On Palm Sunday 2019, Radio Italiana 531, held a competition for pizza chiena. The choice of date, though serendipitous, was perfect. I was one of four judges.
Photo Credit: Radio Italiana 531AM. In the station's Maria Donato Boardroom on Port Road.
Palm Sunday – a day of peace, goodwill, love – surely the judges would be held aloft above an audience grateful for our unbiased wisdom and selfless tasting of the pies set before us. What could go wrong? Let me tell you how it went down.
To set the scene, I need to explain that the name, pizza chiena, is a Neapolitan corruption of pizza ripiena – a full pizza, a stuffed pizza, a chock-a-block full of cheeses, eggs, salumi and sausage pizza. It is a regional speciality of Naples and the towns closest to it. Other towns and regions make pies and pastries that are similar in construction, ingredients and purpose. But only a handful of towns closest to Naples make pizza chiena. And each town, no - each family within that town - makes the definitive recipe. Lambs to the slaughter. That’s what we were.
The genus and purpose of the pizza chiena, elsewhere also known as pizza rustica or pizza pasqualina, is common to all of them. It is an indulgent, rich reward for having survived Lent. The fasting of a frugal forty days and the rigours of the Holy Week abstinence are broken on Easter Sunday with this delicious pie. And here is the ultimate sacrifice - the pie must be made on Good Friday, the day of the strictest avoidance of any meat or animal product.
How perverse is this God who has ordained that children (picture me standing on a stool, cutting the pieces of capocollo and salami), should contribute to the making of the pizza and not pop just one tiny cube into a salivating mouth? Temptation indeed. Then the pie sits beguilingly on the counter until Easter Sunday morning when the fast can finally be broken. Halleluiah! Shafts of heavenly light and angel choirs singing. Let’s cut the pizza and see com’e` riuscita, how is it this year, a success?
This pie only makes sense if you are willing to set aside your religious and cultural beliefs and enter the psyche of a nominally Catholic society. I say 'nominally' because the majority of Italian Catholics do not regularly attend mass. Averaging all the figures I have read, only 22.7% of Italians who identify as Roman Catholics go to mass once a month. I have read studies that put this figure even lower since the Church’s appalling scandals and lower still amongst young people. And yet, recipes, social structures, civic calendars, cultural icons, architecture, social mores and even legislation, seem to attest to the opposite.
In one interview, a professor of Classics from Vicenza called himself a ‘cultural Catholic’. I guess that means he has a holiday and eats the typical Veneto Easter cake, the fugassa veneta . Perhaps he swells the numbers at the 3.00 service on Good Friday or Easter Sunday morning. He belongs to the club that my father dubbed ‘i natalini e i pasqualini’ – the Christmas and Easter Catholics. My father was the President.
In Altavilla Irpina, 46 km from Naples, where my family comes from, the church bells are tied up from Holy Thursday and not untied until the early morning of Easter Sunday. This is an intense, but quiet and reflective time. The ringing of the bells - even due to a gust of wind – would shatter the solemnity. And so life’s big moments – like the eating of pizza chiena – are put on hold until the bells are free.
There is another lesson here for a non Italian: that pizza can certainly mean a flat bread, with a topping or without, but it generally just means a pie. Another pizza that my family makes at Easter, for example, is the delicious pizza chi’ foglie, pizza with bitter, green leaves.
And so to judging. We had 10 pizze. Each of them good, some better than others, obviously. Some had no precision in the cutting of the meats, some were too heavy because they were over beaten, some had ricotta, one had semi dried tomatoes to add colour, one had rice, another garnished with walnuts, in a couple of them, the dough dominated the pizza. All claimed to be ‘authentic’ and so they were, made from their own cherished family recipe. I would have happily eaten most of them, but that was not the point.
Did the judges come to blows? Nearly.
As judges, we came with our own prejudices, our own expectations. I wanted a pizza that would remind me of my childhood, another judge expected a bread dough pastry, a third applauded innovation and the last, wanted a solid pie to take on the traditional Easter Monday picnic, called pasquetta.
In the end, I believe, we delivered first prize to a worthy champion, Sig.ra Rita Zerillo. I was genuinely pleased for her and her husband – the flavour was piquant from the three different cheeses purchased locally, the three different salumi, cut uniformly and evenly distributed, were handmade by her husband who looked on proudly, the eggs came from their own hens. She delivered the pie, still warm from the oven, on the morning of the competition with great pride.
Into the fray, I can now reveal my own recipe. It is not my mother’s 'traditional' one with 20 eggs and a risen, yeast dough, though I am happy to share that recipe, too.
Photo Credit: Italo Vardaro, Irene Previn, Rosa Matto. A Year's Supply, 2001. (Apologies for my inexpert reproduction.)
Instead, this is a recipe that we, together, adapted to make it lighter, less challenging for our changed palates. A pizza that looks attractive on a buffet or a picnic blanket. Pizza chiena for modern times.
It begs the question. Is this new, revised version still “authentic”, “traditional”, “genuine”? Or will I go to hell? There’ll be, at least, nine other cooks with me.
My Pizza Chiena
FOR THE PASTRY
2 cups plain flour
2 level tsp baking powder
1 lightly beaten egg
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
iced water as needed
Bring together all ingredients in food processor, adding only enough water to make a soft dough. Bring the dough together on a board and knead until smooth. Cut dough into 2/3 and 1/3 pieces. Wrap and allow to rest, out of the fridge, while you are making the filling.
FOR THE FILLING
8 large eggs
200 g sharp flavoured cheese grated loosely
50 g grated pecorino romano cheese
50 g grated parmesan
100 g ham, cut into small cubes
100 g prosciutto, cut into small cubes
50 g capocollo, cut into small cubes
fresh black pepper, as desired
Preheat the oven to 180 C. Lightly beat the eggs, then mix in the rest of the ingredients in a large bowl. It is important not to over mix to ensure you have a lightness of texture. Roll out the largest piece of dough and use it to line the bottom and sides of a greased tin. Allow a little overhang. (I use a bundt tin, for presentation and ease of serving.) Spoon in the filling. Roll out the smaller piece and use to cover the top, roll the pastry overhang to crimp all edges together to ensure a tight seal.
Bake at 180 C for one hour exactly. There is no way of checking for "doneness". Have faith.
Remove from the oven. After 10-15 minutes, tip the pizza out onto a wire rack.
It is important to allow it to cool completely before cutting into wedges.
Just as we do for language, we must allow food to evolve too. Where, then, is the place for 'traditional' recipes. It is an important discussion. I'll bring the pizza, if you bring the wine.