Torta di Pasqua, Easter Pie, is one of my favorite childhood memories of Easter. Also called Pizza Rustica, it is a traditional Easter treat in nearly every old-world Italian household – and, as we have come to expect, prepared uniquely in each of these households. Pizza Rustica is best described as a pot pie made with various cheeses, meats, and eggs – lots and lots of eggs.
Why eggs? In most cultures, eggs symbolize birth – or rebirth – the start of new life. Ancient cultures decorated eggs to celebrate the Spring equinox, which in the northern hemisphere signaled the “birth” of the new growing season. Archeological records indicate that more than 5,000 years ago, Sumerians and Egyptians placed decorated eggs in tombs – presumably to ensure an afterlife for the deceased.
The eight-day (seven days in Israel) Jewish celebration of Passover dates back to the story of the Exodus over 3,300 years and, as specified in the Torah, must be celebrated “in the month of the spring.” A hard-boiled egg is served traditionally with the Seder meal on the first night of Passover to symbolize fertility (at least to some believers). And, as far back as 2,500 years ago, Zoroastrians decorated eggs for Nowruz, their New Year’s Day which was also the Spring equinox.
Historically, Easter originated in ancient Europe, where ancient Saxons worshiped the pagan goddess of Spring, Eastre (sometimes Eostre). Their annual festival, Eastre, was held (logically) during the Spring equinox.
Easter Ham Pie.
Easter Pepperoni Pie.
(Where the Easter bunny fits into this narrative is, as one of my favorite college professors frequently proclaimed when asked a difficult question, “Beyond the scope of this course!”)
But, back to the eggs – and the Easter pies. In many Italian households, several of these pies are prepared the week before Easter. According to Italian custom, Easter pies are to be shared with friends and relatives to whom you owe a favor or debt. I don’t remember anyone mentioning this custom at the time, but I do remember my paternal grandmother and one particular aunt (who was already a grandmother when I was still a child) making what seemed like dozens of pies each year. My parents were always recipients from one or the other.
Easter Pie crusts are made with flour, shortening, eggs, and water. The pie filling is a mixture of beaten eggs, sliced hard boiled eggs, and a variety of chopped meats and cheeses. Meat options include cooked ham, pepperoni, cooked sausage, mortadella, capicola, soppressata, and prosciutto. Mozzarella, provolone, ricotta, and Parmigiano-Reggiano are the favorite cheese options. My grandmother and aunt used much simpler recipes, however. They made their pies with beaten and hard boiled eggs, chunks of mozzarella cheese, and either cooked ham or pepperoni.
I have very fond memories of my childhood Easter mornings – searching for the cleverly hidden Easter basket filled with real and chocolate eggs (and other goodies), and then enjoying a slice or two of Pizza Rustica! Perhaps you will serve one of my ancestors' pies to your family this year.
Buon appetito e Buona Pasqua!