Most American, it seems, picture Italians eating pasta 24/7 – and there are just enough stereotypical photos making the rounds to keep that vision before our eyes. We, on the other hand, always picture Italians eating soup.
We have our reasons.
First and foremost, virtually all Italian cooking was born of austerity rather than abundance. If you’ve visited Italy, you already have the picture of a land – apart from its handful of verdant river valleys in the north – that’s dry and unforgiving. The battle to feed oneself was won each day neither quickly nor easily.
In a sense, growing grapes for some of the world’s most revered wines proves the point. “The vines they must suffer,” goes an old French vineyard saying. It would have to translate perfectly into Italian, where the prescription often applies to the people tending the vines as well.
For another thing, while pasta itself is both cheap and fairly easy to cook, just about nothing is cheaper or easier than poor cuts of meat or seafood cooked a long time with broth, or even in nothing but water, as the name of one famous Italian soup eloquently testifies. “Acquacotta,” after all, comes to us in English as Cooked Water. Now that’s what we call rustic eating.
Generally, soups require little to no fancy cooking equipment and even less skill. We always come back to the simple truth: If you slap a few things in a pot and cook them until they’re done in water, adding a bit of salt and pepper makes a soup that most of us would find satisfying. Adding beans, as many regions of Italy do, begins to seem like extravagance
This recipe would give you something on the minestra-minestrone scale. Minestra is Italian for a light soup, more like broth, really. It’s nourishing and can be quite tasty. But if you keep adding more meat, more vegetables and possibly more varieties of beans, you end up with “Big or Strong Minestra,” which of course is minestrone. This dish is Italy’s clean-out-the-fridge recipe. Just about every culture has one.
The Tuscan interior contributes at least two great soups to our list – pappa al pomodoro and ribolitta. The first is a very thick tomato soup, while ribolitta is a soul-satisfying mix of white cannellini beans and greens that’s thickened at the end with day-old bread. Find any culture that wastes nothing and we’ll show you a culture that started out very poor. In fact, nearly all cultures did.
Rome and its surrounding Lazio region love no soup better than stracciatella, an Italianized version of Chinese eggdrop. Beaten eggs are stirred into boiling meat broth, producing the “little shreds” that give this soup its name.
The coast of Italy has its own versions of clean-out-the-fridge, except it’s more like clean-out-the-net. So similar to French seafood stews like bouillabaisse – yet so lacking in the latter’s oh-so-strict French rules – zuppa di pesce relies on any fish or shellfish that happened to show up.
And it’s hard to forget that wonderful soup of Sicily and Italy’s deep south, called either Meatball Soup or, more colorfully, Sicilian Wedding Soup. Sicilians know more than most Italian regions what poverty looks and feels like. The fact they’d reserve something as luxurious as ground meat for meatballs to celebrate a family wedding tells you everything you need to know about the innovative wonders that are the soups of Italy.
CANNELLINI & NOODLE SOUP
Cannellini, the large white kidney bean popular in Tuscany, Umbria and a host of other Italian food regions, is perfect for this soup – just as egg noodles are perfect for turning this tomato-kissed beef broth into a satisfying lunch or dinner. Also sharing the stage here is Italy’s beloved “holy trinity” of seasoning vegetables: onion, carrot and celery.
2 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
1 carrot, finely chopped
1 stalk celery, finely chopped
1 tablespoon minced garlic
3 cups canned cannellini beans
Salt and black pepper
1 teaspoon lemon pepper
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper
2 cups beef broth
3 tablespoons Mom’s brand Sunday Sauce
4 ounces dried egg noodles
I teaspoon finely chopped flat-leaf Italian parsley
Heat the olive oil in a large pan or soup pot. Stir in the onion, carrot and celery until lightly caramelized, then add the garlic and cook for 1 minute more. Add the beans. Season with salt, pepper, lemon pepper and crushed red pepper. Pour in the been broth. Add the Mom’s sauce, a little more or less depending on your preference. Bring to a boil, then lower heat and add parsley. Add the noodles to the soup and cook until they are done. Serve hot. Serves 4.