Updated: Sep 24, 2020
The start of the soup season has begun and now might be a good time to practice your Italian while enjoying a bowl of regional Italian soup.
As the weather changes it’s time to bring back the classic recipes of autumn in Italy and that most certainly means soup. It also means navigating a number of regional food specialities and a variety of terms. Let’s start with the basics and the basic premise that in Italy soup is revered. It is the foundation of cucina povera, peasant style cooking that uses whatever is found in the kitchen, household, farm, etc. to prepare meals. Soup is part of the casalinga (homestyle) cooking of every Italian kitchen. It holds a special place in the hearts, minds and culinary traditions of regional Italian food and continues to be referenced in all forms of Italian cooking both traditional and modern. Soup for Italians. like many of us, is culinary nostalgia.
In its various forms soup pre-dates Roman times when porridges made of spelt or farro, chickpeas or beans were combined with onions, garlic, lard and greens thrown in to make the common everyday meal. The Etruscans, Italy’s original foodies known for preparing a well-laid table, enjoyed a good bowl of soup making it the basis of their diet. The Italian minestrone, a thick vegetable soup, is probably the most popular and well-known Italian soup finding its way from the family tables of Italy to restaurant menus worldwide. Minestrone is the super-sized form of minestra, the Italian word for "soup", from minestrare meaning to serve, prepare or pour the soup into bowls because in past times soup was served at the table by the head of the family. Minestra comes from the Latin word ministrare meaning to attend to or administer a remedy. Our cousins in Italy often prepare a light supper of brodo (broth) made with mild greens served drizzled with olive oil and grated cheese. They call this a minestra and consider it a good and healthy meal to end the day, a remedy of sorts, something to fix an over-indulged stomach.
There are many other words and varieties of soups in Italy, from the minimalist minestra to the abundant minestrone to pasta e fagioli mainly pasta and beans in a broth. Ribollita, a winter-time specialty of Tuscany, is made with leftover bread, cannellini beans and vegetables such as kale, onions, carrots, cabbage, reboiled and re-eaten the next day. Pappa al pomodoro is another Tuscan soup made with fresh tomatoes, Tuscan bread, olive oil, basil, and garlic. Stracciatella (meaning torn rags or little shreds) is an Italian egg-drop soup from Lazio. Made with chicken broth, grated Parmigiano, nutmeg and lemon zest it is the proverbial penicillin of the culinary word with the healing powers of chicken soup Italian style.
There are fish soups (cacciucco, brodetto), blended soups (passata) and velvety, cream soups (vellutata di zucca, a classic Italian pumpkin soup). Some made with dumplings or specialized pasta and some that are called crazy like acqua pazza, literally crazy water dating back to the Middle Ages when local fishermen used to prepare a seafood soup by poaching the day's catch in seawater because of the high duty on salt.
Knowing your Italian soups boils down to the ingredients and the Italian love of descriptive vocabulary. While in general a minestra is lighter, defined by vegetables in a stock-based broth and a minestrone is more substantial with beans, pasta or both, you may see some pasta or rice floating around in your minestra. And if it happens to be served at a wedding it might becalmed minestra maritata , the original "Italian Wedding Soup”, which actually means “married soup” not because of the occasion but because of the marriage of meats and green leafy vegetables that are used as its main ingredients.
And then there is the Italian 101 word for soup - zuppa. How should you use it? Generally they say that in a zuppa there is no pasta or rice. The Italian word zuppa tends to be a catch all phrase for Italian soups. And because of its ancestral word origin suppa (a slice of soaked bread,) you might always want to enjoy a bowl of soup with a rustic, Italian-style pane.
Umbrian Cannellini Bean Soup
1 cup Casa Corneli Organic Umbrian Cannellini beans (soaked overnight and pre-cooked for at least 90 minutes) 1/2 cup diced tomatoes
a good extra virgin olive oil 2 celery stalks 1 sprig of rosemary, finely chopped 2 bay leaves 5 small sage leaves 2 oz of pancetta or bacon (plus 1 oz for topping) coarse salt to taste 1 small clove garlic 8 c of fresh vegetable broth 1/4 c of white wine Pecorino Romano cheese, grated
Pour the extra virgin olive oil into a pot; add the garlic for few seconds, then the cubes of pancetta or bacon, rosemary, bay, sage and celery. Deglaze with white wine. Then add the vegetable broth and tomatoes in small pieces. Add the pre-soaked and cooked beans and mix them for a few minutes, and, if necessary, add enough broth so that the dish doesn’t dry out.
Adjust the seasoning only after cooking. Slightly puree in a blender for a creamier soup. Finish with a drizzle of olive oil, crispy pancetta, a sprig of rosemary and grated cheese if desired.