Coppa, bread and giardiniera from Gaetano’s Artisan Foods (Photo by David Hammond)

Chef Gaetano’s Artisan Foods in Forest Park is rightly named: some of their best stuff is made in-house, old time artisan-style, right there on Madison Street in Forest Park. Gaetano’s is a local treasure.

Last weekend, we stopped by Gaetano’s to get some sausage, bread and giardiniera. The sausage was coppa, a traditional Italian preparation of dry-cured pork shoulder muscle. The bread is a new favorite, Toscanello, a thin, super-crusty loaf that seems to have been named after the long and thin Italian cigar of the same name. All of Gaetano’s sausage (except for prosciutto de Parma) and breads are made in-house.

As you likely know, giardiniera is the veg-forward condiment found at Italian beef stands everywhere, a combination of vegetables in oil. Giardiniera is a distinctly Chicago original food, though there are antecedents in the old country.

According to Dalanti, a company that specializes in Italian condiments, “Common vegetables in the Italian version, also called sotto aceti, include onions, celery, zucchini, carrots and cauliflower, pickled vegetables in red- or white-wine vinegar. It is typically eaten as an antipasto, or with salads.” Note this traditional European giardiniera is oil-free.

In Chicago, however, giardiniera is a condiment, typically sprinkled on Italian beef sandwiches. Chicago-style giardiniera is commonly made with chopped serrano peppers (called “sport” peppers in Chicago), with other assorted vegetables, such as bell peppers, olives, celery, pimentos, carrots, cauliflower and sometimes crushed red pepper flakes, all marinated in vegetable, olive, or soybean oil.

Though folklore popularizes Italians as favoring a “spicy meatball,” we Italians are somewhat heat-averse. You may find red pepper flakes on some Italian tables, but you will rarely find the tongue-numbing hot sauce favored by many of us Americans. Incidentally, our love of chili heat may be attributable to the influx of Mexican immigrants into this country; chili peppers first appeared many centuries ago in what is now Mexico, and ever since, chilies have been a big part of Mexican cuisine. We in the U.S. have come to seek out the burn (and, of course, the endorphin/dopamine rush of pleasure/pain) of a hot chili pepper, so maybe that’s why giardiniera in the U.S. usually carries much more chili heat than giardiniera in Italy.

The Dalanti site explains that “Chicago-style giardiniera was invented … in 1925 by famous ‘Beef and Sausage Man’ Pasquale Scala. It’s also commonly served on Italian sausage sandwiches, meatball sandwiches, Italian subs and pizza.”

Though the exact origins of Chicago-style giardiniera are, as with so many foods, exceedingly difficult to determine with complete accuracy, Pasquale Scala is certainly a contender. For years, the Scala Beef Packing Company has supplied many of Chicago’s Italian beef stands.

At Italian grocery stores throughout the area, you’ll find unique house brands of giardiniera. Scudiero’s in Melrose Park, for instance, where we get old-country style Easter pie, has their own brand of giardiniera, as does Serelli’s Finer Foods on North Avenue. Serelli’s makes some of the hottest giardiniera I’ve ever had. Gaetano’s giardiniera, on the other hand, tends toward the milder end of the chili-heat spectrum, and it was a good team player along with the mildly seasoned coppa.

Not all the giardiniera at Gaetano’s is made in-house. I was there a few weeks ago, and Chef Gaetano told me that they ran out of their house-made stuff and on that day, they had giardiniera only from other sources. I asked him if he planned to make more of his own giardiniera, and he told me, “If I am living, I am making giardiniera.”

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David Hammond

David Hammond, a corporate communications consultant and food journalist living in Oak Park, Illinois, is a founder and moderator of LTHForum.com, the 8,500 member Chicago-based culinary chat site. David...