Easter is this Sunday. This means that my mother has started baking her annual batch of pizza rustica using a recipe from her aunt, a stubborn woman who, because of a lamp, did not speak to her sister (my grandmother) for six years. Per this aunt's instructions, my mother will whisk six eggs and some flat-leaf parsley with half a pound each of fontina and Parmesan cheeses before adding six pounds of ricotta and half a pound each of cubed salami, soppressata, prosciutto and ham. This will make three to four double-crust pies. Clearly, we’re not light eaters.
Curious about its origins, I discovered that pizza rustica is an Easter staple in Naples. Nancy Harmon Jenkins, author of Cucina del Sole, has heard of it among the Pugliese and the Abruzzi and confirmed that it’s pretty widely eaten in the whole southern Italian boot. In my house we actually call it “pizza gain”, a phrase that’s an Italian-American corruption derived from pizza ripiena or piena, meaning “stuffed” or “full” in Italian. In short, piena, or chiena in certain dialects, became chien', then “gain” as it got passed down across generations (and an ocean). These pies, most made from some combination of cheese, meats and eggs in a sweet crust, are meant to break the Lenten fast by offering many of the rich treats given up as a sacrifice.
And break the fast it does. David Greco, who runs the Arthur Avenue Café and Mike’s Deli in the Bronx, makes a Neapolitan-style rustica based on his maternal grandmother’s recipe that’s very similar to my mother’s – and one that weighs in at a little over three pounds a pie. He’s been selling 200 a day for the past week. His secret is a touch of lemon zest in the crust. He also makes a Calabrian version from his father’s family with chunks of soppressata and thinly-sliced prosciutto baked into an eggy focaccia. Frank Generoso of the Royal Crown Pastry Shop in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn says the key to his rustica is using the best quality ricotta that’s firm but still creamy. A thick ricotta, he says, will hold up and not run all over the place.
My mother's is still the best, especially a couple of hours out of the oven. I should start fasting now to heighten the enjoyment of that first bite.