LOWELLVILLE, Ohio — Nancy Grapevine and her sister, Marilee Pilkington, have been making their mother’s wedding soup for longer than they can remember. Like any self-respecting Italian cooks, they think it’s the best. Award-winning, even, which is why on a recent Saturday, they braved a wicked winter blast that dumped several inches of snow on this tiny village along the Mahoning River to enter a wedding soup cook-off.
The starter that’s a staple at so many red sauce Italian-American restaurants is the highlight of a “Bigga Day” party that kicks off the Mt. Carmel Society’s annual Italian festival each July. So when members of the Italian men’s club were trying to come up with a new fundraiser last October, they decided: why not host a contest to determine who does it the best?
More than a third of the town’s population traces its roots to the Mezzogiorno region of southern Italy. Asking people to pit their families’ recipes against one another, said club president Dave Gagliano, who lives just over the Pennsylvania border in Hillsville, Lawrence County, would keep the tradition of Italian foods going.
That, “and we knew it would be a hit” for the society founded in 1895 by Pietro Pirone as a homeless shelter for Italian immigrants. Especially since there was just one rule: Contestants each had to bring at least three gallons of soup to the club for the blind tasting.
All 20 spots were snapped up within three days, and the club also sold all 200 of its $20 tickets to the event, which included pizza, hors d’oeuvres and a silent auction in addition to a tasting spoon and ballot.
Ms. Grapevine and her sister carried in five gallons of the soup recipe their mother, Mary Perry, used to feed to New Castle fireworks master Louis Zambelli and his workers a half-century ago. They spent the entire day simmering and straining the broth, to which they added chopped chicken, miniature beef meatballs, escarole and the tiny homemade dough balls their mom always referred to as “hickies.”
What makes the soup so incredibly delicious, said Ms. Grapevine, is that they follow their mom’s golden rule of never putting garlic in the meatballs, and cooking them just so.
“You want your teeth just to sink into them,” she said.
The soup was good enough for the sisters to be voted runners-up in the popular vote. But it was Ed Snitzer, a plumbing contractor who also runs an Italian food trailer called Jaam Concession, who took home the judges’ trophy along with $500.
The Youngstown, Ohio native attributed his win to his soup’s quarter-inch-square croutons, which are handmade with grated pecorino. “Pasta?” he said when asked about his competitors’ versions. “True Italian wedding soup doesn’t have it!”
A peasant dish born of necessity
Pittsburgh likes to call claim to wedding soup because of the many generations of Italians who’ve made it a must-have dish at restaurants as diverse as Big Jim’s in lower Greenfield, Delallo’s Fort Couch Cafe in Bethel Park. La Gondola Pizzeria in Market Square and Eat’n Park. The truth is, the humble concoction of broth with greens and meatballs is equally popular in the parts of Ohio with large Italian populations, such as Youngstown and Cleveland.
It’s thought to have originated in Naples in the 15th century, before the tomato was introduced into Italian cuisine, though some argue it was Spanish cooks who brought a similar stew called olla podrida there a century earlier from Toledo and other parts of central Spain.
In Italy, says food historian and Italian food authority Francine Segan, the soup is traditionally eaten at Christmas and Easter because it’s hearty and makes an easy extra course. Where you won’t find it is at weddings. That’s because its original name in Italian, minestra maritata, doesn’t have anything to do with a bride or groom. It actually translates to “married soup” or “wedded soup.” The green vegetables and meat “si sposa bene” — they go really well together.
While today the dish is typically made with escarole or swiss chard, in olden days it probably featured puntarelle, a type of Catalonian chicory, said Ms. Segan; borage leaves also would have been essential in the greens mix. There definitely would have been the tiny meatballs made from different cuts of meat that are so common in Italy, and perhaps also sausage and the chicken that would have cooked off the bone while making the slow-simmered broth.
And it almost always had tiny dumpling-like homemade pasta called Cazzetti d’angelo, which roughly translates to the private parts of male angels.
Because it was a peasant food created from scraps and leftovers, it’s almost impossible to find two recipes that are alike, said Viviana Altieri, founder and executive director of Istituto Mondo Italiano in Regent Square. That’s especially true if you’re comparing American versions to those in Italy; Italians grow other types of leafy vegetables and have cuts of meat that aren’t available in the U.S.
In a typical red sauce restaurant here in the U.S., she says, you would normally see it with tiny meatballs floating in a bowl surrounded by acini di pepe pasta. Back home in Italy, “you would make the broth with small pork spare ribs, beef shank, at times little pieces of prosciutto.”
