- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (EVOO), plus more for drizzling
- 4 ounces pancetta or speck (a couple of 1/8-inch-thick slices)
- 2 medium onion, chopped
- 4 cloves garlic, 3 thinly sliced, 1 peeled, divided
- 1 starchy potato, peeled and diced or 3/4 cup ditalini or pennette
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 fresh bay leaf
- 2 heads escarole, chopped
- Freshly grated nutmeg
- 1 can cannellini beans (15-18-ounces)
- 6 cups chicken stock
- 2 cups water
- 3 slices white bread or peasant bread, crust trimmed
- Milk, for softening the bread
- 8 ounces ground beef
- 8 ounces ground pork
- 1 teaspoon fennel seed or pollen or ground fennel
- 1 teaspoon paprika or smoked paprika
- 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (optional)
- A generous handful of grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, plus more for topping
- A handful of flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
- 1 egg yolk
- 1/2 loaf ciabatta bread, for serving
Heat the EVOO, two turns of the pan, in a large pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the pancetta and render for a couple of minutes, then add the onion and sliced garlic and potato – if you prefer pasta, add later when you reheat the soup. Season with salt and pepper and add the bay leaf. Cook to soften, then add the escarole to the pot and season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg; cover to wilt. Stir in the cannellini beans and stock plus 2 cups water. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a rolling simmer.
Meanwhile, douse the bread with milk to soften. Place the ground meats in a bowl. Season the meat with salt and pepper, fennel, paprika, crushed red pepper, cheese and parsley. Add the egg yolk to the bowl, then squeeze the milk out of the bread and crumble it to add to the meat. Drizzle the meat with EVOO and roll it into walnut-size balls. Add the meatballs to the soup and poach until cooked through.
Cool the soup completely and store it for a make-ahead meal.
To reheat the soup: Place the soup in a covered pot and bring to a boil. If you're using or adding pasta, add the pasta to cook to al dente. Serve the soup in shallow bowls with shredded cheese on top and an extra drizzle of EVOO. While the soup reheats, crust up some bread in a hot oven for mopping.
Cook's note: Wrap the bread in plastic or freeze right away when you bring it home from store.