By: Jerry Finzi, Grand Voyage Italy
When I was a young boy we would drive down to Hoboken to visit my Uncle Sal and Aunt Antionette in their red brick row house. The part I loved best was their lower floor…I suppose you could call it a basement, but it was really like a finished apartment, even though there were large, silver-painted heating pipes running along the ceiling, with Nonna Finzi sitting quietly in the lower front parlor as the loud chaos of our Italian families cooked, played and teased one another. When it was warm out, the men would play and gamble and argue in the bocce court behind their vegetable garden.
But most of all, I remember the kitchen down there…white subway tile running all the way up to meet the ceiling…and the big pots…and those great smells. It seems that just about every time I visited, there was a huge pot of Sunday Gravy on the stove top simmering and letting its rich smells escape through the place and into my nostrils. There seemed to be an endless supply of meatballs (polpette), sausages and braciole. Then at Easter time there was a real treat: Pizzagaina.
In our family, that’s what we called it. PizzaGAINA, pronounced PEETS-a-GAYN-a. But depending on what part of Italy your family comes from, and the dialect spoken, you might hear it called any of the following: Pizzachiena, Pizza Chena, or even Pizza Rustica. A rough translation in all cases is “full pie” with the latter being “rustic pie.” Pizza Cena would mean “dinner pie.” There is also another version called Pizza Ripiena that is thinner and more of a double stuffed crust pizza, and definitely not as thick as the Pizzagaina “full” pies. Never thought about it before, but maybe they are called “full” because that’s how they’ll make you feel.
It’s usually made before Easter on Good Friday and eaten on Easter Sunday as a celebratory meat pie to break the Lenten fast. After having given up all red meats during Lent, this dish is really going off the wagon because it contains lots of different meats and cheeses. An Easter feast might also have meat in other courses, too. You can imagine in times past how a spring lamb or pig were slaughtered or even a cinghiale (wild boar) was hunted and butchered in preparation for the Easter festa–a big deal after a lean winter and Lent.
Usually, an hour or two before they put out the pasta, sausages, brasciole and meatballs, my Aunt Anne would put out a tray of mixed antipasti along with the Pizzagaina for slicing. While I loved picking on a few olives, some chunks of provolone and salami, the real prize was getting a nice wedge of pizzagaina. Often it was still warm with its thick, eggy, meaty filling of salty ham, salami, chunks of hard boiled eggs and other things I couldn’t identify as a kid (more than likely mortadellaor capicola).
There are two ways to make this Easter pie–one using thin, layered slices of cold cut meats, with the other using diced pieces of meat and sausage. The base of the filling is made with egg and cheese, something similar to a French quiche (but to my taste, far less greasy). Pretty much every family will have it’s own version. My Dad would call this type of recipe baBUCcia (sp?), a Molfetese dialect word he used to mean “all mixed up together.” While the ingredients might be similar, everyone makes it differently, and the recipe might change from region to region, perhaps a frugal habit of using up what meats were left over by the time the long winter reached Easter. Some make it looking very much like a proper meat pie in a pie pan, while most use a high sided spring form pan. Still others might make a large one in a lasagna pan, with far too many eggs (in my opinion), and cutting squares to feed a large family gathering.
Babbo Finzi’s Pizzagaina
For the Dough
1 pound flour (to ensure a good crust, it’s best to weigh the flour)
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 sticks cold butter (1/2 lb), cut into small pieces
1/4 cup whole or skim milk, plus a little more if needed at the end
1 beaten egg with a pinch of salt to brush the crust
For the Filling
32 ounces ricotta cheese (well drained, preferably the night before)
1 dash nutmeg
25 cracks black pepper
2 large eggs
1 cup sharp provolone, 1/2″ dice
1 cup Fontina, 1/2″ dice
1 cup smoked mozzarella, 1/2″ dice
1/2 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano or caciocavallo, grated
1/4 pound Boars Head Piccolo Prosciuttoor Speck, sliced 1/8″ thick
1/4 pound Boars Head Pickle Pepperor capicola, sliced 1/8″ thick
1/4 pound Boars Head Crushed Peppermill Turkey, sliced 1/8″ thick
(NOTE: You can substitute 3/4 pounds of 3-4 of your favorite meats for the above… chicken, pork, ham, boar, sweet or spicy sausage broken up, etc.)
