Pier Paolo Pasolini relaxes with Jesus between takes while filming The Gospel According to St. Matthew.
Recipe: Torta Salata Pasquale
The earthquake in the Abruzzo on Monday made me terribly sad. It is a beautiful region. Many friends of mine have family ties to the area, east of Rome.
When I was working on my book The Flavors of Southern Italy, I stopped in the Abruzzo while making my way from Rome to the Gargano, in northern Puglia. My husband and I decided to spend a few nights in Sulmona, a lovely little city in the province of L’Aquila. The town called L’Aquila, which is the capital of the province, is where Monday’s earthquake hit hardest. I haven’t heard of any destruction in Sulmona from the quake, but in 1706 that city was nearly razed to the ground by a devastating one. Abruzzo is and always has been earthquake country. Some Medieval structures survived Sulmona’s big quake, but most of the city was rebuilt in eighteenth-century Baroque style, which gives it a sort of fairy tale glow that I love. Of course, what I recall most vividly about Sulmona is its food.
On our first night in Sulmona we made our way into an informal-looking little place for a late dinner, one of the only restaurants open on Sundays. I can’t remember its name, but it was owned by a very old, skinny lady, who seemed to be hostess, waitress, and chef. At first I felt guilty watching her run around on her bony legs, but then I realized she was really enjoying herself, chatting up all the dark-haired men in their slick business suits, refilling their wine glasses, grilling up pork chops. I realized she was doing just fine, and I relaxed into the scene.
The flavors of Abruzzo are big and direct. I ordered sautéed caciocavallo, which was huge and served as a main course. It was a big slab of easy-melting, salty cheese, pan sautéed until crisp outside and soft and oozing within and then seasoned with red wine vinegar, black pepper, and fresh marjoram, like an Abruzzese fondue. My husband had fat pork sausages served with onions and chickpeas. The Montepulciano d’Abruzzo red wine was outstanding—deeply colored, mellow, rich, low in tannin. It was a happy meal all around.
We followed our main courses with a plate of broccoli rabe seasoned with garlic and fennel seeds. I love the robust quality of this food, and when it’s cooked brilliantly, as it was in Sulmona, a simple meal can be most elegant. Just in case we didn’t drink enough wine (and we did), we ordered Sulmona’s specialty, cent’erbe, an herbal digestivo that I had tasted before elsewhere but never quite like this. Cent’erbe, as interpreted in Sulmona, is so high in alcohol it evaporates on your tongue (it hovers around 150 proof). I’ve never experienced anything else like it. I brought a bottle home with me, of course, and nobody I’ve served it to could believe its shocking power. Even if I can barely get it down, it’s sort of great to know a drink like it exists.
One of my favorite Easter recipes comes from Rome, the Abruzzo, and the areas of central Italy. There are many versions of torta salata Pasquale. The Roman version is more of a bread; in Abruzzo it can be constructed as a two-crusted tart. It always has a filling of prosciutto or salami, often olives, and pecorino or caciocavallo cheese. It’s eaten on Easter morning or Pasquetta, the day after Easter, when Italians pack up a picnic and head outdoors. This year I made mine breadlike, more Roman than not, and I included prosciutto cotto, mortadella, black olives, pecorino , and a hefty dose of white wine. Sounds like it would be a real load, but for an eggy bread it’s in fact surprisingly light.
You’ll need a ten-inch springform pan, lightly greased with olive oil.
A note about the ingredients for this torta: You’d think for authenticity I would have chosen Gaeta olives and a pecorino Romano, but the truth is I can’t usually find decent enough versions of those products here. Both come too salty, and Gaeta olives often have a harsh lye taste. Pecorino Toscano is more reliable, and little black Niçoise olives have a nice mellow flavor, so I’ve gone with those instead. Also, try to find real imported prosciutto cotto and mortadella. They will make a big difference.
Torta Salata Pasquale
3¾ cups all-purpose flour
A generous pinch of salt
1 tablespoon sugar
A pinch of cayenne
Freshly ground black pepper
A few big scrapings of nutmeg
1½ tablespoons baking powder
¾ cup fruity extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup Frascati or another dry white wine
6 large eggs
¾ cup small-diced prosciutto cotto
¾ cup small-diced mortadella
¾ cup pitted and roughly chopped black olives, such as Niçoise
¾ cup grated pecorino Toscano cheese
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Pour the flour into a large bowl. Add the salt, sugar, cayenne, black pepper, nutmeg, and baking powder. Stir everything around well to blend.
Mix the olive oil, wine, and a cup of water together in a small bowl, and then pour it over the flour. Stir well with a wooden spoon to blend. The dough will be quite stiff at this point.
In another small bowl, whisk the eggs lightly, and slowly pour them into the flour mixture, mixing as you do, until they’re well incorporated (use an electric mixer if you like).
Add the prosciutto cotto, mortadella, olives, and pecorino, and mix briefly.
Pour the batter into the pan, and bake for about an hour, or until the bread puffs and the top is dark golden and springy. Let cool, and then loosen the springform. Serve at room temperature. In my experience this bread loses texture when refrigerated. Just cover it with plastic wrap to keep it moist. It will stay fresh for about five days.