Jody Williams and Rita Sodi wanted to fix the insalata mista. You know the one: the sad, wilted pile of greens, with maybe a cherry tomato or two, that’s a perfunctory addition to a table of riches just because you have to say you ate your greens. Williams knew it could be better, and she and Sodi felt they had a mission to create a salad that diners would actually crave, one that could rescue the reputation of the depressing side salad. “Like, Dear Insalata Mista, let us take care of you. Welcome to our table,” she says.
The result is the Insalata Verde served at Via Carota, the pair’s ode to the fresh, seasonal, and unfussy flavors of Tuscany and beyond. Everyone who has eaten it raves about it; it is now so popular it could start its own restaurant. “We are devoted to this salad,” write Sodi and Williams in their new cookbook, Via Carota. “We eat it every day.” And the recipe is deceptively simple. Essentially, it’s just a pile of greens with a simple vinaigrette. But it’s in the selection of the greens, the consideration of textures, and the balance of the vinaigrette that Williams and Sodi’s brilliance shines.
In their “vegetable forward” cookbook, it is also the rare dish that they say works in every season, with a little finagling. “You might gravitate towards the hearts of escarole, or more endive, or you’ll be rich in frise,” says Williams. “Whatever your bounty is, you can…put together an Insalata Verde.” The key to the vinaigrette is a kiss of water, which keeps the vinegar’s tang in check. “Using water, cooking with water is important for us and makes things simple and pure,” says Williams. “And that’s part of this salad dressing, that touch of water, balancing it out so that it’s soft on the palate and all the flavors can balance better.”
And like all good condiments, the vinaigrette can be put on anything. Williams and Sodi say they spoon it over hard boiled eggs, cold chicken breast, and leftover bolito misto. “It’s a fresh touch and flavor that doesn’t interrupt or take out the flavor of the dish,” says Sodi. “It gives life for everything.” It’s a beautiful salad. And as Williams and Sodi write, “it’s okay to eat with your hands.”
Insalata Verde Recipe (Leafy Greens With Via Carota Vinaigrette)
For the leafy greens:
1 head of butter lettuce, such as Bibb or Boston
A few pieces of frisée (about 6)
2 handfuls little gem lettuce leaves, or other crisp lettuce
A small handful peppercress or watercress
1⁄4 cup/60 ml Via Carota Vinaigrette (recipe below)
3 spears Belgian endive
For the Via Carota vinaigrette:
(makes about 1 cup/240 ml, enough for 8 salads)
1 shallot, very finely chopped (1⁄4 cup)
1 garlic clove, finely grated (about 1⁄2 teaspoon)
3⁄4 teaspoon/2 grams sugar
1⁄2 teaspoon/1.5 grams salt
6 stems fresh thyme
1⁄4 cup/60 ml aged sherry vinegar
2 teaspoons/10 ml warm water
3⁄4 cup/180 ml extra-virgin olive oil
For the leafy greens:
Step 1: Pull off any wilted or bruised outer leaves from the butter lettuce. Set aside the floppy, darker green leaves for another use; you will only use the crunchy, pale inner head. Wash the leaves in two changes of water: First, fill a basin with lukewarm water, and soak the lettuces in it, swishing with your hands. Lift the leaves out and drain in a colander. Second, wash the leaves in cold water, again swishing them with your hands and lifting them out. Rinse the leaves well. Slice the frisée leaves into smaller pieces and separate the little gem leaves and remove any tough stems from the cress; wash them in the same way.
Step 2: Spin all the leaves dry in a salad spinner, then lay them out on a large, lint-free kitchen towel. In all, you will have about six handfuls of mixed leaves. Gently press on them with another towel and roll them up completely.
Step 3: Place all the leaves in the largest bowl you can find. Season them with a large pinch of salt and a few grindings of pepper. Drizzle in most of the vinaigrette, tossing with your hands to coat the leaves thoroughly.
Step 4: Lay the leaves on a plate in gradual stages, so they can be piled high without falling. Tuck the endive spears around the sides and drizzle with a little bit more vinaigrette.
For the vinaigrette:
Place the shallots in a fine-mesh strainer and rinse with cold water. Drain them and transfer to a small bowl with the garlic, sugar, and salt. Strip the thyme leaves off the stems and finely chop the leaves (for about 1 teaspoon thyme); stir into the bowl. Stir in the vinegar and water. Pour the olive oil into the bowl in a slow stream, whisking all the while until emulsified.
The vinaigrette can be refrigerated for up to three days.
Reprinted with permission from Via Carota: A Celebration of Seasonal Cooking from the Beloved Greenwich Village Restaurant: An Italian Cookbook by Jody Williams and Rita Sodi with Anna Kovel, copyright © 2022. Published by Alfred A. Knopf.
Photography by Gentl & Hyers, copyright © 2022.