Conventional wisdom holds that Italian wedding soup—or minestra maritata—is named not for when it is served, but rather for its perfect marriage of ingredients. Which is true. But that’s not the whole truth.
Head to Campania—the southwestern chunk of Italy that is home to the Amalfi Coast—and you learn quickly that Italian wedding soup has nothing—and everything—to do with weddings. And that it is quite unlike the meatball-laden Italian American versions we know best in the United States.
All of this becomes evident when I visit the farm run by Antonietta di Gruttola and her husband, Rinaldo di Rubbo, in Ariano Irpino, about 100 kilometers inland from Naples. They grew up in the area and di Gruttola was taught by her mother to harvest the wild escarole, borage, chard, thistle and mustard greens that would go into our dinner that evening.
“My parents insisted I learn how to cook [minestra maritata] because it’s such an important dish,” she said. “It is eaten not just at weddings, but at any feast day. It has been an important dish in my life since my First Communion when I was 11. We ate it at my wedding. And at my daughter’s wedding.”
Despite that, the name nonetheless indeed refers to the marriage of ingredients—namely a mix of wild bittersweet greens and meaty broth. That meat—never meatballs—varies by occasion. For everyday serving, it’s often chicken. For weddings and other special events, beef and pork—including bits of prosciutto and pancetta—are preferred. Either way, the finished dish is more about the vegetables and broth; the meat is treated more as a seasoning than main event.
That evening, di Gruttola prepared the chicken version, first by building a broth from chicken, celery, tomatoes and garlic. In another pot, layers of wild greens and pecorino Romano. When the broth was ready, she strained it and poured it over the greens and cheese, then simmered it slowly until tender. The chicken was returned just at the end.
The result was, indeed, a lovely marriage, the broth savory and rich, the greens tender, shredded chicken punctuating it all. It was splendid, even if di Gruttola’s medley of wild greens plucked from the orchard outside put her version a bit beyond what most home cooks in the U.S. could manage.
For that, I turned to the five sisters who run La Tavernetta Vittozzi in Naples, an off-the-track eatery where we’ve found recipe ease and inspiration many times before. They happily demonstrated their own take on this classic, preferring the richness of pork and beef, and accessible greens—escarole, broccoli leaves and savoy cabbage.
The dish began as cucina povera, they explain, using mostly scraps of meat to flavor ample—and inexpensive—greens. In time, special versions using better cuts for celebratory meals caught on. Theirs is a favorite at Christmas, as well as weddings.
Topped with croutons and a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese, the result is meaty, yet light and fresh, with flavors and textures that complement, not compete. Truly, a winning marriage.