Nan's Way: The Only Way to Make Easter Pies For Italians, Easter means both religious and culinary celebration. And for Susan Russo, it means pies, both savory and sweet, made from recipes by her grandmother Nan: ricotta pie, rice pie and pizza chena.

Nan's Way: The Only Way to Make Easter Pies

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Easter is a time to indulge and celebrate after the sacrifices of Lent. At Susan Russo's house, her grandmother's pies — including a savory pizza chena — always steal the show. Susan Russo for NPR hide caption

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Susan Russo for NPR

Easter is a time to indulge and celebrate after the sacrifices of Lent. At Susan Russo's house, her grandmother's pies — including a savory pizza chena — always steal the show.

Susan Russo for NPR

About the Author

Susan Russo is a food writer in San Diego. She publishes stories, recipes and photos on her cooking blog, Food Blogga. When she isn't writing about her Italian family back in Rhode Island or life with her husband in Southern California, she can be found milling around a local farmers market buying a lot more food than two people could possibly eat.

Anybody acquainted with Italian women knows that they often deem their recipe the "right" way to make something. My grandmother, Nan, is no exception.

I recently learned that Nan was about my age (let's say mid 30s) when she set out to distinguish her cooking from that of her older sisters.

"Nan was the first person in the family to use pineapple in her Easter ricotta pie," my mother told me last year, "and boy, were her sisters jealous."

According to my mom, Nan grudgingly ate her sisters' ricotta pies every Easter but thought they were "too dark" from "that awful citron" they used instead of fresh citrus zest. (Citron is a thick, lemony peel that is candied and used in baking.)

Determined to make a more cheerful-looking pie, Nan did what no youngest sister in an Italian family of six children should ever do: She showed up at her elder sister's house one Easter Sunday, proudly carrying her own newfangled ricotta pie with pineapple. It was as yellow as an Easter chick.

There were mumblings in Italian and raised eyebrows among the women. When dessert time came, all the men agreed: Nan's pie was the best — beautiful and delicious. Her sisters conceded victory.

Well, that's the way Nan would tell it anyway. That ricotta pie was so good that more than 65 years later, my mother still makes it every Easter.

For Italians, Easter means both religious and culinary celebration. Since it is preceded by Lent, a time for fasting, Easter Sunday is a day to rejoice and to indulge, especially in sweets.

During Easter time, bakeries in both Italy and Italian-American neighborhoods offer a dazzling array of sweet and savory pies. There are regional variations among recipes in both countries, but some of the most popular Easter pies, which my family treasures, include ricotta pie, rice pie and pizza chena.

Ricotta pie (torta di ricotta) is an Italian cheesecake traditionally associated with Easter. Savory versions include meats, cheeses and herbs, while sweet pies are flavored with citron, citrus zest, nuts and/or chocolate.

Ricotta pie is sometimes confused with pastiera Napoletana, a more time-intensive grain and ricotta cheese pie that is made by soaking whole wheat kernels for up to three days. Since these kernels are difficult to find in the U.S., farro or barley is often substituted.

Many years ago my mother made traditional pastiera Napoletana, soaking the grains for 72 hours, only to have everyone complain that it was too mushy and not as good as her "regular" ricotta pie. That was the last time we ever had pastiera Napoletana.

Rice pie (torta di riso) has always been my personal favorite. Most sweet rice pies are made from eggs, rice (usually Arborio), ricotta cheese and citrus (most popularly, lemon).

As it bakes, the starchy rice sinks to the bottom of the pie while a thick layer of velvety, lemon-laced custard forms on top. All of this creamy goodness is encased in a sweet, flaky pie crust.

Though rice pie traditionally graces the dessert table on Easter Sunday, the best time to eat it is Monday morning. After being refrigerated overnight, it is pleasantly chilled and tastes like a cross between rich ricotta pie and silky lemon panna cotta, an Italian cooked cream.

The pie that really stole the show every Easter, though, was my grandmother's savory pizza chena. Pizza chena, a Neapolitan dialect term meaning "full pie," is a massive, two-crusted savory pie filled with Italian meats, cheeses and eggs. Though it can be made with a lattice-top pastry crust, my family prefers a dense, chewy bread dough crust.

Pizza chena, mispronounced by some Italian-Americans as "pizza gaina," seems like an appropriate name to my family since we always joke that when you eat it you "gain-a" lot of weight.

Nan made her pie with salami, hot sausage, mozzarella, fresh basket cheese (a semi-soft cheese used primarily for binding ingredients together) and hard-boiled eggs, preferences passed down to her from her Campanian mother-in-law. Apparently, Nan's mother-in-law (known as "Big Nana," because of her tall stature), admired Nan's spirit and took her under her culinary wing, sharing family recipes with her.

When looking for recipes for pizza chena, you'll find that many use the term interchangeably with pizza rustica, meaning "rustic pie." Both are traditional Easter savory meat and cheese pies that can be made with either a pastry or bread dough crust. Whatever you call it, all I know is that my grandmother's "pizza gaina" was the piece de resistance of every Easter Sunday feast at our house.

Unfortunately, Nan won't be able to read this article or even comprehend what my mom is talking about when she tells her all about it. That's because she is 99 years old and lives in the Alzheimer's unit of a nursing home in Rhode Island.

I believe, however, that somewhere deep in her soul, she'll know that this Easter many women will read about her cooking and will have her original recipe for ricotta pie with pineapple. Her older sisters could never say that.