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Pastitsio (παστίτσιο) is rightfully among the most beloved and classic dishes of the Greek cuisine. Its name, deriving from the Italian noun pasticcio, means a mess or a big mix-up. “Ma che pasticcio!” cry the Italians, meaning “But what a mess!” It’s also a musical term with a similar meaning: A pasticcio or pastiche is an opera or other musical work that draws from different composers. Likewise, from architecture to fine arts and literature, the term refers to works that directly imitate the style of one or more artists.

Pasticcio, the dish, is also comprised of different elements and ingredients. The term was first used in Italy during the 16th century to refer to a Renaissance-born category of hearty pies or, more accurately speaking, pasties (because they are pies that are also covered on top with pastry). Prepared for special occasions, they tended to be rather tall and complex, enclosing an array of ingredients – mostly pasta and several kinds of meats – in a rather sweet pastry. Their main purpose was to impress, which explains the use of many different types of meat and cuts as well as sugar, an expensive ingredient at the time.

One famous pie of this type that is still made today (albeit with small variations) is pasticcio alla Ferrarese, which, as the name suggests, hails from Ferrara, a city between Venice and Bologna. In fact, my grandfather’s lineage can be traced to this Italian city – his surname was Daferera, which was initially Da Ferrara before being adapted to the Greek language. Family connections to the eastern flank of Italy are not uncommon in Greece, as the Venetians occupied parts of modern-day Greece – particularly certain islands – between the 14th and 18th centuries. As a result, many local dishes in these areas are influenced by and fused with the cuisine of the Emilia-Romagna and Veneto regions of Italy.

Some of the earliest pastitsios recorded in Greece (around the 17th century) are known as pastitsio tsi nonas (παστίτσιο τσι νόνας, meaning “grandmother’s pastitsio”), from Corfu. This version was initially served at weddings, baptisms and other festive occasions – again as a way to impress – and is typically served today as the first course of Sunday family lunch. It’s filled with an array of different ingredients including pasta, salado (salami from Corfu), ham, cheese, sliced hard-boiled eggs, chicken and a selection of meats, including possibly beef, lamb, meatballs, sausage or even game.

On other Ionian islands we find similar versions of this dish, commonly called Venetsianiko pastitsio (Βενετσιάνικο παστίτσιο, Venetian pastitsio), like the one typically prepared on the island of Kythira for Carnival Sunday. Pasta is mixed with a sauce made of ground beef, chopped beef liver, tomato paste, wine, warming spices (cinnamon, clove and allspice) and grated cheese, and then wrapped in sweet pastry. The end result is an impressive and large pie.

On Syros, an island in the Cyclades, the traditional pastitsio was first recorded in a book dating to 1828. It is prepared with a beef ragu (featuring chunks rather than ground meat) cooked with prunes and spices (cinnamon, black pepper and nutmeg) and then mixed with pasta and grated cheese, all of which is enclosed in a butter-based pastry and baked in the oven. In another early cookbook showcasing urban Greek cuisine, which the Greek chef N. Sarantis published in Istanbul in 1863, we find pastitsio recipes that call for game or fish – the trendy French twists at the time – and some that did not include pasta at all.

But we have Nikolaos Tselementes, the 20th century’s most significant innovator of urban Greek cuisine, to thank for pastitsio as we know it today: baked pasta topped with ground meat and bechamel sauce, with no pastry in sight.

The first layer of your typical pastitsio is pastitsio pasta, which look like bucatini but are a bit thicker. The second layer is a minced beef sauce that is slightly sweet and aromatic (due to the spices used) and should be rather dry. Finally, the third layer is a rich bechamel sauce topped with grated cheese – ideally kefalotyri, but Parmesan or pecorino, or a mix of the two, work equally well.

