Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Pastitsio: A Short History of a Greek Classic

Pastitsio, a modern Greek classic, can be found in many Greek restaurants and at Greek festivals. It's kind of a Greek version of lasagna, a layered casserole of macaroni, ground meat and béchamel sauce. Its origins are in Italy, from the pasticcio, a type of baked savory pie, such as the famed Pasticcio di Maccheroni, a specialty dish of the province and city of Ferrara which dates back to at least the 16th century. 

The Pasticcio di Maccheroni was commonly made with maccheroni pasta, truffles, a meat ragù, and a nutmeg-flavored béchamel, all of which was placed into a pastry shell. The earliest Greek versions of pastitsio were also placed into a pastry shell, usually made of phyllo. In addition, the early Greek recipes did not include béchamel sauce. It wouldn't be until the early 20th century that Greek pastitsio would evolve into its modern form, which now is considered the norm. 

The Greek chef who created the modern version of pastitsio was Nikólaos Tselementés (1878 – 1958), who was born on the island of Sifnos. His cooking career started when he worked for his father's and uncle's restaurant. Eventually, he traveled to Vienna to study cooking for a year. After returning to Greece, he started publishing a cooking magazine, Odigos Mageirikis (Cooking Guide) in 1910. Around 1920, he journeyed to the U.S. to continue his culinary education whiles also working in a number of high-end restaurants. 

In the early 1930s, he published a cookbook, the Cooking and Patisserie Guide, which was one of the first modern cookbooks published in Greece. He also founded a cooking school and in 1950, he published Greek Cookery, his only Greek cookbook in English. Tselementés was so influential that his name is now a synonym for “cookbook.”

Tselementés introduced French techniques and recipes into Greek cuisine, and he created the modern version of pastistio and moussaka. For pastistio, the pastry shell was eliminated and it became more of a casserole than a pie. The bottom layer was some type of tubular pasta, the middle layer was ground meat (usually beef) mixed with tomato sauce, cinnamon, and cloves, and the top later was a béchamel sauce. It's unclear from my research exactly when Tselementés' pastitsio recipe was first published, whether it was in his magazine or his first cookbook. 

Whenever it was first presented, it apparently became popular quickly and the changes were readily accepted by many Greeks. You might still find a few Greeks who still make pastitsio like a pie, but the  Tselementés version is what most consider the classic pastitsio. 

Pastitsio, which was sometimes spelled as Pastichio, began making its appearance in American newspapers during the 1950s. It's probable that pastitsio appeared in Greek restaurants in the U.S. before the 1950s, though I haven't found documentary evidence confirming it. In my prior article, Early History of Greek Restaurants in Boston, I wrote about the famed Athens Olympia Cafe in Boston, but a copy of their 1951 did not offer pastitsio. 

The first American newspaper reference I found was in the Hawaii Tribune-Herald (HI), May 29, 1950, in an article describing a gala party at a yacht club, which mentioned the  “..highlight of the evening, pastistio Greek macaroni,..” There was another brief reference in The Baltimore Sun (MD), September 2, 1951, in an article about Greek coffeehouses and restaurants. It recommended you try “pastitsio (cake spaghetti).” The Chicago Tribune (IL), February 28, 1954, mentioned “pastichio (Greek dish of macaroni, ground beef and egg).”

The first recipe for pastitsio (pictured above) was provided by the Press & Sun-Bulletin (NY), September 30, 1954, in an article with a number of other Greek recipes. As we see, the recipe called for ground beef, macaroni, nutmeg, and Romano cheese, although no cinnamon. 

The St. Louis Globe-Democrat (MO), November 7, 1954, had an advertisement for an upcoming food demonstration, intended to teach women how to cook. One of the participating chefs was Kalliope Kirisakos, of the Grecian Terrace Restaurant, and she was going to show how to make pastitsio, stated to be a “ground beef and macaroni casserole seasoned with ground cloves and stick cinnamon, served with a milk and butter topping.”

A Greek ambassador hosted a party which was detailed in The Morning Call (PA), January 19, 1955. The article stated, “The first course was ‘pastitsio’—a macaroni dish which the ambassador noted ‘is served a la Grec,’ and is distinctly different from the better-known Italian style macaroni. At first sight, the ‘pastitsio’ resembled a huge meat pie, but when waiters sliced through the thick, flaky crust, delicious bits of macaroni and meat were revealed.

In an article about Greek women sharing recipes for an upcoming church social, the Asheville Citizen-Times (NC), September 4, 1955, described pastistio. “The dish is a Greek version of hamburger and macaroni cooked with cheese and eggs.” And The Missoulian (MT), December 16, 1956, mentioned that “pastichio, of which the basic ingredients are ground venison, macaroni, and cheese

During 1957, a number of newspapers began publishing pastitsio recipes, including the Clarion-Ledger (MS), February 17, 1957Fort Lauderdale News (FL), February 18, 1957Pittsburgh Post (PA), May 10, 1957The Morning Call (PA), September 15, 1957, and the Decatur Daily Review (IL), October 20, 1957. The dish was becoming more popular, more mainstream, in the U.S. 

The Press and Sun-Bulletin (NY), March 13, 1960, devoted a full length article to pastitsio, which was entitled, Greek Pastichio Rich in Flavor, Memories. It stated, “When you eat pastichio you know you’ve eaten…You won’t get hungry again until noon the next day.” It also noted that pastitsio had “—a rich, filling main course with a macaroni and hamburger base. A thick mixture of butter, milk and eggs tops the dish.” A recipe was also provided. 

Locally, the Boston newspapers didn't seem to mention pastistio until the 1960s. The Boston Globe, December 2, 1964, provided a recipe, though it is interesting to note it called for thin spaghetti and not the usual macaroni or tubular pasta that was more commonly used. Plus, it didn't call for cinnamon or cloves. Another recipe was provided in the Boston Record American, July 12, 1966, noting it was referred to as “Pastichio or Pastitsio” and was “Macaroni Baked with Meat Sauce.” This recipe called for elbow macaroni and the use of nutmeg, making it closer to the Greek version. 

A meat-less recipe for pastitsio, “Macaroni Pie (Greek Style),” was provided in the Boston Globe, March 6, 1967.  It also called for macaroni and nutmeg. A recipe in the Boston Globe, May 2, 1974, also called for macaroni but added cinnamon and omitted nutmeg. 

I've long been a fan of pastistio and have enjoyed it recently at three different Greek spots. The photo at the top of this article is from the Greek International Food Market in West Roxbury, and you can buy slices of their pastitsio to take home to enjoy. The photo in the middle is from Farm Grill & Rotisserie in Newton (which I'll soon be reviewing). The bottom photo is from Krasi, a new Greek restaurant in Boston, and it's a deconstructed version. I'd highly recommend all three of these spots to enjoy a hearty dish of pastitsio. 

What is your favorite spot for pastitsio?

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