Greens and beans are the dynamic duo

Sarafino's Restaurant sits on a corner in Crafton, flanked on one side by a tanning parlor and on the other by Circle Inn. A sign by the door of the restaurant announces "ATM inside" while the windows in the dining room overlook an auto-body shop across the street.

On a menu of antipasti, polenta and pasta, one dish is a favorite. It's greens and beans, listed in the top-left corner where a school kid would write her name. Sauteed fresh spinach joins fragrant garlic, milky white beans, fresh banana peppers, julienned onions and hot sausage for $8.95. And it's ordered so often that a line cook recently threatened to quit because he was so tired of making it.

"This restaurant has been around for 12 years," said chef-owner Joe Caliguire. "And for 12 years we've been making greens and beans."

Here in Pittsburgh, how to make a proper greens and beans can stir a rivalry. Up for debate is whether greens besides escarole are allowed, whether to simmer them in a pot or saute them in a pan, and whether adding meat is an improvement or bastardizes the dish.

"I just think it's a family thing," Mr. Caliguire said of Pittsburghers' strong feelings about the "peasant food" dish. "This is what a lot of people here grew up on."

Now, "It's cool to have it on the menu." Like so many comfort foods, greens and beans is gaining cache.

Beans and greens and its infinite variations are on more menus in Pittsburgh than in other cities with many Italian immigrants.

"I have never served it at my restaurant," said chef Michele Savoia of Dish Osteria and Bar on the South Side. When he lived in New York before he opened his Pittsburgh restaurant in 2000, he said he remembers seeing it on menus of Italian restaurants in Brooklyn, but not those in Manhattan.

Scarola e fagioli is more of an Italian-American dish, he recalled, though variations of it are found around Campania, a Southern region of Italy where many of Pittsburgh's immigrants came from between 1880 and World War I. He said that growing up, he sometimes ate indivia e fagioli, endive and beans, a home-cooked dish he said his Sicilian father loved.

Fetishing dishes with humble origins goes beyond Pittsburgh. Idealized peasant food is "a theme that can be found all the way through the history of Italian gastronomy," writes Gillian Riley in "The Oxford Companion to Italian Food." Like the double-entendres in theater and Italian songs, certain dishes "can be seen as coarse food or a delicacy, depending on how they're prepared or presented."

From the Middle East to middle Europe, greens and beans have been a staple in many cultures' cuisines. Food writer John T. Edge wrote how he trashed up a Southern variation by swapping bread crumbs for Ritz Crackers in his favorite white bean-and-collard green gratin, a recipe from "Frank Stitt's Southern Table."

And in "The New Persian Kitchen," Louisa Shafia makes a herbaceous greens and beans with parsley, cilantro, scallions and spinach. In the recipe, kidney beans stand in for cannellini beans and for more protein, she adds tofu.

Greens are becoming a must-have restaurant dish because they're an inexpensive, vitamin-packed superfood.

Mr. Caliguire learned to make beans and greens by watching his mother and grandmother, both native Pittsburghers of Italian descent. When he was young, they followed loose guidelines. "We put everything in the house in there," he said. "Peppers, onions, escarole, kale, chicken or shrimp." Adding meat was a near luxury as his family needed to stretch its money.

At the restaurant, he's more consistent with the ingredients. First, he starts by sweating onions and garlic in a pan, followed by a handful of chopped banana peppers. Next he adds cannellini beans and sausage, a diversion from the traditional meat-free scarola e fagioli. He then adds sweeter baby spinach instead of bitter escarole. Last, he hits the pan with a pour of white wine for a saute just long enough to wilt the leaves. "We don't want a bowl of mush."

Once it's plated "with a little juice," he garnishes the plate with sun-dried tomatoes and a bit of grated parmesan.

When he was sous chef at Sarafino's, Matthew Cavanaugh saw how popular the greens and beans were. When he broke off and opened his own restaurant, Matteo's in Lawrenceville, he started offering nearly the same dish. Mr. Caliguire is flattered by the tribute.

"After you make about 50,000 of them," said Mr. Cavanaugh, "practice makes perfect."

His greens and beans contain shrimp, banana peppers, caramelized onions and Great Northern beans for $15, with an option for sausage instead of shrimp for $10.

Over at Sienna Sulla Piazza in Market Square, the dish is transformed to a one-pot meal with big flavors imparted from meat and red wine.

House-made sausage and Chianti "adds a level of richness and heat," said executive chef Matt Porco. Like the Sarafino's version, his includes banana pepper, but he sticks with the more traditional escarole and cannellini beans. "I want to keep the integrity of the dish."

The components the dish is named for hold their ground.

Speaking of, is it "greens and beans" or "beans and greens"? Like "spaghetti and meatballs," there's no wrong way to say it, but one may be more pleasing to the ear. "Greens and beans" correlates to how it often reads in Italian, scarola e fagioli.

