“I’m not a chef, I’m Italian”- David Rocco


Friday, April 6, 2012

Easter Pie: Part Uno


Ciao everyone. As I promised from the beginning, I will be sharing my Grandma Nettie’s Easter Pie recipe within the next few days. In the meantime, I would like to share with you an article that my loving mother, Elvira, wrote for Newsweek, all about the memory of my grandma and the Easter pies. Here is the original link: http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2007/04/08/the-miracle-of-my-mother-s-easter-pies.html

The Miracle of My Mother's Easter Pies

In early spring, my mother would make an announcement from her kitchen in Brooklyn. "I'm making the Easter pies," she would say. "Going to be busy, so nobody bother me."

The pie was an Italian specialty known as pizza rustica. Her mother had once made the same pies from a recipe her family brought to America from a small town near Naples, Italy. My mother had watched her mother prepare the pies for Holy Saturday, slicing the smoked ham and hot sausage into bits, filling the dish with fresh ricotta and Romano cheese, brushing the beaten egg wash onto the crust to give it a glaze.

By the time I came along, my mother and grandmother were making the pies together, so I never got a chance to taste one of my grandmother's original creations. I don't know if my mother followed her recipe exactly, or added her own touches. I do know that everyone in the family agreed that my mother's pies were the best they'd ever tasted, hands down.

My mother made 15 or 20 pies every April for more than 40 years. She would stand in our kitchen pressing the dough with her mother's 50-year-old rolling pin, her cheek smudged with flour, her hair in disarray. The resulting pies resembled two-inch-thick omelets—stuffed with cheese and flecked with meat, topped by a heavy, flaky, dimpled crust baked golden brown.

She wrapped the pies in foil and labeled them for their recipients. (The size of the pie you got was a measure of her affection for you.) The doorbell would start ringing at noon—Uncle Nick from Bethpage, Aunt Carmella and cousin Barbara from around the corner—all eager for a pie still warm from the oven. I was an only child, but each spring our house filled with family as relatives came from Long Island, Queens and Brooklyn to collect this family dividend.

Then, when she was 78, my mother went in for open-heart surgery. She suffered complications, and on a sweltering day in late June almost eight years ago, she died. My husband and I drove from the cemetery to her apartment and started the routine of going through her belongings. We emptied her drawers, cabinets and shelves, deciding what to keep, give away and throw out. We left behind her furniture, her clothes, and her pots and pans for the building's superintendent to discard or donate to charity. There wasn't much else. She had lived on next to nothing her whole life, so we weren't expecting hidden fortunes.

How mistaken we were. We opened the freezer and looked in, and there they were. My mother's pies. She had saved a few, including one for herself, labeled nettie. My husband and I looked at each other in surprise, saying nothing. Then we took out the pies from the icy mist and put each in a plastic bag.

In moments, we left her apartment for the last time and walked out into the hot, still afternoon for the drive home, holding the residue of my mother's life. That Sunday night, gathered with our 15-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter at our dining-room table, I brought in one of the pies, now steaming hot and emitting a savory aroma. I sliced a wedge for each of us, and we ate, scraping our plates for crumbs.

I'd eaten my mother's pies every spring my whole life, and they always tasted good. But now, flavored with grief, the pie somehow tasted better than it ever had. With each bite I recalled with fresh clarity everything Nettie had meant to me over the years, had meant to all of us. How she had raised me without a husband around, all the while toiling as a seamstress, and especially how she had lavished love and attention on her adoring grandchildren.

I'd never in my life felt so grateful to anyone. Through the pies she had expressed her love for family and friends, nourishing body and soul. Eating the pie that night felt almost sacramental, as if I could taste her very spirit.

Afterward, I waved our family into the kitchen. I opened the door to our freezer and pointed toward the back. And there it was: one last slice of one of Nettie's pies. The one labeled Nettie. "This one we're saving," I said.

And so we have. The slice has stayed back there, wrapped in foil, for almost eight years now, untouched, unseen, but never forgotten. Other families leave insurance policies behind, or furniture, or jewelry. But Nettie left us her pie. That's her legacy, her heirloom. We celebrate the holidays to remind ourselves that the past deserves a future. We'll never starve for my mother's memory as long as that single slice is in there. It will feed our hearts all year round.