Italian chef Lidia Bastianich in “Lidia’s Mastering The Art of Italian Cuisine” crafts meatballs from sweet Italian sausage, while Giada Laurentiis opts for a mixture of pork and beef. Matty Matheson, star of Viceland’s “It’s Suppertime!” bucks tradition completely by eschewing greens and adding golf-sized meatballs to the soup. He also trades the commonplace orzo, pastina or acini di pepe for a savory “lace” made by whisking a mixture of egg, Romano cheese and fresh bread crumbs into the hot broth.
At Big Jim’s, the preferred green is escarole, and the popular homemade soup includes chunks of chicken along with beef meatballs and sliced carrot — an addition that would surely drive Ms. Grapevine mad.
While the Lowellville native seasons the broth with the veggie, it’s always strained out before adding the greens and pasta. “There is no orange in the Italian flag,” she said.
A perfect assimilation of flavors and textures
Wedding soup is a forgiving soup in that any combination of meats and vegetables creates a warm bowl of Italian comfort. But there are some rules, says chef Michael Alberini, who owns an upscale Italian restaurant in Youngstown and helped judge Mt. Carmel Society’s cook-off.
Today’s home cook might not have the time or patience to make the old-style wedding soup he grew up with, and which took all day to cook using a variety of meats, homemade broth, pastina and a garden of vegetables including escarole. But with many quality boxed broths available on store shelves, even quick versions can create beautiful flavors and elicit joy, he says, if you follow four simple tips.
For starters, go easy on the salt. This is especially true if you’re using a boxed broth instead of making it from scratch. Don’t blindly add it without first tasting, even if the recipe calls for it.
Be sure to skim the fat off the soup before you serve it. What makes wedding soup taste so rich is the oil content from all the proteins simmering over a long period of time. If you don’t skim it off as it rises to the top, it will act as a barrier to the wonderful extracted flavors you’ve been cooking all day. “If you don’t get rid of it, it really blocks the flavor profile,” he says.
Don’t go crazy with the seasonings. Spicy meatballs will overpower the nuanced flavor of the soup. It’s the broth that should be enhancing the meatballs, not visa versa.
Take it slow. As Americans, we’re used to instant gratification, says Mr. Alberini. So we tend to use higher heat when cooking to rush the process. But that disallows the proteins in wedding soup to break down into a tender product. And the last thing you want when you’re eating soup is to have to work through a chewy piece of chicken or a dry meatball.
“You can’t rush the flavor of love,” he says.
And if you don’t cook? No worries. General Mills, makers of Progresso’s line of premium soups, has a winner with its canned wedding soup in Western Pennsylvania. Exact sales are proprietary, of course, “but I can confirm that people in Pittsburgh are definitely eating more of Progresso’s Italian Wedding Soup than people in other parts of the country,” spokesman Mike Siemienas wrote in an email. He add, “There is no doubt that people in Pittsburgh love it .”
Gretchen McKay: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.
Italian Wedding Soup
Feel free to substitute or your favorite green for the escarole in this recipe.
For the meatballs
½ pound beef, ¼ pound each ground veal and pork,
2 tablespoons fresh parsley
¼ cup grated Romano cheese
¼ teaspoon salt
⅛ teaspoon pepper
1 egg, slightly beaten
2 slices white bread soaked in about ¼ cup milk
For the broth
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
2 large carrots, diced
12 cups high-quality chicken broth (do not use low-sodium)
½ head escarole, shredded or chopped
1 bay leaf
2 cups shredded, roasted chicken
1 cup pastina or acini di pepe,, cooked according to package instructions
Parmesan cheese, for serving
Make meatballs. Place all ingredients except bread in a large bowl. Squeeze milk from bread and break apart. Add to the bowl and mix until ingredients are thoroughly combined. Form into grape-sized meatballs, and set aside while you make broth.
In a large soup pot or Dutch oven over medium heat, heat the olive oil. Add the onions, carrots, and celery and cook, stirring frequently, until the vegetables are softened, about 8 minutes. Add the chicken broth, escarole and bay leaf, and season with salt and pepper.
When the soup comes to a boil, add the prepared meatballs and chicken. Lower to a simmer and cook with the lid on for 30 minutes.Taste for seasoning and adjust, then cooked pasta and cook just until heated through..
Remove and discard the bay leaf before serving. Serve hot with Parmesan cheese at the table.
Makes 8 to 10 servings.
— Gretchen McKay