The Best Pizza Topping That You’ve Probably Never Heard About
Tags : giardiniera
We hereby declare Tuesday, August 28, to be Pizza Day, a day to celebrate all the magic (and marinara) of one of earth’s greatest foods. To be completely honest, Pizza Day was originally meant to be timed to the release of the pizza-themed romantic comedy Little Italy, starring Emma Roberts and Hayden Christensen; when we realized that Little Italy hits theaters this week only in Canada, we said, “Eh, let’s celebrate pizza in August anyway.” Who needs an excuse to honor pizza, right?
Look, Chicagoans don’t always have the greatest ideas. We come from people who decided that the best place to settle down was an endless, boring prairie which alternates between blazingly hot and so cold your eyeballs start to freeze. We keep electing straight-up criminals for governor. Perhaps most tragically, we foolishly tried to mold Jay Cutler into a professional football quarterback instead of recognizing his actual God-given talent (being a perfect reality star weirdo). We’re human. We make mistakes. Also, we have been chomping down the country’s most delicious condiment for over a century and the rest of America has failed to take a hint and follow our lead.
Whenever people talk about Chicago cuisine, deep dish gets mentioned right up top, even though the city is resplendent with native culinary innovation. Chicago’s deep dish pizza gets a disproportionate amount of attention for how often it gets eaten by its city’s residents. Deep dish is not strictly for tourists, but the ordinary Friday night pizza order is far more likely to be a thin-crust pie sliced into squares as God intended. In addition to pepperoni and sausage, giardiniera (JAR-DIN-AIR-UH) is a standard-issue, much-beloved topping, heaped under the cheese and into the sauce. The mixture of gooey mozzarella and fragrant sauce is made sublime with the extra texture and tang of the fermented veggie medley. The great is elevated to the superb.
Ask someone if they like giardiniera and you’re likely to get one of two responses. “Like it? I LOVE it!” they’ll say. Or they won’t know what you’re talking about, and might make a joke about how the word sounds like some kind of digestive disorder. “No one out here knows what giardiniera is,” Hank Tibensky, a Chicago transplant now living in New York and owner of Hank’s Juicy Beef, lamented. But giardiniera is no foul bowel malady. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, giardiniera is a blend of chopped vegetables (celery, peppers, carrots, cauliflower, and sometimes olives, although they are a controversial element) pickled in vinegar. You can order giardiniera on pretty much everything in the Chicagoland area, and from anywhere, even national chains like Subway. Zagat calls it “Chicago’s condiment,” but it’s also a full-blown obsession for many Chicagoans. “It’s good on pasta, it’s good on pizza, it’s really good on breakfast sandwiches,” Tibensky said. “And giardiniera with eggs? So good!” Just as Lebowski’s rug tied the room together, Chicago’s giardiniera is the linchpin of its daily meals—and the unsung hero of its famous pizzas. “This is a product that should be in the pantry of every house in America,” Randy Formella, who runs giardiniera company E. Formella & Sons, told me.
In Italy and the Mediterranean, a similar dish by the same name is served as a vinegary antipasto, and it’s nothing special—as Chicago giardiniera makers are quick to point out. “The so-called giardiniera from Italy, Spain, Greece, and Turkey are packed in a sour vinegar brine,” Formella noted. “This is a completely different flavor profile than the oil-based recipes.” In most grocery stores in the United States, if you find giardiniera, it is likely to be this inferior type. “The giardiniera they have out here is all vinegar,” Tibensky said. “There’s no flavor to it!” In Chicago, this relish is marinated in a blend of oils, and frequently seasoned with sport peppers for added heat. The oils counteract the vinegar’s acidic zip. The result is the finest topping in the world, the ideal blend of spicy, smooth, and crunchy. It is an alchemical miracle, simultaneously decadent and healthy, wrought from the merging of Italian vegetable wisdom and Chicago’s dedication to making everything fatty. Yet it has only achieved mainstream popularity in northeastern Illinois.
For advanced giardiniera eaters, even a mediocre frozen pizza can be doctored into greatness with giardiniera sprinkled generously on top. Chicago has a reputation for smothering its foods in unholy volumes of cheese, and it’s a fair rap. But in the name of truth and justice, Chicago should also be more widely known for smothering its foods in healthful and nutritious pickled vegetables, dammit. “Turning giardiniera into a nationally-beloved condiment is my goal,” Formella said. “Every day.”
