Imagine 500 friars eating 500 plates of steaming minestrone every night--thatís pollution.
--Gisberto Martelli, Milanese Superintendent of Monuments, 1980

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Soup in Italy

I can't improve on Norma Wasserman-Miller's Soups of Italy (NY: William Morrow, 1998), in which she describes the evolving role of soup through Italy's historical and economic past. Her book is wonderful, and I recommend it. What follows is a summary of her key points.

Soup today is one of the major entries to the primo piatto, the first course of an Italian meal. But it was not always so. Soup began its life largely as a product of la cucina povera, the poor kitchen--far from the splendors of cucina nobile, the cuisine of nobility. As such, it was crude, it was filling, and it was regional.

Marco Apicio's ancient cookbook De Re Coquinaria described polus, a Roman dish dating back to 30 AD made up of farro, chickpeas, and fava beans, with onions, garlic, lard, and greens thrown in.

During the Middle Ages, specific foods became associated with social classes: onions, cabbages, and root vegetables for the peasants; fruits and delicate vegetables for the nobility. Giacomo Albini, physician to the house of Savoy, developed a theory that members of these classes would become ill if they strayed away from foods appropriate to themselves, and he warned the rich to stay away from heavy soups.

Zuppa, from the Greek suppa (or "a slice of bread, soaking") likely evolved from food on bread it all cooked in warming broths. Acquacotta (cooked water) and pancotta (cooked bread) thus became the first rudimentary soups and a staple of the common people.

Then America was discovered--and by an Italian. As potatoes, corn, zucchini, pumpkins, tomatoes, sweet peppers, and kidney beans flooded into Italy, minestrone was born. How did it get its name? From minestra, because the clergy would "minister" to the poor by ladling up soup to them out of vast cauldrons. Remember friar Melitone, in Verdi's "La Forza del Destino", taking soup out of the convent Madonna degli Angeli to feed the poor, but instead abusing them--threatening them with his ladle--and finally kicking over the whole kettle and chasing them from the courtyard.

Soup began to get a good name in 1790, when Francesco Leonardi published L'Apicio moderno, a 6-volume encyclopedia of Italian gastronomy. Leonardi, chef to Louis XV and Catherine II devoted the first volume to zuppa e minestre--and he extolled a few of the recipes as un piatto da offrire a dei principi, a "dish fit for princes."

From there it was a cakewalk through acceptance by a growing middle class, through reunification, through the growth of cities and their restaurants, right to its present position of honor in the primo piatto.

What are the various kinds of soup? "The very same vegetables prepared as a light minestra can become a hearty zuppa simply by ladling it over slices of bread. Increase the amount of bread and break it into pieces, which turns your soup into pancotta. Puree those same vegetables and transform them into a delicate crema, or add beans and pasta for a substantial minestrone."