Greg, the man who cut my hair (and Julia Child’s hair, too) for many years when I lived in Boston, came from a family that was originally from Puglia at the southeastern tip of Italy. He and his wife went back often to visit relatives. A haircut with Greg always took a good deal longer than it should have because we spent a lot of time in the very pleasurable Italian exercise of talking about food and recipes and family traditions. “Like pizza gaina,” Greg said one year around Easter. “You ever had pizza gaina?”
“It isn’t Easter without pizza gaina,” he said and began to recount the recipe, which took a while because there’s a lot that goes into it.
Turns out pizza gaina is Italo-American for pizza chiena which is Campanian for pizza ripiena, aka pizza rustica, a legendary treat, a thick pie. You could call it Italian quiche and not be far wrong — rich with salumi, eggs and cheeses, pizza ripiena by any name is served up at Eastertide from Naples to Bari and points south. It’s a staple for Pasquetta, or Easter Monday, a national holiday in this sensible country, when families debark for the countryside bearing picnics of leftovers from Easter lunch. Pizza ripiena is both a centerpiece of the elaborate picnic and a handy tool for filling up children’s empty stomachs before the main course comes out.
Actually, pizza ripiena makes a wonderful presentation for any kind of feasting, but I think it tastes best of all when it’s consumed al fresco, preferably accompanied by a sparkling spritz of prosecco and Campari (prosecco and limoncello also goes down well).
I’ve experimented with a lot of different recipes for pizza ripiena, pizza chiena, pizza gaina over the years. The following is one I came up with recently. It was a huge hit at a Pasquetta picnic on the sunny, olive-studded terraces below a friend’s farmhouse in Cortona. I made some adjustments from the classic, most significantly using steamed asparagus instead of traditional artichoke hearts, but I’m sure that somewhere in the Mezzogiorno italiano at some time in the past asparagus has been used. It’s an accommodating recipe — you more or less make do with what you have.
However, you must use the best salumi (Italian cured pork products: prosciutto, salame of various kinds, mortadella if you can find it) and cheeses available. The ricotta must be as fresh as possible, it goes without saying, and drained in a fine-mesh sieve overnight to get rid of excess whey. Pecorino should be Toscano or Sardo — not pecorino Romano which is too strong for this dish. (Best quality provolone could be substituted.) As for the mozzarella, above all it should be Italian, made from buffalo milk and as fresh as you can get. Don’t ever, for anything, use that weird rubbery supermarket cheese called, for reasons that are unclear, mozzarella. It is not. Once you’ve assembled all these ingredients, you’re good to go.
But first you have to make the dough for the pie crust. For that, I used a dough I learned from Salvatore Denaro, a great chef who works at the Arnaldo Caprai Winery in Montefalco, Umbria, where he offers delightful cooking classes (find out more at arnaldocaprai.it). Salvatore’s recipe sounds like every Italian farmhouse recipe, full of “quanto basta” (as much as you need) and similar intuitive measurements. Basically, you take equal amounts of dry white wine (at room temp), water (also room temp) and extra virgin olive oil, combine them in a bowl with a pinch of salt and then add flour (equal parts of all-purpose and semolina) until you have a soft but not the least bit sticky dough. Knead it a bit, form it into a ball, then set it in a bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let it rest for several hours or even overnight. It’s actually hard to get more specific than that, but here goes.
Rustic covered pizza with salumi, asparagus, eggs and four cheeses
Makes 10 to 12 servings, more if served with lots of other things as part of a buffet or picnic.
For the crust:
- Combine the liquids in a large mixing bowl and stir in a big pinch of salt.
- Now start adding the flours — a cup of all-purpose, a cup of semolina, stirring each addition in but not worrying if the combination is a bit lumpy. Keep this up until you’ve added 4 cups.
- Now knead the dough gently in the bowl. It should all come together very well into a soft dough that is malleable and not at all sticky. If necessary, add another half cup of all-purpose and then, if needed, another half cup of semolina. But you shouldn’t have to add more than 5 cups flour total to get the right consistency. The remaining cup is for the board, when you roll the dough out.
- Shape the dough into a ball and set in the rinsed-out mixing bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside for several hours. If you think it’s wise, you can refrigerate it overnight.
For the filling:
mortadella, coppa, capocolla, etc. — it could all be one kind of salumi but it’s best to have a mixture; you could also add some sliced cooked ham)
1 pound slightly aged pecorino toscano, pecorino sardo or provolone, cut in half-inch cubes
1 pound fresh buffalo milk mozzarella, in big dice
4 hardboiled eggs, peeled and quartered or sliced
1 pound fresh ricotta, drained in a fine-mesh sieve
7 raw eggs plus 1 egg yolk
about ½ cup chopped mixed green herbs: parsley, basil, chives, etc.
1 cup freshly grated parmigiano reggiano
½ pound asparagus, cut in one-inch lengths and steamed until tender
plenty of freshly ground black pepper
- When you’re ready to make the pizza, take the dough out of the refrigerator if necessary and let it warm up to room temperature. Set the oven on 400 F. Have ready a spring-form pan about 10 inches in diameter and 3 inches high.
- Cut the dough in two unequal “halves” and roll the larger half out to fit the springform pan. Roll the dough as thin as you can and tuck it well into the angle of the pan. Let the excess hang over the top edge.
- Chop the salumi into coarse pieces and scatter half of them over the bottom of the pan. Top with half of the cubed cheese and half the diced mozzarella. Arrange the boiled egg quarters over the top.
- Combine the ricotta with 6 of the raw eggs in a bowl and beat just to mix well. Stir in the chopped green herbs and the grated cheese. If the mixture seems too thick, add the seventh egg, beating to mix thoroughly. Spoon half of this mixture over the top of the stuff in the pan.
- Now continue with the remaining layers — remaining salumi, remaining cheese and mozzarella. Scatter asparagus over the top, then spoon the rest of the egg-Parmigiano mixture on top. Add plenty of freshly ground black pepper.
- Now roll out the second piece of dough to fit the top of the pan — again, making as thin a crust as possible. Set the dough on the top, trim off any excess with scissors but leave enough of the top and bottom to be able to crimp them together.
- Mix the egg yolk with a teaspoon of water, beating well, then paint the entire top of the pie, including the crimped crust around the edge. There is no need to pierce steam holes in the top crust but if you’re feeling clever, you could use the excess dough to make a pastry pattern on the top.
- Transfer to the preheated oven and bake for 45 to 65 minutes or until the top is golden and the smell is fragrant. Remove from the oven to a cake rack and let sit for several hours or even overnight before cutting into the pizza. If you must refrigerate it, be sure to let it come back to room temperature before serving.
Nancy Harmon Jenkins is the author of several books, the latest of which is her newly revised “The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.” Her other food books include, “Cucina del Sole: A Celebration of the Cuisines of Southern Italy” and “The Essential Mediterranean,” which looks at a dozen foods key to understanding Mediterranean cuisines. She also wrote “Flavors of Tuscany,” “Flavors of Puglia” and “The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.” She is working on a book on Atlantic salmon. A former staff writer with The New York Times, Nancy continues to contribute to the Times in addition to writing for The Washington Post, Saveur, Food & Wine and other national publications. She currently divides her time between a Tuscan farmhouse and a home on the coast of Maine where she was born and raised. She has lived and worked throughout the countries of the Mediterranean, at various times making a home in Spain, France, Italy, Lebanon, and Cyprus as well as in Hong Kong and England. You can read more of her food writing on her site, NancyHarmonJenkins.com.
Photo: Pizza ripiena, aka pizza gaina. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins