As regular readers know, every October, which is Italian-American Heritage Month here in the US, we feature an Italian-American dish. This year’s entry is the famously misnamed Wedding Soup. A mistranslation of minestra maritata, a classic Neapolitan soup whose name means “married soup”, the marriage in question doesn’t involve a human couple but the “marriage” of various meats and greens.
I’ve written before about how Italian dishes tend to become more extravagant when they cross the Atlantic: richer, heavier, with more ingredients and more emphasis on meats over vegetables. Well, Wedding Soup might be the exception that proves the rule. It is one of the few instances where the New World version is actually simpler and lighter than the Old World original.
While the recipe for minestra maritata calls for a hefty mixture of four or more different meats and four different greens simmered for two or three hours, resulting in a dish that is more like a stew than a true soup, Wedding Soup is a delicate bowl of tiny meatballs and escarole briefly simmered in abundant broth. Most recipes also call for pasta—missing from minestra maritata—for good measure. Unlike minestra maritata, which is usually reserved for special occasions like Christmas or Easter, so long as you have the broth on hand, you can whip up a Wedding Soup any time in well under an hour.
In any event, while it may be simpler and lighter than minestra maritata, Wedding Soup is plenty tasty. And very comforting, perfect for these chilly autumn evenings, warming but not too filling at the same time.
- 2 liters (8 cups) homemade broth, or more as needed
- 250 g (1/2 lb) escarole, about half a medium-sized head, cut into bite-sized pieces
- 250 g (1/2 lb) acini di pepe or other small soup pasta
- Salt, if needed
For the meatballs:
- 500 g (1 lb) ground beef, or a mixture of pork and beef
- 75 g (2-1/2 oz) fine breadcrumbs
- 50 g (2 oz) parmigiano-reggiano, freshly grated
- 1 or 2 cloves of garlic, finely minced
- A sprig or two of fresh parsley, finely minced
- 1 eggs
- Salt and pepper
Start by making the meatballs: Mix all the meatball ingredients in a large bowl until you have a smooth and uniform mixture. (I use my well-washed hands. It’s the easiest and quickest way to do this.) Take the mixture and form it into a ball, then throw the ball forcefully down into the bowl a few times until you have a compact mass. Wrap the mixture in plastic film and let it rest for about 20 minutes.
After it has finished resting, unwrap the mixture and pinch off olive-sized chunks, rolling them around inside the palms of your hands to form tiny meatballs. Lay them out on a tray or cutting board until needed.
Bring the broth to a gentle simmer, then add the meatballs and escarole. Let them simmer until the meatballs are fully cooked through and the escarole is tender, about 15 minutes or so.
In another pot, bring water to a boil, add a good pinch of salt and then the pasta. Boil the pasta until it is just tender. When it is done, transfer the pasta to the soup. Let it simmer along with the meatballs and escarole at the gentlest heat possible for just a minute or two.
If the soup is too thick for your taste, add a more broth or water. Taste and adjust for seasoning. You may not need any if the broth and the meatballs are already seasoned.
Serve hot, with grated cheese on the side for those who want it.
When I think Wedding Soup, I think of acini di pepe, the “peppercorn” pasta pictured above. But this tiny pasta can be a bit hard to find in stores, so feel free to substitute orzo. (Fun fact: The pasta commonly called “orzo” here in the US is called risoni in Italy. Risoni means “big rice” in Italian. The word orzo means barley and that word is used for the grain and not the pasta. Not sure how or why this pasta changed names. It seems to me that it resembles rice rather more than barley) In any event, I’ve seen versions of Wedding Soup with other small soup pastas like stelline (aka pastina) as well. I’ve even seen recipes with tubetti, which can do in a pinch but majorly alters the mouthfeel.
Most recipes for Wedding Soup have you add the pasta directly to the soup, which saves you cleaning an extra pot. But personally I prefer to cook the pasta separately, adding it to the soup pot only to finish cooking for a minute or so, so it doesn’t cloud or thicken the broth too much.
Escarole, to my mind, is the green you want for a proper Wedding Soup, but curly endive also works well. Or, taking your cue from the original Neapolitan recipe, you might want to use a mix escarole and endive. I’ve seen latter-day recipes calling for spinach, added at the last minute just until it wilts. This doesn’t particularly appeal to me. The distinct, slightly bitter flavor of the escarole or endive is what gives this soup its Italian character. I suspect spinach has crept into recipes as over time the two original greens have become less common in our supermarkets, especially outside areas with Italian communities.
Some recipes for Wedding Soup tell you to fry the meatballs before adding them to the broth. That’s not original and, to my mind, detracts from the soup. Frying alters its gentle flavor and darkens its color. It might seem odd not to fry the meatballs, but gentle poaching works perfectly in this recipe, just as it does in the lovely Sicilian soup called sciusceddu.
There’s also a version of Wedding Soup where you add a mixture of beaten egg and cheese to the soup, usually omitting the pasta. This, too, recalls one version of sciusceddu, where you mix an egg and ricotta mixture into the soup. Makes you wonder if Wedding Soup doesn’t have roots in Sicily as well as Naples. It wouldn’t surprise me. This kind of fusion of regional cuisines mirrors the Italian-American communities, where people from different regions of Italy (in the US, usually from the south) mingled together.
There’s a version of Wedding Soup, popularized by the Progresso company under the name ‘Chickarina Soup‘, where the greens are replaced with diced carrots and celery. Most copycat recipes have you sauté these aromatics, sometime with diced onion too, before adding broth and poaching the meatballs. In yet other versions, you add these aromatics in addition to the greens.
- 2 liters 8 cups homemade broth or more as needed
- 250g 1/2 lb escarole, about half a medium-sized head cut into bite-sized pieces
- 250g 1/2 lb acini di pepe or other small soup pasta
- Salt if needed
For the meatballs
- 500g 1 lb ground beef, or a mixture of pork and beef
- 75g 2-1/2 oz fine breadcrumbs
- 50g 2 oz parmigiano-reggiano freshly grated
- 1 or 2 cloves garlic finely minced
- 1 or 2 sprigs fresh parsley finely minced
- 1 egg
- Salt and pepper to taste
Making the meatballs
- Mix all the meatball ingredients in a large bowl until you have a smooth and uniform mixture. Take the mixture and form it into a ball, then throw the ball forcefully down into the bowl a few times until you have a compact mass. Wrap the mixture in plastic film and let it rest for about 20 minutes.
- After it has finished resting, unwrap the mixture and pinch off olive-sized chunks, rolling them around inside the palms of your hands to form tiny meatballs. Lay them out on a tray or cutting board until needed.
- Bring the broth to a gentle simmer, then add the meatballs and escarole. Let them simmer until the meatballs are fully cooked through and the escarole is tender, about 15 minutes or so.
- In another pot, bring water to a boil, add a good pinch of salt and then the pasta. Boil the pasta until it is just tender. When it is done, transfer the pasta to the soup. Let it simmer along with the meatballs and escarole at the gentlest heat possible for just a minute or two.
- If the soup is too thick for your taste, add a more broth or water. Taste and adjust for seasoning. You may not need any if the broth and the meatballs are already seasoned.
- Serve hot, with grated cheese on the side for those who want it.
Wow!! This was amazing! I usually brown my meatballs so I kept checking to make sure I read it right or maybe there was a typo. But then I just went for it and plunked them in the broth.
This was so simple to make and sooo delicious!! Thank you!
You’re welcome, Regina! Thanks for the positive feedback. 🙂
Oh my goodness! This post brings back so many memories! My grandfather was an amazing cook. His wedding soup recipe was very similar to this one. HOWEVER, he had the grandchildren roll the meatballs and he was very, very particular…they could be no larger than a pea!!! Yes, pea sized! I was ten years old and remember thinking he was going to be so proud of the meatballs that I rolled, because they were much smaller than the ones my cousins rolled. But when he came over to check them, he made me redo half of them and make them even smaller! It was all worth it. The soup was amazing!
What a story, Kim! I can only imagine the patience you’d need to roll the meatballs that tiny. And the small hands. No wonder he had the kinds do it, lol!
My mom used to make this for holidays, and always used escarole. I just made about 50 mini meatballs and tucked them away in the freezer to continue the tradition. I’m going to just poach them in the soup as you suggest, rather than frying or broiling them.
