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Say Cheese: Pizza rustica, richer than rich

Several cheeses and cured meats go into a rich, lemon-scented pastry dough for pizza rustica. (Domenica Marchetti)

My 11-year-old daughter, a person of much more resolve than her mother, gave up cheese for Lent. What is more, she has not once fallen off the wagon or even complained about her self-imposed deprivation. This is a girl who loves cheese at least as much as I do, someone who showers freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano on just about everything except breakfast cereal.

A person of such fortitude deserves a reward--a special, cheesy reward--on Easter, and she is going to get it, in the form of a big fat slice of pizza rustica (which, incidentally, I wrote about for the Post way back in 2002).

This is not pizza in the way that most of us know pizza: a thin saucer of dough topped with tomato sauce and mozzarella and baked in a very hot oven. It is something entirely different, a savory stuffed torte brimming with no fewer than six cheeses (at least in my version) and three types of cured meats. It is the dish with which Italians have traditionally broken the Lenten fast, rich beyond rich and worth the effort that it takes to properly dice the ingredients and assemble the torte.

Not surprisingly, there are as many versions of pizza rustica as there are Italians. In Naples, it is traditionally made with a yeast dough; sausage, as well as hard-boiled eggs, are included in the filling.

My version, which is essentially my mother’s version, is more typical of the Abruzzo region, where she is from, though she has definitely put her own stamp on it over the years. It features pastry made with butter and eggs and a splash of lemon juice. The tartness of the lemon cuts the richness of the dough and the filling, which comprises prosciutto, mortadella, and soppressata, plus a variety of hard and fresh cheeses: Parmigiano, pecorino and Auricchio (aged provolone); and ricotta, mozzarella, and a fresh cheese known simply as "basket cheese" because the curds are drained in a white plastic basket and retain its shape and imprint.

Basket cheese can be hard to find. I never see it at any other time of year, but it appears, seemingly spontaneously, in the weeks before Easter at the Italian Store in Arlington. It contains only milk, rennet and a trace amount of salt, is moist and almost sweet in flavor, and just firm enough to slice, though you can also easily break it apart with your fingers.

When I have been unable to find basket cheese I’ve used a mix of ricotta salata and Greek feta as a substitute, in which case I add no additional salt to the filling. Although the pizza rustica ultimately tastes a little different, it is still rich, tangy and delicious. This year, upon finding a leftover piece of manouri and some feta in my fridge, I crumbled those two with the basket cheese. As you can see, it’s a recipe that doesn’t mind being tinkered with.

And it’s not as labor-intensive as you might fear. Both the dough and the filling can be made a day ahead. The most time-consuming part is the dicing of the meats and shredding and dicing of the cheeses, though with a sharp knife you can dispatch that task within 20 minutes. Be sure to cut the meat into small enough pieces, not much bigger than a kernel of corn. Large pieces detract from the richly dense texture of the filing.

Finally, the torte can be assembled and baked ahead of time, cooled to room temperature, and then wrapped well and frozen for up to a month. Let it defrost and then reheat it, uncovered, in a moderate (350-degree F) oven until completely warmed through.

-- Domenica Marchetti
(Follow me on Twitter.)

By The Food Section  |  March 30, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Recipes , Say Cheese  | Tags: Domenica Marchetti, Say Cheese, pizza  
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This looks fantastic - I love making homemade pizza and trying new variations. This crust looks interesting! I'm still perfecting the one from a few weeks ago (the personal size with the no-knead dough). My family thanks you for giving me new pizza recipes to try!

Posted by: megster671 | March 30, 2010 9:14 AM | Report abuse

My family calls this "Easter Pie" and it is fantastic, although the name has deceived many a guest expecting some light spring like pie.

Posted by: maybe2 | March 30, 2010 11:45 AM | Report abuse

On the other hand, my family (from the north, near Milan), also eats Easter Pie/Torta Pasquale, though it's fairly different. There is a crust, sometimes pasta frolla and sometimes something else, depending on who makes it. The filling is mostly ricotta with bit of grana or parmegian. Additionally, it includes cooked and minced spinach or swiss chard. Finally, whole raw eggs are included in indentations and during cooking become like embedded hard boiled eggs.

I wonder if the difference is a regional thing?

Posted by: ArlingtonSMP | March 30, 2010 1:09 PM | Report abuse

@Arlington SMP: It could be a regional difference, though it's my understanding that the meat-laden version is specifically for breaking the Lenten fast, back from the days when no meat was consumed during Lent. I love the version with greens. Both my mom & I make a version with this; like you I use swiss chard (and escarole instead of spinach). I love how there are so many variations between regions, families, etc.

Posted by: Domenica1 | March 30, 2010 4:26 PM | Report abuse

@megster671 This dough is different than typical pizza dough made with yeast. This is known as "pasta frolla"--butter & eggs, no yeast. Very easy to roll out. I use it for all kinds of savory tortes & pies. There is a sweet version of pasta frolla that I use to make dessert tarts. Enjoy!

Posted by: Domenica1 | March 30, 2010 4:30 PM | Report abuse

We call this Easter Pie, too. But I thought of it as torture pie growing up. My grandmother, aunts, mother and I gathered to make it on Good Friday. It's no fun chopping all the meat when I wasn't allowed to taste it! I still have my aunt's handwritten recipe with hints like "make your own measurement to know how much filling to use. Mom (rest her soul) didn't tell me so I judge also." Thanks for publishing this and bringing back some great memories!

Posted by: LeDroitPark | March 31, 2010 8:40 AM | Report abuse

@LeDroitPark, I don't know if you heard, but I announced on Twitter that we're going to start giving away a cookbook to our favorite blog comment of the week. This week, it's yours! Your "torture pie" comment made me chuckle. Send your contact/mailing information to, and we'll send you something fun...

Posted by: joeyonan | April 2, 2010 8:25 AM | Report abuse

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