Greeks love pasticcio (or pastitsio), a dish of ground meat cooked with onions in a cinnamon-scented tomato sauce which is mixed with macaroni, cheese and béchamel, then baked topped with more béchamel. It is our version of Macaroni and Cheese, a comforting filling dish that mothers bake for their kids even when they are grownups…
Although its name is Italian (it means, literally, “a mess”), pasticcio as such does not exist in Italy, but its roots are in the elaborate old timbales—pastry-enrobed pasta, meat, vegetable and egg pies prepared there for special occasions. When I first visited Kythera, the island at the edge between the Aegean and the Ionian Sea, which divides Greece and Italy, I asked around about local dishes; the standard answer I received was “You must find the recipe for the Venetian Pasticcio”. Pasticcio, of course, is a dish prepared all over Greece and if you have visited the country, you have probably seen it listed on the menu of a tavern or restaurant.
But the Venetian Pasticcio of Kythera, according to the old kitchen notes, was nearer to the old Italian timbale recipes. A mixture of macaroni, chopped meat and liver –with nutmeg and cinnamon — was mixed with lots of eggs and then baked in a pastry crust. The most peculiar thing in that recipe was that both the filling and the crust contained sugar, a reminder of older recipes in which sweet and savory flavors were mixed freely. All the people I talked to dreamily remembered the fantastic taste of that dish. They even told me that when King George of Greece, visited Kythera in 1864, after the English ceded the island to Greece, he was served Venetian Pasticcio during the official dinner and he liked it so much, that he had asked for a second helping…
I couldn’t find a cook to prepare it for me in Kythera, so I had to try and bake it in my kitchen when I returned in Athens, following the recipe I was told was the best. The resulting pasticcio was far from spectacular. At least for my taste. Fortunately, I found a much more promising recipe in a marvelous book published in 1828 in Ermoupolis, the capital of Syros. Written by an unknown author, believed to be a doctor who had come to Syros from Asia Minor, the book was the first Greek-language cookbook, and it appeared just after the modern Greek state was established, at a time when Syros was one of the most important ports of the eastern Mediterranean.
The Syros book is full of translated Italian, English and French recipes, with some local additions, and it is obvious that the author either cooked himself or spent much time as an observer in the kitchen. His recipe is not called pasticcio, but artokreas (meat-bread) a term he probably invented, and I have not encountered in any other book. It calls for chopped tender veal, some cured pork and bone marrow, which are simmered in meat stock spiced with pepper, nutmeg and cinnamon, then mixed with cooked “Neapolitan macaroni” and prunes and cooked for a while longer. Lots of “cheese from Crete or from Parma” is added, together with butter, and the rich mixture is poured into a deep pan lined with a sheet of pastry dough, covered with a second sheet and baked until golden brown. I adapted this recipe and included it in my book The Foods of the Greek Islands.
The “cheese from Parma” probably is Parmigiano-Reggiano. The name may have been just translated from the Italian recipe, or the actual cheese may have been imported, and available on the island. As for the ‘cheese from Crete’ it refers probably to the famous aged graviera, still one for the most important Greek cheeses. There is no tomato in this dish, since the Syros book came out just when tomatoes were starting to be planted in Greece.
“Be careful to send it to the table while still warm,” the author advises.