Spicy Giardiniera Is a Busy Cook’s Best-Kept Secret

Turn up the flavor of your pasta sauce and your tuna salad with this jarred condiment from the Windy City
Photo by Joseph De Leo, Food Styling by Judy Haubert

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Bulls basketball, deep dish pizza, ketchup-less hot dogs, long, bone-chilling winters—Chicago has a way of setting opinions ablaze no matter where you are. But one Windy City specialty that, until the last few years, didn’t venture much beyond Illinois zip codes is a spicy, pickly, oil-packed condiment called giardiniera. You may have come across Italian-style giardiniera (like the version pictured above) as a topping at sandwich shops or as an antipasto at Italian restaurants in cities across the US, but true Chicago-style giardiniera is in a league of its own. Unlike the classic Italian variety which consists of large chunks of vegetables in a vinegar brine, the Chicago variation starts with a base of spicy hot peppers and chopped vegetables, all of which are first pickled then marinated and packed in oil. 

I fell in love with this style of giardiniera about seven years ago, during my time living in Chicago where it’s put on pretty much everything. You’ll find it on hot dogspizza, and salads, but most notably, (as seen on The Bear) on Italian beef sandwiches. And since my departure from the Midwest, I’ve become somewhat of a walking, talking (and now writing) billboard for Windy City’s beloved condiment. For me, a jar of giardiniera is more than just an accessory. It’s a culmination of many essential elements of cooking, like oil, vinegar, heat, and the textural delight of produce. And it’s the sneakiest way to take your pasta sauce, tuna salad, and aioli to new heights. 

How did giardiniera get to Chicago in the first place?

At its most basic, giardiniera is an Italian method of pickling an assortment of vegetables in a vinegar brine. This tradition made its way to Chicago in the mid-to-late 19th century with a surge of Italian immigrants to the area, many of whom hailed from the island of Sicily. Unlike the rest of Italy, where giardiniera brine involves only vinegar, the Sicilian version brings oil into the mix, which influenced what we know today as Chicago-style giardiniera. “My great grandfather Vincent Formusa packed and sold gourmet pickled vegetables this way since the early 20th century,” explains Jeff Johnson, president of V. Formusa Co., Inc, the parent company of Marconi giardiniera, “so it’s been a part of Chicago as early as then.”

Today, you can get Marconi’s Chicago-style giardiniera in a mild version all the way up to spicy hot. And they’ve been the sole supplier of giardiniera for Chicago’s acclaimed Italian beef joint, Portillo’s, since 1971. But Marconi’s isn’t the only company catering to the Windy City’s long-standing love affair with this briny condiment. Other well-known brands include J.P. Graziano and Mezzetta which, lucky for you, are both available to purchase online. 

But whether it’s mild or hot, Marconi or Mezzeta, every jar of giardiniera starts with peppers, cauliflower, carrots, and celery as the four main ingredients. Some brands add olives or bell peppers, or play around with their oil-to-vinegar ratio. “I love that you can find so many varieties in any Chicago-area grocery store,” says Garrett Kern, VP of strategy and culinary at Portillo’s, “but it’s still so hard to find outside of our region.”

Marconi - The Original Chicago Style Hot Giardiniera

JP Graziano - Hot Giardiniera

Mezzetta - Chicago Style Hot Giardiniera

How to use giardiniera, beyond the sandwich

Giardiniera seems to be entering a new era as restaurants and cookbook authors take notice of its versatility. Gioia, an Italian restaurant in Chicago’s bustling West Loop area, serves a martini made with the vinegar brine from their house-made classic Italian giardiniera. In her latest book, The Everlasting Meal, cookbook author Tamar Adler dedicates a section to giardiniera and its many uses, from cooking it with greens to using its tanginess to make a dip akin to pimento cheese. Noticing this trend himself, Kern explains that “it’s the combination of textures, acid from the vinegar, richness from the oil, and spice from the peppers,” that makes it such a versatile thing to have in your kitchen. 

Versatility aside, Chicago-style giardiniera caters to my deep inclination to be lazy. To Kern’s point, it has acid, oil, spice, salt, and vegetables with various textures, all in one jar. All I have to do is blitz it in a blender or food processor before using it in one of the following ways. 

Turn it into vinaigrette: A jar of Chicago-style giardiniera already has two of the key vinaigrette ingredients—oil and vinegar. To turn it into a spicy, briny vinaigrette that brings your next bowl of greens to life, all you need to do is combine 2 tablespoons of giardiniera (brine and all), 1 teaspoon of honey mustard, and a sprinkle of salt in a blender and blend until smooth-ish. Use Dijon mustard instead if you’d like and add sugar or honey to taste for a touch of sweetness. 

Add a kick to your tuna salad: Pulse 3 tablespoons of giardiniera and its brine in a food processor until the ingredients are roughly minced, then combine with 1 can of tuna (or another fish of your choice), 2 teaspoon mayonnaise, and a sprinkle of salt and pepper to taste. It’s great on its own but it’s even better as a tuna melt

Make a crazy-quick tomato sauce: This is my secret to quick, effortless, throw-it-and-forget-it tomato sauce for days when peeling an onion seems like a chore. Just use giardiniera as a shortcut mirepoix as the flavor base for your sauce. First throw in 3 tablespoons of giardiniera with brine in a food processor with one shallot (okay, it requires some peeling), and three cloves of garlic. Then cook the mixture in 2 tablespoons of the oil brine from the jar for 2 minutes until the bits of garlic are soft. I add one pint of fresh cherry tomatoes, a touch of salt, and some basil (stems and all) then cover and cook on low until the tomatoes have lost their shape and turned into mush. Remove the basil and finish with some pasta water for tangy, spicy, quick tomato sauce.

Fake an aioli: Technically, this is a faux-ioli because it uses mayonnaise instead of egg yolks. In a blender, combine 2 tablespoons of giardiniera, ½ cup of mayonnaise, two garlic cloves, and a sprinkle of salt. Then dip, slather, and spread to your heart's desire.