home is where the hot peppers are

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“Man vs. Food” isn’t a terrible show, but the Chicago episode is a downright travesty. In that episode, Host Adam Richman visits an Italian beef joint, Al’s. He talks with the restaurant’s founder, Chris Pacelli, about the history of the place and their use of giardiniera. If unfamiliar with giardiniera (jar-din-air-ah), let me explain; it’s an Italian-American condiment composed of chopped pickled vegetables, including everything from cauliflower, to jalapeños, to crinkle cut carrots, and even celery, in an oil and vinegar blend with a heat element of a varying degrees. Not only does Adam heinously announce giardiniera as “an Italian antipasto,” he also unequivocally bungles the pronunciation by uttering “jar-dee-nare.”

Why am I so ticked off about this? Giardiniera means a lot to me. Besides the fact that I dedicate my instagram name to it (follow me @ilikegiardiniera), it represents a lot about my heritage as an Italian-American-Chicagoan and punctuates some of my happiest childhood food memories.

There are a lot of different kinds of giardiniera. My personal favorite is hot, a style soaked in olive oil that picks up the spice of jalapeños and turns into what resembles chili oil. Mild giardiniera is the same thing without the jalapeños and spice. There is sweet giardiniera that ends up more like pickled vegetables, usually accompanied only by vinegar without any kind of oil. And by God, do not get giardiniera confused with the olive spread that comes on a Muffaletta. If it’s got finely chopped olives, it ain’t giardiniera; simple as that.

Giardiniera borders on religion in Chicago. There are many stories about how giardiniera was invented. No one is exactly sure, but it probably originated in Italy and journeyed to America along with immigrants in the mid-to-late 1800’s. Italian giardiniera, which is sometimes referred to as sottaceti (translated as “under vinegar”), does not hold nearly the sentiment in my heart that the Chicagoan version does. My love affair with those tangy vegetables began about the same time I started to eat real food instead of baby goop.

Growing up in Gurnee, a distant suburb of the Windy City, my parents, who both work in the restaurant business, frequently took me to their guilty pleasure: the regional fast food joint, Portillo’s. Those were joyous days. I stuffed my face with extra-well done fries, occasionally sneaking a bite of my dad’s Italian beef smothered with giardiniera, or as Portillo’s called it “hot peppers.” That oily, delightful tingle from the giardiniera captivated me, and made returning to my hot dog or hamburger seem downright boring.

My family moved to Chicago right as I entered the 4th grade. Even before our move, we always had giardiniera in the fridge. I put it on everything from turkey sandwiches to pasta. Every time we had pasta, my mom took out the jar of giardiniera, placed it on the stove as the pasta cooked, and took a small spoonful of oil to drizzle on her spaghetti. One day I tried her method, and I found I could not get enough of this combo. For a while I had a pasta routine down: serve myself a heaping pile, freshly grate pecorino romano cheese and black pepper over the pasta, and finish it with a drizzle of giardiniera oil that turned the pecorino a yellow-green color. Repeat until descent into food coma.

Not long after our move to Chicago, I discovered the city’s rich tradition of pairing giardiniera with Italian beef. Al’s Italian Beef, which now is a full blown chain in Chicago, was one of the first Italian beef places that made its own in-house giardiniera. Their version is spiced with red pepper flakes, but besides that they keep their recipe locked in a vault somewhere.

The other big giardiniera producer is Marconi, which is what Portillo’s keeps to stuff their beefs. Marconi became what it is today after an initial stint as an Italian importer, The Vincenzo Forumusa Co., which was founded in 1898. It’s believed to be one of the oldest Italian importers in Chicago, and might even be the place giardiniera in Chicago began. Founder Vincent Forumusa originally opened a jewelry business while working on the side to help immigrants from Italy navigate through Ellis Island. The more Italians he helped move to Chicago, the more they expressed to him how they missed the culinary comforts of Italy, things they couldn’t find here: the cheese, oil, pasta, and, of course, giardiniera. Thus The Vincenzo Forumusa Co. was born.

It doesn’t surprise me that giardiniera took hold in Chicago in this way. As someone, who moved away from Chicago to New York City for college, I was shocked when I couldn’t find giardiniera anywhere. Even coming across it in Little Italy was rare. When I did find it, it usually was heavily vinegary, sweet giardiniera that just didn’t press the same buttons for me as the hot version did. In Chicago, it was normal to go to the grocery store and find Marconi jars lined up below the ketchup, mustard, and relish; up to that point I’d had no idea just how regional the product was.

In the past year or so, giardiniera has begun to pop up all over New York. High Street on Hudson spreads it with their cream cheese on bagels, and Salvation Burger serves it as an appetizer (damn you Adam!). Part of me is happy that people are becoming aware of this great condiment. The other part of me doesn’t want to see the commoditization of something so dear to my heart.

A Chicago style beef place opened in Tribeca this summer called Hank’s Juicy Beef. While I haven’t been yet, I am hopeful that it can bring back the true identity of my favorite condiment in the world. If so, maybe I can find it in my heart to forgive Mr. Richman.

By Carlo Mantuano

Carlo loves to drizzle hot pepper oil on pasta, bread, eggs, and basically anything. He is also the editor-in-cheif of Salt & Pepper.