Welcome to Italian-American Week, when we’re taking a bit of a break from our usual stories to focus on the important stuff: red sauce, stuffed pasta, porchetta and the chefs and home cooks making it all happen.
In the realm of Italian-American cuisine, there are countless dishes that have no precedence in the motherland (think veal parm and any pasta made with chicken). Many others are simply riffs on Italy’s regional recipes, which have been adapted or diluted to fit their new context. The latter is the case of minestra maritata, known in English as “Italian wedding soup” but more accurately translated as “wedded broths.” Despite of the moniker, the dish is not served at Italian weddings. Instead, the name refers to the dish’s nuanced flavors, betrothed as they are blended and simmered, achieving a brothy, meaty, vegetal polygamy.
The dish originates in the southern Italian region of Campania, where it’s found in various incarnations linked to traditional rituals. In the Alto Casertano, minestra maritata is related to the annual pig slaughter. In the depths of winter, pigs are butchered and their bones are boiled with any remaining scraps of the previous year’s prosciutto. The broth is enriched with dandelion greens, cardoons and escarole, each pruned and prepared separately before heading into the meaty broth. In the Irpinia zone of southern Campania, deep in the Apennines, most recipes for this winter dish also call for nnoglia di maiale, a salami made from pressed, cured pork stomach and intestines.
The pork theme continues in Naples, where minestra maritata, praised for its restorative properties, is served for the Feast of Santo Stefano on December 26. The Neapolitan version is richer in its meat content, perhaps owing to the wealth of Naples compared with the rural environs. The soup unifies three separate broths: pork skin and other scraps, beef shank and hen. A dozen or so foraged and cultivated greens from around Mt. Vesuvius are also prepared separately before joining the broths and meaty bits.
On the nearby Amalfi Coast, the soup is prepared around Christmas and Easter. Owing to their distinct seasonal ingredients, the winter and spring versions could technically be considered different dishes altogether.
Though there are no sure traces, immigrants from Campania must have brought their varied versions of minestra maritata to the United States. Some considered the soup an exclusively winter dish, while others embraced both the Christmas and Easter associations. Lacking the variety of bitter herbs available in south-central Italy, the diversity of greens was scaled back and reduced primarily to escarole. The connection to the pork-slaughter ritual dissipated, small chicken meatballs crept into the equation and a new dish, with a name similar to but decidedly divorced from its origins, was born.
Katie Parla, a New Jersey native, writes about food, drinks and travel for The New York Times and Australian Gourmet Traveller and is the author of the blog ParlaFood.com. She splits her time between Rome, Istanbul and the tri-state area.
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