This article was originally featured in The 30 Second Wine Advisor's FoodLetter on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2007.

Italian wedding soup

Ah, Italian wedding soup, one of those lovable Old World dishes that comes complete with a story. Serve a bowl, fill your head with images of poor but honest folks in colorful native dress, dancing in circles to celebrate wedding joy while somebody plays the accordion and grandfathers smoking short, crooked cigars smile and clap their hands.

Great story, great image. There's just one little problem: It is not really true. This hearty, warming soup is Italian all right, but at least historically it has nothing to do with weddings. With regional variations from Rome to Abbruzzi to Naples, this peasant dish earned the Neapolitan name "Minestra Maritata" or "married soup," not because of any connection with weddings but simply because it brings together meat and greens in, well, a happy marriage.

But the old name stuck, and over time - more in Italian-American culture than in the Old Country - it became the custom to serve it at wedding feasts, simply because the name prompted the tradition. It's certainly not reserved for nuptials, though: It's often served during the holidays, on cold wintry days, or just about any time you're in the mood for a hearty, healthy soup.

Here's a variation I put together recently, featuring quickly made polpette (Italian veal meatballs) simmered in a little broth, which is then used as the base for a quick soup with spinach (substituted for the more traditional escarole), a little soup pasta and, in my version, streaks of egg-and-cheese scrambles borrowed from the Roman egg-drop soup stracciatella.

It's easy to double or multiply the ingredients to serve a larger group; if you prefer a vegetarian soup, it's easily modified: Hold the meatballs and use vegetable broth, and you've got a hearty (if "un-married") meatless rendition of stracciatella with greens.

INGREDIENTS: (Serves two)

For the meatballs
1 slice good white bread, crust removed
1/4 cup (60 ml) milk
Large clove garlic
1 tablespoon olive oil
6 ounces (180g) ground veal (or other ground meat or poultry)
Yolk of one egg
Black pepper

For the soup
4 cups (1 scant liter) chicken broth, vegetable broth or water
2 ounces orzo or other small soup pasta
Small bunch fresh spinach (or escarole or curly endive)
1 egg
1 tablespoon (15ml) water
2 tablespoons (30g) grated Pecorino Romano cheese
Black pepper


1. First, make the meatballs. Trim the bread crust and cut or tear the bread into small pieces. Put the bread in a shallow bowl and pour the milk over it. Let it sit for five or 10 minutes, then lift out the bread. It will have absorbed most of the milk, but if any is left over, discard it.

2. While the bread is soaking, peel and mince the garlic and cook it in the olive oil over medium heat until it's translucent but not brown.

3. Put the moistened bread in a bowl with the ground veal, garlic and oil, egg yolk, a little grated nutmeg and salt and pepper to taste, and gently mix them together with a fork, taking care not to over-handle. The less you have to mash the veal, the lighter the meatballs will be. Divide this mixture into 12 roughly equal parts and form them into a dozen small meatballs.

4. Bring the broth to a boil, reduce to a gentle simmer and drop in the meatballs, handling them gently so they don't break up. Let them simmer for 5 to 10 minutes until they're just cooked through (if you kept them light enough, they'll float when they're done); then remove them from the broth with a slotted spoon and keep them warm.

5. Make the soup. Turn the heat under the broth up to medium-high, bringing it back to a boil. Put in the orzo or other soup pasta and cook it for 10 minutes or so or until al dente.

6. Chop or tear the spinach or greens into smallish pieces. Toward the end of cooking, reduce heat to low, put in the greens and return the meatballs to the soup, and cook just until the greens are wilted and the meatballs warmed through.

7. Break the egg into a small bowl, add the 1 tablespoon water, and stir it briefly with a fork. Stir in the grated cheese. Give the soup a good quick stir, then pour in the egg-cheese mixture, a little at a time, so the heat of the soup will quickly cook it into tasty little scrambles. A loaf of good Italian bread is all you need to make this one a light meal ... or, of course, you can put it on the buffet table at a wedding feast.

MATCHING WINE: In retrospect, I would have liked a richer-style Italian white, perhaps a Greco di Tufo, Fiano or Falanghina from Southern Italy or a high-end Soave from the Veneto. As it happened, I was in the mood for a red and tried it with the recently reported Palacios 2005 "Pétalos" Bierzo from Spain. The flavors worked well, but the wine was a little too dark and robust to, er, marry well with the soup.