Easter time in Carroll Gardens is filled with flowering trees and gardens, of course. Marzipan lambs peek out of the window of . The bread stores have racks and racks of sweet bread and lard bread braided with eggs. Beautiful potted lilies, tulips and hydrangeas line the storefronts of the florists and bodegas.
The Italian-Americans of Carroll Gardens have their own traditions. Many of us attend services all through Holy Week. We walk in the Good Friday Procession which goes back 129 years to the founding of our parish, 's. We gather on Holy Saturday to decorate our church. And it’s no surprise that we make some special dishes to go along with this most joyous holiday.
Some people make pizza grana which is a fragrant short-crust pie filled with wheatberries and ricotta. Some make a similar pie with rice. My mother makes pizza rustica and it is the most labor-intensive, indulgent thing she makes all year. Pizza Rustica. Just its name sounds celebratory. The English translation is rustic pie and it is not in any way similar to the pizza with which we are all familiar.
For those of you who don’t know what it is, pizza rustica is a savory, deep-dish, two-crust pie filled with eggs and a variety of cheeses and meats. It is made around Easter time to mark the end of Lent which is traditionally a time of fasting and abstinence. You can be sure this is not something you will ever see in .
My mother experimented with her pizza rustica over the years until she got it just right. The end result was a fully loaded pie. The multi-day process usually begins on the Tuesday or Wednesday before Easter when she visits on Court Street. There she buys most of her ingredients: provolone, prosciutto, dried sausage, soppresata, and grated cheese. Later in the week, she buys fresh mozzarella and eggs. After everything is hauled up to my mom’s top floor apartment, all the meats and cheeses must be diced. When my dad was alive, the chopping was his job but now the task has been taken up by my aunt who is my mom’s twin sister and sous chef.
The next step is making the crust. You can use a bread crust, a flaky crust, or even a Pillsbury crust. My mom finally settled on my great-Aunt Tessie’s lard (that’s right, lard) crust. She follows the faded, hand-written recipe each year on Good Friday which is when she makes the dough. The flaky, golden lard crust perfectly envelops all the rich ingredients inside.
A few years back, we had a brainstorm and decided to try a food processor! It has made the dough making process much easier but my mom makes a lot of pies so it is still quite a big job. She chills trays of dough in the fridge overnight. Then on Saturday morning, whoever is around helps out with the rolling. My mom never really follows a recipe for the filling; she just eyeballs everything, beating dozens of eggs and adding a little bit of this and a little bit of that. There is an assembly line of rolling, filling, and baking. The house is redolent with the aroma of baking pizza rustica.
One thing to note is that we don’t ever taste the pizza rustica right after it is baked because it’s still Lent. That is a really hard thing to do. Even in the years when I didn’t give up anything for Lent, it just didn’t seem right to partake in something so decadent until Lent was really over. My father, however, was known to sneak a slice on Holy Saturday, usually while the rest of us were at the Easter Vigil.
There are many variations of pizza rustica. It seems every family has their own version; some add ricotta (like our downstairs neighbor Rose Tringali used to and my sister Lisa makes hers that way). Some people layer everything like a lasagna and add sliced hard-boiled eggs. No matter what the recipe, you’re a lucky person if you have pizza rustica on your table on Easter Sunday.
We certainly have other things like colored eggs, chocolate bunnies, Peeps, sweet bread from and (I happen to like both), pasta, a roast, and, believe it or not, rabbit cacciatore (which they always told us was chicken when we were kids),…. but the star of the table is the pizza rustica.
Don’t think about the calories; you’ve probably already made a major calorie-cutting, Lenten sacrifice. Just savor it and appreciate all the love and hard work that go into it. And be sure to thank the person who made it.
Buon Appetito and Buona Pasqua!