The summer season is here and that means it's time to light up the grill for barbecuing. For many Italian Americans that means roasting red peppers and searing off some hot Italian sausages. But it's also a great opportunity for Italian Spiedini, Italy’s answer to the kebab.
Today in Italy, spiedini vary widely based on region and are made from a variety of slices of meat, vegetables, fish, sausages, cheese and even bread. They can be stuffed, and some recipes call for finishing the dish in the oven.
The term spiedini literally means "skewer" in Italian, similar to a Turkish kebab and other skewered meats across the Mediterranean. This simple food preparation has its origins at least as far back as the medieval period when iron skewers and spits were used over open flames.
As is typical of Italian cuisine, regional variations abound. Spiedini alla Siciliana is stuffed and breaded before being grilled with Romano cheese. The stuffings vary, but usually include breadcrumbs and cheese, with pistachios or pine nuts also common.
Spiedini alla Romano combines pieces of Italian bread, mozzarella cheese, and anchovy paste into a kind of grilled sandwich. These spiedini are finished in the oven. According to LIFE magazine in 1966, these meatless kebabs were a staple of shepherds living in the foothills outside of Rome.
In Genoa, mushrooms and artichokes are frequent additions to the skewers, and spiedini alla marinara, meaning the fisherman's skewer, often has swordfish or mixed seafood.
Spiedini Comes to America
Spiedini are not typically part of a national Italian American cuisine. In part, this is likely because most immigrants arriving during the great migration had not eaten meat before leaving Italy. However, there are some local examples of spiedini popular with enclaves of Italian Americans in specific regions of the United States.
In the area around Binghamton, New York, the Spiedie is an Italian hero sandwich made from spiedini meat and Italian bread. Susan Russo in The Encyclopedia of Sandwiches credits Augustine Iacovelli with inventing the sandwich.
Iacovelli immigrated from the Abruzzo region in 1929 and a decade later began selling sandwiches at his shop, Augie's, located in Endicott, New York. The original spiedie was made from lamb roasted over coals. Other shops in Endicott then picked up on the “Spiedi” as it was originally called.
The Spiedie proved a popular dish and by 1951, the Lupo brothers opened a grocery store selling the sandwiches. The Lupos helped increase the popularity of the sandwich and began selling jarred marinade. The shop now focuses on the wholesale marketplace including sauces and packaged meats.
Today, spiedies are also made from veal, pork, and chicken, and for more than three decades, the region has held an annual Spiedie festival. The food and hot air balloon festival brings more than 100,000 people to the area and includes a Spiedie cooking contest.
Spiedini in Kansas City
Kansas City might be better known for American-style barbecue, and now, perhaps, Italian-influenced tacos, but it's also home to a local style of chicken spiedini.
Columbus Park, Kansas City has been home to Italian Americans since the 1860s when the first immigrants settled in the neighborhood. The Italians arrived as railroad workers, but soon set up permanently in the city and grew into a thriving ethnic enclave.
Mike Garozzo opened his namesake restaurant in the Columbus Park neighborhood in 1989. Garazzo's was a classic Italian American "red sauce" joint serving up dishes inspired by southern Italian cuisine. That included a traditional spiedini alla Siciliana, a stuffed dish coated in breadcrumbs.
With customers looking for lighter fare, Garazzo eventually developed a spiedini recipe using chicken. The Garozzo's menu now has numerous spiedini dishes served over pasta and has grown into a regional dish imitated by other restaurants in the area.
The Kansas City chicken spiedini has since evolved into a regionally recognized Italian American dish.
Ian MacAllen is America Domani's Senior Correspondent and the author of Red Sauce: How Italian Food Became American. He is a writer, editor, and graphic designer living in Brooklyn. Connect with him at IanMacAllen.com or on Twitter @IanMacAllen.