Origin Pizza Piena
Some of us call it pita or stuffed pie, but the real name for this delicious Italian dish is pizza piena. While this is typically made around the holidays, and particularly Easter, the coming fall helps to recall the tradition of this dish and family and thus worth a mention as we head into the busy holiday season.
Pita by definition is a round pocket bread widely consumed in many Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, and Balkan countries such as Greece, Turkey, and Cyprus. It is a slightly leavened wheat bread where steam creates the pocket puffing up the dough. As the bread flattens and cools, a pocket is left in the middle. The size and shape vary widely—flat, oval, round—and its history reaches as far back as it is a bread which does not require any oven or utensils to make.
Pita is used to scoop sauces or dips, such as hummus, or to wrap meats in the form of a sandwich. Often the bread is baked further and seasoned, made into chips, which are crunchy and thick and used instead of tortilla chips. The sandwich though, or “pita pocket”, is probably the most widely used form of a pita today. We tend to like to stuff food in bread!
The Italian-American Pita
Ok, so now to the Italian pita or stuffed pie known by many Italian Americans today. The pizza piena usually stands about five inches high and looks like a big round quiche pastry filled with eggs, cheese, cured meats, and/or sausage. Eggs are the main staple of this dish, as well as many dishes at Easter, and symbolize fertility and life. Whatever combination of meats, and whether sweet or more savory, the richness is welcomed at the holiday table. Not good for the heart but a big crowd pleaser!
The real joy comes in the preparation of this delight and anticipation of the first bite. Some of us might recall the big hype around buying the right type of cheeses and meats, when the bread has to be made, and the right temperature in the kitchen. Families come together as it is an event. The bread is made on Good Friday—many hands take part in the kneading. Pray it isn’t too cool or rainy or that may affect the denseness of the bread! The meats and cheeses have to be sliced just at the right thickness and the ricotta cheese, well, you pretty much better get at least 3 lbs. and buy ahead of time!
Everyone has a say in how long it has to bake because no one wants it too dry or too moist. While the elder, most likely grandmom, has been making it for years, siblings think they know how it should be done. Thus, a bit of words are flying in the kitchen, but again, typical for Italians in the kitchen. And, after making it almost all day, you have to wait until the next day, Saturday, to eat it–right before Easter Sunday. It is a tradition and don’t be surprised some families bring it to church to get blessed!
The remaining pita is then served on Easter Sunday as an appetizer (even though it could be a meal), along with all other goodies. It is the first item everyone goes to and then has comments—whether too dry, too thick, or just right—as if they could have made it any better! Despite the comments, you will find someone sneaking a piece, wrapping it in tin foil, before heading out the door. Ah, those family memories around traditional dishes.
So, what is the perfect wine pairing, Barbera and Nero d’Avola are two great choices. I’ll leave the other suggestion to you. While you’re at it, you should check out the sommelier wine courses listed here on SOMM!