Revere’s Michael Chiesa had eaten his mother’s Pizza Ghiena at Easter time for decades.
The coveted recipe was a closely-held family secret that existed only in the memory of his mother, Laura Chiesa. That recipe had been passed down to Laura verbally from her mother – who more than likely brought it over from central Italy’s Abruzzi/Abbruzzese region. Only God knows how long the coveted recipe had existed in the family over there, Michael Chiesa said.
For years, he had asked his mother about how she made the Pizza Ghiena – also known as Pizza Chiena or, more crudely, Italian Easter Pie.
Her secret would not be revealed though, until she was on her death bed.
“I’ve been making the Pizza Ghiena since my mother died 13 years ago,” Chiesa said last Friday (Good Friday) as he cut up Italian cured meats into cubes in his Sweeney Avenue kitchen. “She finally gave me the recipe two weeks before she died. I made the Pizza Ghiena for her and she tasted it and said, ‘That’s it Michael. You have it.’ I watched her make it for years and years and she would never reveal the recipe until she was on her deathbed. Her mother brought it from Italy and they had 13 kids and all seven girls would help her make it. They promised to pass it on and they did. Now I keep it going. I look forward to it every year. I have all my mom’s pans and everything.”
Chiesa is not alone in his preservation of the Pizza Ghiena.
Across the street, Rita Ciulla also keeps the tradition going, getting together every year the entire week before Easter with her sisters, in-laws and close friends to make a variety of Pizza Ghiena.
On the night of Holy Saturday every year, Ciulla invites 40 or 50 people to her house for a Pizza Ghiena party – a get-together that includes Chiesa and several other devoted Pizza Ghiena makers.
“We make it because it’s been a tradition as long as I can remember in my family and I’m well into my 60s,” Ciulla said. “Easter was a time when my grandmother and my mom would make Pizza Ghiena and everyone would come over the night before Easter and eat them. They just make them for Easter – thank God – because they should be called Pizza Ghiena-weight. You really need an ambulance out front of the house because of all the cholesterol they put in your body.
“We start shopping for it all on Easter week and we start making it on Friday night every year,” she continued. “We did sample a few ahead of time, but traditionally we eat them on the night before Easter. We eat the leftovers as long as they last and they can last into the next week.”
The Pizza Ghiena is known by several different terms and the recipe varies by the region of Italy that the family comes from. However, it appears to be a strictly central Italian/Neapolitan tradition, as Sicilians don’t seem to carry the same Pizza Ghiena tradition. Pizza Ghiena was probably more common during the old days in Italy, but Italian immigrants in the late 1800s and early 1900s used the Pizza Ghiena as an Easter tradition. They aligned the dish with the breaking of Lent in the Roman Catholic tradition. Because most every Roman Catholic back then adhered to not eating meat during Lent, the meat-heavy Pizza Ghiena was the perfect way to break the fast with a large group of family and friends.
Salvatore Prezioso of Vinny’s Food Market and Casa Foods on Revere Street – a store that sells traditional Italian ingredients – said the Pizza Ghiena is something like a casserole or pie for those in Italy.
He said that Italians in the Neapolitan region would use things they had on the farm to cook the traditional pie. They had eggs, and they had cured meats from their own pigs and they had lard from their own pigs that they could brush on the top of the dough to make it shiny.
The key was a special cheese that they could make on their own, now known as Farmer’s Cheese or Fresh Cheese.
“They made it with no salt because you took it from the whole milk and would put it in a strainer basket,” he said. “These baskets were made out of straw; we call it wicker in America. The baskets were huge for making the Fresh Cheese. It was an art to make the baskets and people made a living out of it…We still sell the Fresh Cheese at the store, but it’s made for us by a family in New York. They do it the same way it used to be done and they brought it over from Salerno. They operate out of New Jersey now.”
Likewise, another key to the Pizza Ghiena in the old country was the use of an outdoor, wood-fired clay oven, Prezioso said.
“Most of the old-timers had an outdoor oven and that’s how they cooked most things,” he said. “Basically, they would prepare the Pizza Ghiena. Then they would fire the outdoor oven up to 700 or 800 degrees. Then they would move the wood out and slow cook the Pizza Ghiena with bread and other things that they wanted. Nowadays, everyone is in a rush, but slow cooking in my book is still the best cooking for Pizza Ghiena.”
Prezioso said it wasn’t until Italians came to America that it became a once-a-year tradition.
He also said he feels it is a dying art as many Italians get further and further away from their traditional ways.
“It’s a lot of work to make it and my mother doesn’t make it to sell anymore in the store,” he said. “She makes a few for the family. That’s it. When people like her aren’t able to make it anymore, the art dies off. God Bless those who are able to pass it on.”
And for Chiesa, Ciulla and many others, the tradition continues.
Chiesa said the keys are his mother’s secret dough recipe, a special dry sausage and the use of Purity Cheeses – formerly of the North End.
“I use the Abruzzi sausage,” he said. “It’s a dry sausage. To me, in my opinion, it’s like the Cadillac of dry sausages. That’s my mother’s recipe. A lot of people use salami instead. I don’t care for salami because it’s too greasy and oily.”
For Ciulla, whose family comes from Avellino, she said they make a wide variety of the dishes, from the very traditional to some new takes on the old recipes.
She said she learned as a girl at the feet of her mother and grandmother, grating cheese and cutting up cured meats on command. Nowadays, she said it has become an enjoyable experience for her to teach her children, friends and even their friends. Many of her children’s non-Italian friends have become very interested, she said.
“It is mushrooming a bit and it’s a fun thing to do on Easter week,” she said. “It was a lot of fun when I was growing up. It was pretty innocent. It was a great way to grow up. Nowadays, I have so much fun getting together with my sister and sister-in-law and close friends and making them. We have a lot of fun and a little wine. It makes the holidays fun.”
At the Chiesa household, it’s also about preserving a very sentimental and serious family tradition.
“I really want to see it passed on,” he said. “This was my mom’s recipe. My mom took it seriously. My father took it seriously. My aunts took it seriously. If you talk to anyone else that makes Pizza Ghiena, they’ll feel the same way. It’s something we do and we feel strongly about it. This is serious tradition.”
Rough version of the secret Chiesa Family Pizza Ghiena recipe – (to make three large Pizza Ghiena)
•3 pounds Prosciutto (chopped)
•2 pounds Imported Ham (chopped)
•2 pounds Soppressata (chopped)
•2 sticks Abbruzzi Dry Sausages
•2.5 pounds Fresh Cheese
•9 pounds Ricotta Cheese
•2 cups Romano Cheese
• Crushed Black Pepper (not powder)
•Use egg wash on top to make shiny, brown
•Cook in oven on 350 degrees for 90 minutes
For the Crust:
•2 sticks melted butter
•6 cups flour
•2 teaspoons baking powder
•1 teaspoon salt
•water, if needed, when mixing (don’t make slurry)
•wrap in plastic wrap and put in fridge overnight