Food Network’s Jeff Mauro and 3 Little Pigs Compose an ‘Italian-Chinese Symphony’

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Sandwiches around the world excite Jeff Mauro, the Chicago native Food Network personality. Nowadays, the once and future Sandwich King isn’t globetrotting as much, and in 2024 he’s plotting a series of collaborations to showcase his gourmet food brand, Mauro Provisions.

One of those collaborations starts on Friday, February 16 with another Chicago native, Henry Cai of 3 Little Pigs. Cai, who recently opened in the South Loop — inside the Molly’s Cupcakes space, 1150 S. Wabash — will top his signature Chinese American fried chicken sandwiches with Mauro’s Honey G Pepper Relish, which is a finely chopped version of his giardiniera. Cai says it’s a perfect match, saying when you’re eating giardiniera, you sometimes don’t get all the ingredients in a bite. A finely chopped relish is easily spreadable with the spicy oil, carrots, and celery evenly distributed.

They mix the relish with honey for a savory, sweet, and crunch condiment. Mauro says the relish gives eaters “a natural high.” The sandwich comes with the relish and a thinly sliced cucumber salad. There’s also 3 Little Pigs’ hot mustard, mayo, and iceberg lettuce. It’s called “the Hot Mauro.” The sandwich is available for a limited time.

“It’s like a Chinese-Italian symphony,” Mauro says.

Cai says he wasn’t sure if he was being pranked when Mauro sent him a message via Instagram asking if he was interested in teaming up. Mauro says folks from around the world have an affinity for Chinese food in its different varieties. China may not have a huge history with sandwich culture — baos seem to fill that niche. But Cai fuses the food his father cooked for him growing up with his own ideas. Mauro says Cai has “a gift for frying chicken.”

“His is what this is like what I crave in a fried chicken sandwich, right?” Mauro says. “it’s balanced — it’s marinated chicken thigh and the coating is so good.”

Henry Cai and Jeff Mauro pose in front of a window holding chicken sandwiches.
Henry Cai (left) and Jeff Mauro (right) pose at 3 Little Pigs in South Loop.
Paper Pigeon Studio

Mauro was then left with figuring out how to add giardiniera to a fried chicken sandwich with Chinese spices and toppings: “When I started formulating the Honey G pepper relish, I just knew the flavors, the fermented quality, the oily quality, you know — the crunch — the color, the sweetness would lend itself well.”

Speaking with Mauro about combining Chinese and Italian food brought up memories of a Lincoln Park restaurant that opened in the ‘90s called Luigi’s of Hong Kong. The restaurant teased customers with a revolution with a menu that included pasta and pot stickers. There was also a location in suburban Lake Zurich.

Giardiniera is like a mystic art to Chicagoans, with companies closely guarding their recipes. Recently, Cai has been studying the sacred alchemy while preparing his own tribute to Chicago street food, combining Chinese hot pot with Italian beef. Think of it as a Chinese counterpart to Kasama’s Adobo beef sandwich with Filipino flavors. Cai knows he’ll need to include giardiniera in some form. Perhaps he has a new collaborator with Mauro.

Mauro has other collaborations on the way with Boar’s Head Cafe and others. Stay tuned for more information.

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