Everyone understands the risk of handing a Chicagoan ketchup, so what’s the right condiment to pass? That’s easy. Giardiniera. (Say it with me, “jar-din-air-ah.”) It’s the quintessential Chicago condiment, one that’s as brazen and boisterous as the city itself.
This fiery mix contains some combination of pickled chiles, celery, cauliflower, carrots and olives submerged in oil. Like an edible exclamation point, giardiniera adds instant heat, crunch and acid to many of our city’s iconic foods, including Italian beefs, Italian subs and deep-dish pizza. It’s even there when you might not expect it. Ever ask for hot peppers on a sandwich at Potbelly? That’s giardiniera.
Certainly, no other place in the United States cares for giardiniera as much as we do. It exists in every neighborhood, with multiple brands vying for shelf space at grocery stores and many fast food stands mixing up their own batches. When he was growing up in Chicago, giardiniera was a constant presence, says Jimmy Shay, now the meat department manager at Local Foods market in the Clybourn Corridor. “Every Sunday, we’d have the same dishes on the table: a loaf of bread, a hunk of cheese and a jar of giardiniera.”
Today, he makes his own giardiniera at the market. “It brings a lot of things to the table: acid, salt and freshness,” he says.
Outside of the Chicago area, giardiniera drifts from an essential to an exception rather quickly. Chef Paul Virant, of Vie Restaurant in suburban Western Springs, who included a recipe for giardiniera in his 2012 book, “The Preservation Kitchen,” says that he didn’t know about the dish until he moved to Chicago. “Being from St. Louis, you just didn’t see giardiniera,” he says.
As important as it is here, giardiniera wasn’t invented in Chicago. It originated in Italy, where it means mixed pickles. Giardiniera also is the name for a female gardener, which is helpful insomuch as it alludes to the vegetables in the mix. According to Jim Graziano, owner of J.P. Graziano Grocery Co., an Italian import company that’s been in business in the West Loop since 1937, giardiniera is the Italian way of preserving vegetables from the garden. “That’s the main thing,” says Graziano. “It was strictly to protect the vegetables for the winter.”
Just about every Italian is familiar with giardiniera, says Domenica Marchetti, author of “Preserving Italy,” a book about canning and preserving. “Go into a grocery store in Italy, and you’ll find all kinds on the shelves,” she says.
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.
That’s around the time V. Formusa Co., maker of the best-selling giardiniera brand, Marconi, opened. According to general manager Jeff Johnson, the company was founded in 1898 by Vincent Formusa, an immigrant from Termini Imerese, Sicily. “At…