new posts in your inbox as soon as they're published, at absolutely no charge. You'll never miss another recipe!

Comments

  1. Great post Frank! I’ve never heard of this dish. A lot of my father’s Calabrian family ended up in Utica but I haven’t been since I was a little girl. I’ll have to see if any family members in the area make this. My cousin lives in that neck of the woods now and mentioned a local dish call chicken riggies. Have you heard of it? It sounds like a true Italian-American invention with all of the qualities you mentioned, it’s probably tasty but doesn’t resemble Italian cuisine much.

    1. Author

      Yes, indeed. In fact, I was debating this year whether to present Utica Greens or Chicken Riggies. I settled on the greens, since it’s the better known of the two, but as you say, Chicken Riggies is another good illustration of how Italian food changed when it crossed the ocean. The combination of chicken and pasta is anathema to most Italians!

    1. Author

      Why not? Especially if you’re serving a simple grilled or roasted meat, I’d say this would go well.And if you add sausages to this, it’s definitely a one-pot meal!

  2. Nice to see a post about this. I live about 30 miles West of Utica (Syracuse) … and this is often made.
    Sad that Joe Morelli passed about a year ago . Cancer. Way too young.

  3. Hello, born and bread in Utica. Although these are Joe’s greens, yes I know him and worked in establishments with him, these are NOT Utica greens. These are Joe’s take. Chesterfield’s loves to take credit for every Italian dish born in Utica not so. Grimaldi’s did not just offer greens once in a while, they were on the menu always and Chef Pasquali is the real inventor. Like chicken riggies that were invented by a chef at Thornberries, where I worked, Chesterfield’s like to take credit for that invention as well. I owned a restaurant where Joe was the chef, do not get me wrong he is very talented but credit due where credit due. He did NOT originate any recipes. One exception is Chicken Joya, perhaps I will share it one day.

  4. My husband’s mother (they both are from Westchester County) served bread crumb toppings on lots of her vegetables although she never made anything like this dish. I’m sure I would enjoy it. Perhaps they use the pickled peppers much like southerners like pickled pepper sauce on their collard and turnip greens.

    1. Author

      I thought that the combination of pickled peppers and greens was odd, but interesting to hear it has parallels in other kinds of cooking.

  5. Here in Palermo, I just had a meal with my cugina Maria, whose grandparents emigrated to the US from central Sicily. We talked a lot about how her grandmother’s cuisine needed to be adapted to reflect what was available to them in rural New Hampshire. I am sure Utica Greens would have been a big hit in their household! They will be in ours!

    1. very good point: often these american-italian dishes, I understand, where born out of necessity: what can I use if that original xyzzy ingredient is not available? I admire a lot this kind of cooking: how to tray to stay close to one’s roots and embracing at the same time the new environment. I even like spaghetti with meatballs (I guess, Hazan would curse me now 🙂 )

  6. I never heard of Utica greens, but I certainly grew up eating cooked escarole. The cherry peppers and bread crumb topping make it extra special.

    1. Author

      I grew up on escarole, too. And cicoria… Personally I’m still rather partial to the simple original dish, but it’s definitely worth a try.

  7. Wonderful bit of Utica Italian American information and well illustrates the Italian transition to the USA. Being raised on escarole in many forms, I look forward to giving this a try.

    1. Author

      Escarole was part of my upbringing, too, along with cicoria. This makes for a nice change of pace.

  8. I have usually judged Italian-American cuisine because, as you said, it is quite different than the original version, but I like how you put it, it should be in a category on its own. This dish looks like the perfect brunch dish, I’d top it with a couple of poached eggs and presto, a perfect brunch. I’d even go as far as to serve it in individual cast iron frying pans.
    Interestingly enough, Hungarians often top vegetables with bread crumbs, usually mixed with sour cream.

  9. I was born in the city of Utica, NY and spent the first 17 years of my life there. I NEVER, EVER heard of “Utica Greens” during that time. Then again, I came from an Irish family and lived on the South side, not the East side which was typically Italian. I moved to Saratoga Springs, NY after college where several restaurant menus here and in nearby Clifton Park feature “Utica Greens.” I personally have never eaten it, but my husband that came from an Italian family has eaten them and loves them. He has made Escarole Soup with Cannellini beans on several occasions and I did eat that!

    1. Author

      Interesting, Karen. Now I won’t be so rude as to ask your age, but the dish only got started in the 1980s and its popularity only some time after that. And I hear that in Utica itself they don’t call it Utica Greens, but rather Greens Morelli or Greens Morelli. Could that explain it? Or as you say, just not growing up as part of the Italian-American community…

    2. They were never called “Utica Greens” until Joe left Grimaldi’s. Prior to that it was just greens. I remember going to Micheal’s when it was on Bleeker St and having steak, eggs and greens at 2 in the morning to ward off that upcoming hangover. Jeesh that was in the 80″s.

