Sure, I looked forward to chowing down on chocolate bunnies and jelly beans on Easter morning when I was a kid. But I was just as excited about later in the day, when I could dig into a slice of my mother’s pizza rustica.
Don’t let the word “pizza” fool you. This is no tomato- and cheese-topped saucer of dough that comes in a skinny white box. Pizza rustica is more like a torte, brimming with a rich filling of cheeses, diced cured meats and hard-boiled eggs, all enclosed in a flaky, golden pastry crust. It is the dish with which millions of Italians and Italian-Americans break the Lenten fast (even if actual fasting hasn’t taken place).
As with so many Italian recipes, pizza rustica varies from region to region, from town to town and from cook to cook. It typically contains the ingredients of spring — eggs and fresh cheese, sometimes greens — and ingredients from the pantry, such as prosciutto or salami. It goes by different names, depending on where you are from, and religious symbolism is usually associated with it. Ada Boni’s all-encompassing cookbook on Italian cuisine, “Il Talismano della Felicita” (The Talisman of Happiness), first published in 1928, contains four recipes for pizza rustica, with different doughs and fillings.
In and around Naples, pizza rustica is called “pizza ripiena,” or, in Neapolitan dialect, “pizza chiena,” which means “stuffed pizza.” It is traditionally made with a yeasted dough and may contain fresh sausage in addition to cured meats. References to it date back at least to the reign of the Bourbons in the 17th century. When Neapolitans and other southern Italians immigrated to the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they brought their “pizza chiena” recipes with them, and it is from that term that we get the rather ungainly Italian-American name for it: pizza gain. Italian-American versions of pizza rustica (or, if you must, pizza gain) often include American ingredients, such as ham and pepperoni.
On the island of Ischia, off the coast of Naples, locals make a version of pizza rustica known as “il Casatiello.” It’s more of a savory cheese- and meat-stuffed bread than a torte, shaped into a ring (to resemble a crown of thorns) with whole eggs nestled into it. Farther north in Liguria, the region that gave us pesto, pizza rustica morphs into torta Pasqualina (Easter pie), a layered affair of olive oil pastry or phyllo dough, greens (such as chard, beet greens or spinach), cheese and whole eggs carefully broken right into the filling before baking. If you make an old-school version, the layers of torta Pasqualina should add up to 33, one for each year of Jesus’ life.
My mother’s pizza rustica is typical of the Abruzzo region, in central Italy, where she grew up. Some Abruzzese variations call for sweet pastry dough — combining sweet dough with a savory filling is a centuries-old practice in Italian cuisine. But I prefer my mother’s, which omits the sugar and instead uses a squeeze of fresh lemon juice. The acidity balances the richer ingredients in the butter-based dough and in the filling, which consists of diced prosciutto, mortadella and soppressata and a mix of six cheeses, including something called basket cheese.
Unless you frequent Italian delis at Easter time, it’s unlikely you’ve encountered basket cheese. It seems to magically appear a week before Easter and disappear again the week after. It’s a fresh cow’s milk cheese that is drained in white plastic baskets and so retains the basket’s shape and imprint. My guess is that basket cheese is a stand-in for sheep’s milk ricotta, which is sweeter than cow’s milk ricotta, or for primosale, a fresh sheep’s milk cheese that is salted once and drained in baskets. Abruzzo’s sheep-farming traditions stretch back centuries and sheep’s milk cheeses remain an important staple. (If you are unable to find basket cheese — or sheep’s milk ricotta, for that matter — substitute good imported Greek feta or ricotta salata.)
At the risk of messing with symbolism, I don’t put hard-boiled eggs in my filling (neither did Mom) since beaten eggs are used to bind it all together. Instead, I decorate the top with Easter-themed pastry cutouts. We enjoy thin slices of the rich torte as an antipasto before a traditional lamb dinner. Leftovers become supper the next night, alongside a simple tossed salad.
What’s in your pizza rustica? Got a favorite Easter food tradition? Tell us about it in the comments.
This rich, savory torte, filled with a mixture of cheeses and diced cured meats, is what countless Italian and Italian-American families slice into to break the Lenten fast. There are many variations and this is my mother's. I like it best slightly warm, so that it oozes just a little when you cut into your slice. On the other hand, a thin cold slice, straight from the fridge, makes a great snack (should you be fortunate enough to have leftovers). Serve pizza rustica as an appetizer before Easter dinner, or as a main course for a spring luncheon, accompanied by a salad and a light dessert. The pizza rustica may be baked in advance, wrapped tightly in plastic, and stored in the refrigerator for 1 day, or frozen for up to 1 month. Reheat it, uncovered, in a moderate oven (350 degrees) until completely warmed through.