Across the Warhol Bridge, Legends of the North Shore chef Dan Bartow takes a simpler approach. Since he opened in 2002, his restaurant has been making a version of greens and beans that's halfway between a stew and a side. Spinach, radicchio and endive join cannellini beans that retain some bite. His has plenty of "liquor," an essential component.

As Ms. Riley wrote, "Many of the good things in beans get leached out into the soaking and cooking water and are lost when they are drained.

"In fact, as beans absorb water during cooking and exude nutrients, the liquid they are cooked in gets more and more dense, as the beans make their own sauce, concentrating the flavor of that dish."

"We always serve it with the liquor, too," said Larry Lagattuta of The Enrico Biscotti Co. in the Strip District.

He's near-obsessed with Pittsburgh's greens and beans. "We've made every version of beans and greens in the world.

He landed on a version that begins by sweating a handful of garlic cloves in a heavy stock pot. Then he throws in kale. "I love the flavor and texture of kale."

Next he adds cannellini beans, with the liquid from the soaking. And last he adds butter to the dish to cut the bitterness of kale and also as a gimme. "Come on," he said. "We all love fat."

He notes how he uses the liquor in the bottom of the pot as "a beautiful stock," citing African-American versions of "potlikker" in a pot of collard greens, an especially nutritious remnant that's so savored that some families drink it by the glass. The liquor is flavored with ham hock and hot sauce or pepper flakes and vinegar.

Rarely does the liquor go to waste in the Italian version of greens and beans, though most of the time it's served with bread to soak the elixir up.

"A 100 years ago, you'd use every single part of everything you make and that's what we do," Mr. Lagattuta said. "It's poor-people food -- cucina povera -- and it is delicious."

Basic greens and beans

There are many ways to cook greens and beans -- in a pot or pan, with meat or without. Here is a basic framework, courtesy of Mark Bittman. It's best with white beans, whether small or large. Cook them until they are just about falling apart; these should be very creamy.

  • 1/2 pound dried white beans, washed and picked over

  • 1 medium onion, unpeeled

  • 1 bay leaf

  • 1 clove

  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

  • 1 1/2 pounds of dark greens: escarole, kale, collards, mustard, broccoli rabe

  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic

  • 4 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil

Place the beans in a large pot with water to cover. Turn the heat to high and bring to a boil.

Cut a slit in the onion and inset the bay leaf. Insert the clove into the onion as well and put it in the pot. Turn the heat down so the beans simmer.

Cover loosely.

When the beans begin to soften, after about 30 minutes, season with salt and pepper. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the beans are tender but intact, about an hour. Add additional water if necessary.

Add the greens to the pot and continue to cook until they are tender, 10 to 30 minutes, depending on the thickness of the stems. If you want a soupy mixture, add more water.

Remove the onion. Season the stew with additional salt and pepper. About 3 minutes before serving, add garlic and stir. Spoon the beans and greens into individual bowls and drizzle with olive oil. Serve immediately.

Serves 4.

-- Adapted from "How to Cook Everything" by Mark Bittman (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 2006)

Cannellini beans and escarole

This recipe is from the new cookbook from the Brooklyn-based restaurant Franny's. It can be made as a soup or, minus the San Marzanos, as greens and beans.

  • 2 1/2 cups dried cannellini beans

  • 1/2 cup plus one tablespoon extra virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling.

  • 6 medium garlic cloves, minced.

  • 1/4 teaspoon chili flakes

  • 1/4 cup minced yellow onion

  • 1 cup minced celery

  • 1/4 cup tightly packed chopped flat leaf parsley

  • 1 cup drained canned San Marzano tomatoes, coarsely chopped

  • 2 ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano rinds, scraped

  • 3 quarts water

  • Kosher salt

  • 1 head escarole, cored and chopped into 2-inch pieces

  • Freshly cracked pepper

  • Finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Place the beans in a large bowl and pick through them, removing any stones or debris. Cover with cold water and let sit for at least 8 hours or overnight. Drain.

In a Dutch oven, warm the olive oil over medium heat. Add the garlic. Once it begins to sizzle and become fragrant, add the chili flakes and cook for 30 seconds, then add the parsley and cook for 1 minute. Do not allow anything to brown.

Add the onion and celery to the pot and stir to combine. Cover, reduce heat to low and cook for 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes and cook for 5 minutes.

Cut the rinds into small pieces to maximize the surface area exposed to the cooking liquid and tie up in a small square of cheesecloth. Add this sachet, the beans and the water to the pot and bring to a simmer. Skim any foam that comes to the surface and stir in salt to taste. Reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer and cook the beans until tender, 30 to 45 minutes. Cooking time will vary depending on the age of the beans.

Add the escarole and cook until tender and wilted, 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Ladle as a soup into warm bowls or with a slotted spoon and add broth before serving. Finished with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and a drizzle of olive oil.

Serves 10 to 12.

-- Adapted from "Franny's Simple Seasonal Italian" by Andrew Feinberg, Francine Stephens and Melissa Clark (Artisan; June 4, 2013; $35)

Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart. First Published October 16, 2013 8:00 PM


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