Over these past few weeks, I've rediscovered the regional cuisine of northeast Ohio. Italians poured into this region the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, setting the stage for some of the best Italian American cuisine you'll find in our country. Eastern Europe is also well represented, with pierogies and halushki available at many markets and restaurants.
In true American fashion, some interesting "fusion" items have developed. Now ubiquitous in the Cleveland area, the Pittsburgh panini sandwich was "invented" in the 1930's, a gigantic overstuffed sandwich of meat (usually pastrami or corned beef) with fries, coleslaw, and sometimes cheese and/or tomatoes on "Italian" bread. Just try getting your mouth around that. A friend who lives in Cleveland told me of a sandwich she loves to purchase at a local panini shop - it's stuffed with pierogies, melted cheddar cheese, and caramelized onions (or sauerkraut), on crusty white bread and grilled until golden.
One of my favorite local dishes is Italian Wedding Soup. It is exclusive to western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio, and very popular in Youngstown, where my family is from (for the most part). Despite its name, the soup is not traditionally served at weddings. When Italian immigrants came to this area, they directly translated the name of a soup they remembered from the Old Country, Minestra Maritata, where the marriage referred to is between the vegetables and the meat in the dish. Each Italian-American family has its own closely guarded recipe. My aunt Katie watched a friend as she prepared her family's recipe for the soup. She tweaked it a bit and handed it off to me, then I tweaked it again - here it is for your eating pleasure.
Italian Wedding Soup
2 whole (4 split) chicken breasts, bone-in, skin-on
5 quarts homemade chicken stock*
3 carrots, peeled and chopped into 1/4 inch dice
Bunch curly endive or escarole, chopped
3/4 cup pastina (can also use orzo)**
2 egg yolks
3/4 cup seasoned breadcrumbs
1 small onion, grated
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/3 cup parsley, chopped
1/4 cup grated Romano cheese
1 1/2 pounds meatloaf mix (equal parts ground veal, pork, and beef)
Salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Rub chicken breasts with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Roast for 35 minutes, or until cooked through. When cool enough to handle, remove meat and chop into bite-size pieces. Set aside.
Increase oven temperature to 400 degrees F.
While chicken is roasting, make meatballs. Mix together egg yolks, breadcrumbs, grated onion, garlic, parsley, Romano cheese, salt and pepper. Add to the meatloaf mix and gently combine, being careful not to overwork the meat. Form tiny meatballs (the tinier, the better) and place on a baking sheet. Bake meatballs for 10 to 15 minutes, until slightly browned.
While meatballs are baking, heat the chicken stock in a large stockpot. Add the carrots and endive (or escarole) to the stock and simmer 10 to 15 minutes. Once meatballs are finished, add them to the soup along with the chicken breast pieces and pastina. Season to taste with salt and pepper and allow to gently simmer until the pastina is al dente. Serve hot with grated Parmesan cheese.
*It's very important to use a good quality, homemade chicken stock for this recipe.
**Some recipes incorporate mini dumplings or noodles instead of pastina. Giada De Laurentiis has a version with strands of egg stirred into the soup.
Salvatore's Italian Grill in Austintown serves a great version of Italian Wedding Soup (above photo), alongside the rest of its amazing Italian-American fare.