There’s no complete history of Chicago’s giardiniera, and no definitive origin story for the city’s love affair with it. Al’s Italian Beef, a sandwich shop on Chicago’s famed Taylor Street, opened in 1938 and has long sprinkled a generous helping of giardiniera on its juicy offerings. In 2011, owner Dave Howey attributed the mainstream (Chicago) success of giardiniera to beef operators in the city in an interview with CBS Chicago. However, the first wave of giardiniera love came earlier. “Though impossible to know the exact date, giardiniera undoubtedly appeared in Chicago along with the wave of Italian immigration that came to the city in the late 19th century,” Chicago Tribune reporter Nick Kindelsperger wrote in 2017. Most of the major giardiniera makers offer histories corroborating this theory. In the 1900s, for example, E. Formella & Sons started when Enrico Formella moved from Sicily to Chicago; along with his wife Rosina, he began selling giardiniera in Illinois. “We still pack the original recipe my grandfather created back in the early 1900’s,” Randy Formella said. The business remains one of the major giardiniera makers in the US. While it is now simple to ship giardiniera all over the country—hungry Chicagoans living elsewhere can even get their fix via Amazon—it is still very much a regional dish. “I am not aware of anyone producing the Chicago-style giardiniera in oil outside of the Chicago area,” Formella told me. Mezzetta, a Bay Area-based Italian condiment and garnish company that has been around since 1935, does in fact product a Chicago-style giardiniera; it appears to be a rarity.
A shame! A tragedy! A calamity! But heroes walk among those of us unfortunate enough to have left the Windy City, attempting to spread the giardiniera gospel. In Manhattan, Tibensky is sating midwestern cravings at Hank’s Juicy Beef, his Tribeca sandwich shop, which offers Chicago-style Italian beef sandwiches and, as is only appropriate, Chicago-style giardiniera. “I originally made it all myself,” he said. “Now I import a lot of the giardiniera from Chicago.” The unfamiliar topping has turned into a selling point. “We don’t give them an option. We’re just like, ‘Do you want the hot giardiniera or the mild giardiniera?’” Tibensky said. “Now, we have repeat customers coming in, asking if they can buy a pint of it.” (They do, indeed, now sell it in pints.) “We’re going through ten gallons a week now,” Tibensky said.
On the other side of the country, in Palm Springs, California, a family of Chicago expats import giardiniera to sell at their Chicago-style pizza restaurant, Giuseppe’s. “We serve it with our beef sandwiches,” owner Sue Funkey said. “If someone asked for it as a pizza topping we would certainly do it.” Full disclosure: this isn’t just any family—it’s my own. My aunt Sue and her husband Joe Funkey are trying to bring exquisite pickled produce to the West Coast; spreading love for giardiniera is clearly at least partially genetic.
On a national scale, sandwich chain Potbelly has been quietly conditioning Americans all over the country to eat giardiniera: it offers the topping for its sandwiches, although it uses the term “hot peppers” instead. “For us, it’s just a typical condiment,” Potbelly VP of culinary innovation Ryan LaRoche told me. The chain began in a furniture store in Chicago, and has always offered giardiniera as a topping on its sandwiches, in keeping with the local tradition. Originally, LaRoche said, Potbelly founder Peter Hastings was taking pre-pickled vegetables and then making the mixture in house. As the company grew throughout the mid-1990s, though, it outsourced its giardiniera, asking a local giardiniera maker to create a proprietary blend. And even though Potbelly is doing us a fine service by bringing giardiniera to the masses, by disguising it as “hot peppers,” it is avoiding the good, hard work of normalizing a quirky regional cuisine.
There are some regional delicacies that face obvious challenges when it comes to widespread adoption. People who didn’t grow up slamming haggis in Scotland often find it difficult to accept that the correct ingredients for a savory pudding include sheep’s heart. While durian tastes creamy and sublime to people who grew up snacking on the tropical fruit, its pungent aroma rouses so much ire that it is sometimes banned from public spaces, like Singapore’s national transit system. I can say from personal experience that liverwurst is a delectable spread on rye bread, but its appeal is not always understood by people who didn’t grow up with at least one German parent. Some foods simply require acquired tastes. However, giardiniera has the capacity for a far larger following than it currently has. It’s gluten-free, low-carb, and vegan; it has a similar flavor profile to many hot sauces but offers a pleasing crunch and a serving of vegetables along with its kick.
This summer, all of a sudden, it seemed like every third person in Brooklyn had developed a craving for an Aperol spritz. The Italian aperitif’s availability skyrocketed across the US; according to Nielsen, Aperol sales increased by 48 percent since the previous summer. It sort of made sense—the vibrant orange drink is highly Instagrammable, and its moderate alcohol content makes it ideal for day drinking sessions. But the Aperol spritz’s abrupt rise in American popularity wasn’t the result of an organic shift in taste. Campari, the company which produces Aperol, had heavily invested in U.S. marketing for the drink. “It plays into trends—Americans are starting to appreciate more bitter tastes and they want more drinks that are low in alcohol content,” Melanie Batchelor, the vice president of marketing for Campari America, told The New York Times this summer.
Giardiniera doesn’t have a marketing team behind it—but if bitter, chemical-colored Aperol could capture American attention, surely a spicy, healthy, versatile garnish could generate similar buzz under the right circumstances. I firmly believe this is a problem that can be solved by education. Once people know what giardiniera is, they love it. They say progress comes in fits and starts. They say Rome wasn’t built in a day. I say that I’ve waited long enough for the rest of the country to get its head screwed on correctly and that giardiniera should be a widely available pizza topping throughout the nation.