A freshly baked pastitsio should have an elegant smell of nutmeg, so make sure to use freshly ground nutmeg in the bechamel but also be careful not to overdo it, as nutmeg can be overpowering. Most people use cinnamon, allspice and clove in the meat sauce, along with the nutmeg that goes in the bechamel, but I find this too intense and stick simply to cinnamon in the meat sauce and nutmeg in the bechamel. Many cooks mix egg whites in with the pasta and yolks into the bechamel, which makes it thicker and turns it a yellowish color. But I don’t use eggs at all, as I find them too heavy and rather unnecessary.

For the meat sauce, I use a sweet red wine instead of sugar, usually vinsanto or mavrodaphne, which are also aromatic. If you can’t get a hold of either one, try using a sweet wine like port or Madeira. For the beef, I make sure to get the chuck and blade (also known as shoulder), a cut that is lean, tasty and ideal for grinding. Finally, I add a tablespoon of parsley to the sauce for a hint of freshness and because I’m a huge fan of herbs.

Pastitsio

For the meat sauce
1 kg minced beef (chuck and blade, also known as shoulder)
3 tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, finely minced or grated
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 carrot, minced
2 bay leaves
½ cup vinsanto or mavrodaphne wine (or a sweet wine like port or Madeira)
370 ml tomato pulp
1 cinnamon stick
1 tbsp chopped parsley
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper

For the pasta
500 gr Greek pastitsio pasta (or bucatini)
1-1½ tsp butter
4 tbsp grated kefalotyri (or Parmesan/pecorino)
Salt
Freshly ground pepper

For the bechamel sauce
1.5 liter full fat milk
200 gr butter
200 gr all-purpose flour
1/8 tsp freshly ground nutmeg
3 tbsp grated kefalotyri (or Parmesan/pecorino)
Salt
Freshly ground pepper

To top
4 tbsp grated kefalotyri (or Parmesan/pecorino)

For the meat sauce
Place a large, deep skillet on medium high heat. Heat the olive oil and brown the meat. We call this process “breaking” in Greece because what you are doing is cooking the meat and breaking it with a spatula until it looks ground and browned in the skillet.

Add in the onion and stir. Once the juices are mostly absorbed, add in the garlic and carrot. Add in the bay leaves and season with salt and pepper. Pour in the wine, mix for a second, and add in the tomato pulp and cinnamon stick. Bring the heat down to low, cover and let cook for about 15-20 more minutes until all the liquid is absorbed. Adjust seasoning if necessary, remove the cinnamon stick and bay leaves and mix in the parsley.

For the bechamel sauce

You can prepare this while the meat sauce is cooking. Warm the milk in a saucepan on low heat (be careful not to boil the milk). Place another large saucepan on medium heat and gently melt the butter. Add in the flour and mix constantly with a whisk to form a pale roux. Gradually add in the warm milk while whisking constantly until you have used all the milk and the mix thickens (you want it to be medium thick, not too runny and definitely not too stiff). Once ready stir in the nutmeg, remove from heat and mix in the cheese. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

For the pasta

Cook pasta very al dente (remember the pasta is also going to be baked, meaning it will cook further). Drain, place in a bowl and mix with the butter, salt and pepper.

To assemble

Preheat oven at 180 degrees C. Butter a large pan or baking dish (around 35 x 25 cm). Place the pasta on the bottom of the pan artfully (ideally in straight rows) and mix it with the grated cheese. Now spoon some of the bechamel on top (I use around 6 tablespoons), which will help the pasta layer set nicely (and be more tasty!). Now spoon about 5-6 tablespoons of bechamel into the meat sauce and mix, you do this again to help it set better as a layer and add more flavor and texture. Cover the pasta with the meat sauce, using the back of a spoon to create a relatively flat, even layer. Finally top it with the rest of the bechamel sauce and sprinkle with the grated cheese. Bake for about 30 minutes until nice and golden.

Remove from the oven and allow it to cool down for at least 15 minutes before serving. This dish tastes even better the second day and it keeps well in the freezer, too. I cut it into square portions and freeze it; that way, I always have pastitsio ready for my son Apollo, who adores it!

To convert metric measurements to US and British kitchen units, click here.

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