  10. Utica Greens! For a second there, I thought you might actually live in Utica, Frank. I mean Utica Greens aren’t really known outside of the area. I live about 1.5 hours from Utica, and folks around here know about Utica Greens…but you still won’t find ’em on restaurant menus. I’ve never tried making them myself, so I appreciate the recipe. I need to give this a shot soon!

    1. Author

      I grew up in “downstate” New York (Westchester County) although some people in the City actually call that “Upstate”… 😂

      Interesting to hear that restaurants around you don’t offer Utica Greens, I guess you actually have to go to Utica for that? Or, of course, make it at home. As I mentioned, I like the idea that a dish stays local. It’s a rarity these days.

    1. Author

      Worth a try, Paola. Makes for a change of pace! I’d be curious to know what they’d think of a dish like this in Italy.

  11. That breadcrumb topping looks amazing! I’d give it a try!

    I went to Taste of Italy last night, and while most dishes are pretty authentic, there was one stand that had some New Orleans muffaletta sandwich with layers and layers of filling. The guy tried to convince me it was amazing, but I couldn’t do it. I have to say, I do like simple best, it’s all in how we’re raised and what our taste buds are used to, I suppose.

    1. Author

      Ha! I’ve actually been curious to try muffuletta, with the thought I might feature it one of these days. Like this dish, I think it would be interesting to experience and probably quite tasty. But in terms of my personal preference, like you, I definitely prefer the simplicity and balance of Italian cuisine.

  12. So fun. In a related vein, I also love trying to trace the name changes from Italian to Italian-American dishes. In my husband’s family, for example, they called struffoli struvela. Another family of Italian descent always raved about grandma’s molangiani, which was some sort of a home-canned eggplant relish thing (sort of like caponata). Finally it occurred to me that it was probably just a bastardization of melanzane.

    1. Author

      That is probably it. Was that family Sicilian by any chance? Melanzana is “mulingiana” is Sicilian….

  13. Interesting and informative – as a European born Australian I have at times had difficulties both understanding and appreciating Italian-American dish compositions as all my experiences relate to yearly journeys to Italy and what can be obtained in the Italian restaurants here. There are differences as there are with your take of Asian dishes with which we are so familiar here. Great to read when and how things evolved up your way . . . no problems with the offering either, tho’ the hot chilli peppers are a newbie . . . 🙂 !

    1. Author

      Well, the chili peppers aka peperoncini wouldn’t be out of place in sautéed greens in Italy, but the pickled kind is definitely a departure…

  14. This was fascinating. I can see how the dish evolved. One to try. I’ll keep an eye out for escarole, it pops up seasonally usually. The added texture of the breadcrumbs sounds great.

    1. Author

      Escarole is definitely worth looking out for. It has a wonderful mild yet slightly bitter flavor. I grew up on it along with chicory.

  15. Many of the Italian-American dishes described in Memorie di Angelina are new to me. A friend who grew up near Buffalo prepared a chicken dish–chicken Francese–I’d never heard of. I grew near SF and find that the Italian-American dishes in the Northern California are different that what I’ve experienced in NY, Chicago, Boston . Quite interesting to see how Italian-American dishes differ based on where Italian immigrants came from and where they settled.

    1. Author

      Well, San Francisco seems to be another place with a distinctive Italian-American cuisine, if you consider Cioppino, for example. I understand that unlike back East, most of whom were from southern Italy, the Italian-American community in California was largely from Liguria. May explain the differences.

  16. I’ve not heard of this dish! Sounds wonderful — I love escarole. Although a lot of Italian-American dishes ARE pretty uniform in essentials, I find there’s actually a lot of regional differences, although some are rather subtle. Ziti or penne rule around the NYC area, for example; it’s mostaccioli in St. Louis. More importantly, the sauces will be different — a basic tomato sauce will be cooked much longer in St. Louis, and usually is spicier. Both are definitely similar; but can taste so different! Anyway, really like this dish — I’ll be trying it. Thanks.

    1. Author

      Thanks, John! Interesting to hear about the use of mostaccioli for baked pasta in St. Louis. To be honest, I didn’t know that St. Louis had an Italian-American community..!

  17. Frank, what a lovely story and fantastic sounding recipe. We can usually get escarole at our veggie market, so this ones going to be tried very soon. Thanks for all the details for making this.

  18. This is fabulous! I think I’ll make it for Thanksgiving, but as a side dish, not as an appetizer. I love the top!

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.