One day, one of her last days, my mother looked up from her hospital bed and said, “Your brother’s coming in. Go home and make sauce.”
Go home and make sauce?
Not exactly the deathbed conversation I was anticipating.
“Ma! We don’t have to make sauce. Peter can pick up something to eat.”
“Oh, no, he can’t,” she said, in a tone that would be grave even if it weren’t, you know, grave. “I always had a pot of sauce on the stove when you kids came home.”
I couldn’t argue there. And so, I went to my mother's house to make sauce for my then 46-year-old brother who has a Ph.D.
And what, you may ask, does this have to do with Easter pizza?
The most important things I inherited from my mother, Josephine—far more important than the jewelry (“Don’t bury the jewelry!” was another deathbed admonition. “You will be upset when they close the casket and might forget to take it off”)—were her two rules:
1) Every culinary tradition must be followed for the rest of your life, particularly the making of sauce and any Catholic holiday things.
2) You must always feed the men, especially your brothers. Because God forbid they have to make their own sauce. Or Easter pizza. Jesus, that might put them over the edge.
But the weird thing is, I love it. I love making them sauce and bracciole and meatballs. But the Easter pizza is special. My mother’s Easter pizza—and by the way, it’s not a pizza at all, it’s a deep dish ricotta pie filled with all sorts of heavenly things—is so glorious that I would choose it as my last meal if I were on death row. Which is always a possibility when I cook for my brothers.
One of my fondest childhood memories is the annual “compare our Easter pizzas” ritual that my mother and her four sisters engaged in. What that meant: They would all come to our house with a “taste” of their Easter pizza, a little package wrapped in crinkly tin foil. Everyone would sample everyone else’s. There were no surprises here. Every sister—Olympia, Margaret, Frances, Blanche, and Josephine—made hers the exact same way every single year. But they each had a slightly different recipe. One added pepperoni. One added hard-boiled eggs. My mother’s was distinctive because hers had a sweet crust. When my aunts left after the taste test, my mother would always say, “Well, they were all good,” then sotto voce, “but I think ours is the best.”
My mother followed a recipe that was her mother, Isabella’s—Mom was the youngest and apparently inherited the recipe file. She would pull out the sacred recipe every Easter, handwritten on stained yellowed paper that had to be a few decades old. Then one day… a miracle! My dad got The New York Times every Sunday at King Joe’s newsstand in Dunmore, Pa. It was the only Sunday Times that King Joe ordered, the one for my dad. On this particular Sunday, as he was leafing through the magazine section, he shouted to my mother, “Hon! This is your recipe!” And indeed it was pretty close to Isabella's. But the Times called it pizza rustica. A little fancy, that name, but okay. My mother was thrilled.
This Easter I will be seeing my brother Peter. I am making him Easter pizza. But he can make his own damn sauce.
2 c. flour
1/4 c. sugar
2 t. baking powder
1 stick butter
optional: additional egg, beaten for egg wash
1/2 lb. sweet Italian sausage with fennel, casing removed
2 to 2-1/2 lb. ricotta cheese
1/4 lb. prosciutto, chopped
1/2 lb. mozzarella, diced
1/2 c. grated pecorino or Parmesan
Heaping 1/4 c. fresh Italian parsley, chopped
Preheat even to 350 F.
Put sausage in an ovenproof dish with about 1/4 cup of water and bake for 20 - 25 minutes. Chop and set aside.
Turn oven up to 400 F.
Mix flour, sugar, and baking powder together in a large bowl.
Work in the butter/margarine with your fingers.
Make a well in the center and drop in the eggs.
Knead from sides to center.
Let dough stand under a bowl for at least 10 minutes while making the filling.
Beat ricotta and eggs, just until combined. Add remaining filling ingredients.
Divide dough into quarters with a knife. You'll use 3/4 for the bottom and 1/4 for the top.
Roll out the 3/4 portion of dough on waxed paper dusted with flour. It should be the consistency of Play-Doh.
Pat dough into an ungreased casserole such as 10-inch square Corning Ware pan.
Roll out the top crust and lay on top, piecing together with your fingers so there are no holes on the sides.
Prick the top of the pie in several places with a fork.
Optional: Brush with additional beaten egg.
Bake at 400 F. for 15 minutes.
Lower temperature to 325 F. and bake for another 55 minutes. Do not overbake.
Refrigerate and serve cold or at room temperature.