Making the Dough for the Crust
In either a stand mixer with a dough hook, or a food processor with a blade, add all the flour and salt and mix a bit before adding the small pieces of butter. If using a stand mixer, you can mix on medium–if using a food processor, pulse until the mixture starts coming together, but don’t over-process or your crust won’t be flaky.
Drizzle in the 1/4 cup milk. This should make a dough ball form as you continue to mix/pulse. If the ball doesn’t quite form, drizzle in a little bit more milk, but stop when a ball forms. With your hands (but without kneading), press your dough into a large ball at first, then flatten it into a thick disk and wrap in plastic wrap and set aside to rest at room temperature. Do not over mix or knead your dough or it will be dense and lose its flakiness.
Making the Filling
- This is a good time to preheat your oven to 350F .
- Cube all the cheeses to about 1/5″ and place into a large mixing bowl.
- Cut up the deli meats into 3/4″ x 2″ slices and separate the individual pieces as you drop them into the mixing bowl, turning over with a large mixing spoon as you go to ensure they get distributed among the pieces of cheese.
- Add the grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or caciocavallo cheese over the filling and mix.
- Next, place the drained ricotta into a second mixing bowl and add the 2 eggs. Mix thoroughly with a strong wooden spoon.
- Add 25 cracks of pepper and the nutmeg (do NOT overdo the nutmeg) and mix into the ricotta.
- Add the ricotta mixture into the meat/cheese filling and mix with the large spoon, turning over and over until the whole mixture is well bound together.
Putting Together the Pizzagaina
- Grease a springform pan with butter and then flour it on all sides and the bottom and set aside.
- Dust a work surface with flour.
- Cut off about 1/5 of your dough for the lattice strips and set aside in plastic wrap.
- Place your dough disk on the flour and move it around to make sure you have enough flour on the work surface to prevent sticking.
- Cover your dough with a sheet of parchment paper.
- Using a straight rolling pin, start rolling out your dough to a large round disk nearly reaching the sides of your parchment paper. You can hold your springform pan over to gauge if it’s rolled out large enough. You should keep in mind that the dough will cover the bottom and up to the top of your pan’s sides. The finished thickness should be a bit less than 1/4″.
- Remove the parchment paper and using your long rolling pin, roll up the dough round onto the pin, letting a 4″ flap hang at the end. Position the flap over one side of your pan and gently roll out the dough to center it over the pan.
- Let the dough settle to the bottom of the pan, gently pressing the sides all around to fit snugly. The bottom corners should be tucked in and any excess should come up and over the top edges.
- Using either a pastry cutter, pizza cutter or sharp paring knife, trim away the excess dough along the top ridge of the pan. Most springform pans have a small indent running around the lip of the pan that you can use to guide your cutter. If there are any gaps in the dough, you can use small pieces to press and patch as needed.
- Next, fill your pan with the cheese/meat filling. Press down gently to level and smooth it.
- Now it’s time to roll out the remaining dough to make some lattice strips.
- Once again, cover with the parchment and roll out a bit thinner than the main crust. Make your dough round a bit longer than the diameter of your pan.
- Using a pastry or pizza cutter, cut 1″ strips and arrange them in a lattice pattern on top of your Pizzagaina. To do it properly, try to alternate the strips over and under each other. This helps the lattice from popping out all over the place when cutting into the pie.
- Use your fingers or a spoon to press the strips down into the edge of the side crust. Trim any excess with a cutter all around the edges.
- Beat one egg with a pinch of salt and using a pastry brush, brush the egg onto all the lattice strips.
- Bake in the center rack (with a foiled wrapped pan on the lower rack to catch any leaks) at 350F for 50 minutes uncovered. Remove from oven and place on a cooling rack for 15-20 minutes before serving.
You can get 8 or 9 decent sized slices out of this pie. Serve as a robust antipasto or have a slice with a salad on the side for a lunch or light supper. You can also serve a slice with a dollop of marinara on the side.
There you have it, our Pizzagaina recipe… enjoy.
Boun appetito e Bouna Pasqua!