Italian Wedding Soup Didn't Always Have Meatballs (And Wasn't Named For Wedding Ceremonies)

If you've been to an Italian-American wedding, maybe you've seen or even eaten a pot of brothy soup spiked with small pasta, meatballs, and hearty greens called Italian wedding soup or minestra maritata, literally "married soup." Even though Italian wedding soup didn't start out as a matrimonial tradition, some Italian-American families do indeed eat the soup to celebrate the marriage of two families. What the soup does celebrate, though, is the marital bliss of broth, meat, and bitter greens.

The version we know in the U.S. is a riff on a recipe that probably comes from the Campania region of southern Italy, though there's no hard proof. The traditional Italian wedding soup recipe contains pork meat in various cuts, as well as seasonal vegetables like cabbage and escarole, to make a hearty, warming stew. When Italian immigrants made their way to the U.S., they adapted the recipe to what was cheap, available, or grown at home. Traditional pork parts like rinds and feet became meatballs made with cheaper beef, and the bitter greens native to southern Italy, like black kale or chicory, were replaced with spinach. The soup was then filled out with carrots and tiny pasta shapes like ditalini or acini di pepe. Nowadays, recipes call for meatballs made with pork, beef, chicken, or a combination of the three, and the vegetable is usually spinach or escarole.

Italian wedding soups used any and all available cuts of meat and hearty vegetables

The name minestra maritata means "married soup," but it was never served at weddings in the old country, even if the idea of eating a soup representing a good marriage is quite lovely. The traditional Italian soup began as la cucina povera, or poor people's food, the kind of cooking that encourages no waste and is usually found in rural areas of Italy. Because it's a kind of catch-all recipe to use whatever was on hand, there are variations from city to city and from cook to cook. Depending on where the dish is being made, it's for varying reasons and seasons — perhaps the annual pig slaughter in the depths of winter in the Apennines or to celebrate the Feast of Santo Stefano around Christmas in Naples.

While researching recipes in an effort to preserve Italy's vast and varied regional cuisine, the Accademia Italiana della Cucina, the caretakers of Italy's food traditions, found five recipes for minestra maritata. Each recipe came from a different region, but the one thing four of the five variations had in common was a hearty, meat-based broth with greens, from endive to spinach to chicory. In order for the soup to be considered "married," it must contain a hearty green, like chicory or escarole, and pork rinds or sausage. And hey, following this logic, even Olive Garden's Zuppa Toscana recipe is a minestra maritata.