- For the pastry
- 2 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for the work surface
- 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, chilled and cut into pieces
- 1/4 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
- 2 large eggs
- 4 or 5 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
- For the filling
- 1 pound fresh, unsalted cheese such as basket cheese*
- 8 ounces fresh mozzarella, diced
- 1 pound fresh ricotta
- 1 cup (4 ounces) shredded sharp aged provolone cheese, such as Auricchio
- 1 1/2 cups (6 ounces) freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
- 1/2 cup (2 ounces) grated pecorino Romano
- 4 ounces mortadella, cut into small dice (about 2/3 cup)
- 4 ounces prosciutto, cut into small dice (about 2/3 cup)
- 4 ounces sopressata, cut into small dice (about 2/3 cup)
- Kosher or sea salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 3 large eggs, lightly beaten
- 1/4 cup half-and-half or whole milk
- To assemble
- Butter for the pan
- Unbleached all-purpose flour for the work surface
- 1 egg, lightly beaten with 2 tablespoons water
In the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade, combine the flour, butter and salt and pulse briefly until combined. Add the eggs and the lemon juice and pulse just until a ball of dough begins to form, fewer than 10 seconds.
Turn the dough onto a lightly floured work surface. Gently pat the dough into a disk. Do not knead or overmix. Wrap the disk tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate until needed. The dough may be frozen for up to 1 month. Bring it to slightly cooler than room temperature before using.**
Using a wooden spoon, a fork, or your fingers, crumble the basket cheese into a large bowl. Add the mozzarella, ricotta, provolone, Parmigiano and pecorino cheeses. Fold everything together with a wooden spoon or sturdy spatula. Add the mortadella, prosciutto and sopressata and mix again. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper if necessary.
Pour the beaten eggs over the mixture and stir until thoroughly combined. The filling should be dense and thick enough to stand a spatula or wooden spoon in, but it should not be so thick that you can’t incorporate the ingredients. Add the half-and-half or milk and mix well. Cover the filling with plastic wrap and set aside.***
Heat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Generously butter a 9-by-13-inch pan or a 10-inch round springform pan with sides at least 2 1/2 inches deep.
Cut the dough into 2 portions, one slightly larger than the other. Rewrap the smaller portion and set aside. On a lightly floured work surface, roll out the larger portion of dough into a rectangle or circle, depending on the shape of your pan, so that it is large enough to cover the bottom and sides of the pan with some overhang. The dough should be about 1/4-inch thick. Place your rolling pin on the edge of the dough closest to you and gently wrap the dough around the rolling pin. Lift the dough over the pan, then carefully unroll it. Gently press the dough into the pan. Spoon the filling into the pan and smooth out the top.
Roll out the remaining portion of dough and drape it over the filling. Gently press it directly against the surface of the filling. Trim the top and bottom crusts so that only 1 inch of overhang remains, then press them together to seal. Roll the overhang in toward the center of the dough to form an edge. Continue to roll the edge until you have gone all the way around the pan. Press down on the rolled edge with the tines of a fork to seal and form a decorative crust. If desired, use leftover dough to cut out shapes (I use cookie cutters to make baby chicks and eggs at Easter) and arrange them on top of the pie, using a little of the egg mixed with water to help them adhere. Using a sharp knife, cut several slits in the top of the pizza. Lightly brush the top crust surface with egg wash.
Bake for about 1 hour, until the top is deeply golden. Transfer the pan to a wire rack to cool for 20 to 30 minutes. If using a rectangular pan, carefully invert the pizza onto a platter or cutting board, and then re-invert it onto the rack. Let cool completely. If using a springform pan, remove the sides and carefully move the pie to the rack or a large plate or platter. If serving immediately, cut the cooled pizza into slices or large bite-size pieces and arrange on a platter. Serve warm, at room temperature or cold.
*Basket cheese is usually sold in 2-pound plastic baskets. It can be hard to find but is usually available at Easter time at Italian markets and can be special-ordered at many well-stocked cheese counters. If you can’t find it, use imported Greek feta instead. In this case you will most likely not need to add salt.
**The pastry dough may be made and stored, tightly wrapped in plastic, in the refrigerator, a day in advance, or frozen for up to 1 month. Bring the dough to slightly cooler than room temperature before rolling it out. T
***The filling may be made up to a day in advance and kept, in a tightly lidded container, in the refrigerator.