Let the holiday cooking begin! Thanks for stopping by, Linda!
I grew up in NJ (Hoboken and Cliffside Park) but now live in Virginia so I rarely get escarole. I can get broccoli rabe whenever I want, go figure. We always started Christmas dinner when I was young with an escarole soup, broth simmered with Italian sausages (both hot and sweet) and escarole. no pasta.. My father was Calabrian, not sure if that was where the recipe (sausage part) came from.
The hot sausage part certainly sounds Calabrian! And not all version of Wedding Soup include pasta. In fact, some people are emphatic that it shouldn’t and the Old World original doesn’t. In any event, it does sound tasty. I may give it a go some time!
There was a time a while back when Italian Wedding Soup had become a trend, and every resaurant around me seemed to serve it. But I swear that what they were serving was the same old minestroni, with a new name. Your soup is completely different, and so interesting.
I’m sure you’re right about their Wedding Soup being rebranded minestrone. Some versions of it do include a lot of extraneous vegetables.
I didn’t grow up with this dish. My first exposure was in the hospital cafeteria and I was molto confusa! The mistranslation is pretty funny 😆
Indeed it is! We didn’t make this soup at home, either, when I was growing up. But it makes for a nice change once in a while… and a definite bit of Americana.
We have a German version of wedding soup. It’s a clear broth with egg custard and small meatballs.
Sounds very nice, too. Do you have the recipe on your blog?
This sounds like a real comfort meal, perfect with the cold weather.
It is, Raymund. Thanks so much for stopping by!
I’ve always been curious on the story behind the name “Wedding Soup”, but I guess the story is extremely simple LOL. Thanks for the clarification and recipe – delicious!
Thanks, Ben! The story is simple in a way, but I still do wonder how that translation got mangled…
This is definitely a favourite in our home, but I’ve pretty much done everything wrong according to your gorgeous recipe. Still delicious to me, anyway. To continue the trend, I often use Israeli couscous, slightly larger than the traditional acini de pepe but a similar mouthfeel. Perfect timing for our chilly fall days and nights. I have a pot of Ramen going for lunch today, but will get this on our menu plan this week for sure.
Hope you like this take on Wedding Soup, Eva!
I always learn so much from your posts, Frank – thank you for that! I had no idea about the true origins of Wedding Soup. I do know that Laura loves Italian wedding soup. She grew up eating it, so it has a special place in her heart…plus, it’s delicious! And the notes about various greens is fascinating here. It does make sense as I have to go to one certain grocery store here to find escarole. I’m putting this one on the list as we’re marching quickly into soup season here in upstate New York!
And what a season it is, David! Nothing like a steaming bowl of soup, amirite?
What a delightful story and tasty offering ! Minus the escarole it is also prepared thus throughout the Nordics perchance cabbage taking the place of the latter . . . but, reading Mad’s words – we normally fish out the meat and THEN drink the soup !!
Interesting, Eha, to hear there’s a similar dish in northern Europe. Makes sense, since this kind of hearty soup is perfect for chilly weather.
I had no idea this was an Italian-American dish, Frank. And the version I have is even lighter and uses chicken – but I have no idea where the recipe came from. I really have to try your version with the meats and escarole… Thanks for the history lesson.. and now I also need to look up Minestre Maritata!
Minestra maritata is worth looking up, David. It’s hefty but pure comfort food when you’re in the mood. And have a hearty appetite!
This looks wonderful, and I have never made it. My kids used to love acini de Pepe!!!
Definitely worth a try, Mimi. This is a favorite with the kids.
My late Dad’s favorite soup. I agree that escarole is the green of choice for this soup.
Definitely! Thanks so much for your comment, Jane. 🙂
Such a great soup, and one I haven’t made in a long, long time. It’s been on my “list” of stuff to make, but who knows when that’ll actually happen? 🙂 Anyway, your version looks excellent. Really good stuff — thanks.
Thanks, John! It’d definitely be worth revisiting this one.
I love the name and the soup looks delicious! The original reminds me of Italian stews where you drink the broth and then eat the meat.
Thanks, MD! This is very much in that tradition of Italian soups, especially the original version.