When you sit down to a meal in Italy, you may start with an antipasto like some sliced meat and cheese, or some seasoned olives and a glass of wine. But the primo – the course that simply goes by the Italian word for “first” – is where things get going.
Pasta may be the stereotypical (and most popular) primo, but in winter, Italians turn to soup. Warm, hearty, and filling, soups help combat the malaise of short winter days, perking you up after a long, cold day.
And while soup is a winter constant, every region, province, and town has its own favorites and small variations. In soup season, you’ll find these Italian favorites in one form or another all over the boot:
Most associated with Tuscany, ribollita (Italian for reboiled) is an old peasant dish based on minestra or minestrone, vegetable soup. In winter, Italian wives used to cook up a big pot of vegetable soup and serve it three different ways over the days, first as vegetable soup, then soup over toasted bread, and finally a sort of vegetable porridge as the bread dissolved into the soup, thickening into the now characteristic ribollita.
Image by Flickr user ilovebutter
Found throughout Italy’s northern regions, jota features ingredients that may seem out of place in a traditional Italian dish: sauerkraut and poppy seeds. A tasty and surprising relic of the Austro-Hungarian empire’s long hold on northern Italy, jota is a staple in Trieste, but you’ll find various versions throughout Fruili and across the border in Slovenia. Wherever you find it, jota always features a hearty base of potatoes, beans, and smoked pork.
Tortellini in Brodo
Image: © Concierge in Umbria
Fresh Italian tortellini are a heady concoction of diverse meats, (beef, veal, and/or pork) cuts, and cures (in Bologna, they add prosciutto and mortadella). Every mama has her recipe. And it’s typically a highly guarded secret. While tortellini in brodo is a staple dish throughout Emilia-Romagna, in Bologna, the top tortellini shops charge up to $20 per pound. A simple but soul-warming broth with a healthy sprinkling of Parmesan cheese is the best complement for fresh tortellini. It’s the soup to serve on Christmas.
Pasta e fagioli
Image by Flickr user Arnold Inuyaki
Pasta e fagioli transcends the two main ingredients from which it draws its name – pasta and beans – into the pinnacle of Italian vegetarian (a.k.a. peasant) cuisine. In the U.S., it’s commonly known by its Anglo-Neapolitan name pasta fazool, as popularized by Dean Martin in his hit song “That’s Amore.” But like its many names, you’ll find endless variations. Cannellini beans here, borlotti (or cranberry) beans there. Curvaceous macaroni or miniscule ditalini. (Though in our house, we like to use leftover scraps from making fresh pasta). N.B.: As many people today add pancetta, be sure to clarify the ingredients if you’re vegetarian.
Image: © Concierge in Umbria
Lentils have been a human staple for over 10,000 years, finding their way into iconic soups around the world from spicy Indian dal to the buttery, oregano-finished Turkish mercimek corbasi. The Italian version remains as simple as its name, zuppa di lenticchie, but the taste depends on the lentils you use. Umbrian lentils in particular are famous, especially those from Castelluccio di Norcia. High in protein and lightly seasoned with a soffrito base, bay leaves, and rosemary, Italian lentil soup is the ultimate comfort food – especially when paired with a generous drizzle of olive oil and a side of toasted bread.