If you’re hoping to get a taste of Italian Wedding Soup at your next Italian wedding reception, don’t get your hopes up, nor should a new bride expect to inherit the recipe from her mother on the day of her wedding as long been rumored. Instead, the name comes from a mistranslation of a traditional southern Italian soup known as Minestra Maritata, a winter holiday dish.
The English translation does a disservice to the poetry of the original Italian. The phrase minestra maritata refers to the marriage of meat and vegetables, a matrimony of flavor rather than a celebration of nuptials between a husband and wife. The signature flavors of the soup are bitter vegetables wedded to meat, often, but not always pork. Originating in southern Italy, minestra maritata is a classic example of cucina povera, the poor kitchen. The main ingredients vary by region but typically include undesirable or tough, hard-to-cook vegetables and scraps from butchering meat making it a true peasant dish.
The soup dates back to the 15th or 16th century, a time before the Columbian Exchange when New World vegetables such as the tomato were first introduced to Europe. The vegetables are traditionally more bitter than sweet, and the weed-like plants grow close to year-round in the southern end of the peninsula. For this reason, minestra maritata is mostly considered a winter meal.
Commonly the soup is served as part of Christmas and Easter celebrations, and according to food writer Katie Parla, author of Food of The Italian South, in the Campania region, the soup is prepared during the annual slaughtering of the pigs, also a winter tradition. There, pig bones are boiled to make broth, scraps of pork are added, and bitter greens like dandelion leaves, cardoons, and escarole are betrothed to the meat. The rich pork stock pairs well with the bitter leaves.
Elsewhere, in places like Calabria and Puglia, chicory, fennel, and celery are common. The food historian Anna Del Conte notes in The Concise Gastronomy of Italy that in these regions, the soup is often topped with pecorino cheese and breadcrumbs and then baked. The resulting soup is more like a pie. In Naples, the soup is served at the celebration of Santo Stefano just after Christmas. This version is heavy on meat including beef and should include at least seven different greens, one for each of the Catholic sacraments. According to food writer John Mariani in his Dictionary of Italian Food and Drink, another Neapolitan variation goes by the name pignato grasso, meaning pinched fat, perhaps referencing the tiny meatballs that sometimes accompany the soup.
Italian American Wedding Soup is equally varied. The most common iteration in America features bitter greens like escarole, small meatballs, and pea-sized pasta, but even this isn't always the case. Sometimes Wedding Soup is simply called minestrone, or where beans are included, it might even be referred to as pasta e fagioli. The names are mixed and matched from an array of recipes depending on local or family customs. Adding to the confusion, the Progresso brand offers two versions in their line of prepared soups: Italian Wedding Soup and Chickarina. The Chickarina forgoes spinach and includes chunks of chicken in addition to the small meatballs.
The tiny meatballs frequently associated with Wedding Soup are more customary in the United States. The meat in most Italian versions of wedding soup includes chunks of sausage, pork ribs, pork skin, salami, or in some regions, intestine. And of course, many Italian recipes do include meatballs ranging in size from as small as a grape to as large as golf balls. The intent of the recipe is to use the available food and prevent waste.
Adding pasta to the soup is more common in the United States as well. The Ronzoni macaroni company helped popularize a version using orzo, but acini di pepe, the "seeds of peppercorn" shaped macaroni, is a standard choice. Some versions of the soup include dumplings known as cazzetti d’angelo which translate to the masculine parts of an angel. For the truly desperate, spaghetti chopped up into tiny pieces can also serve as a substitute.
While Italian immigrants brought various minestra maritata recipes with them to Little Italys all over the country, the area of western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio has an abnormally strong affinity for it. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that the region is the leading consumer market for canned Wedding Soup from the Progresso company. Meanwhile, just across the state line, the Mt. Carmel Society in Lowellville, Ohio hosted wedding soup cooking competitions in 2018 and 2019. The popularity of the soup has meant even non-Italian restaurants in the region often have added wedding soup to the menu.
One thing should be made clear, however. Although Wedding Soup's historical connections might be divorced from actual matrimony, there's no rule against serving it at a big Italian wedding.