A Tradition to Pie For

Sweet or savory, Easter Pies are an Italian tradition that’s still alive and well in South Philly

By Giavana Suraci

As Palm Sunday service ended at St. Nicholas of Tolentine Church, hoards of hungry parishioners raced back to their row homes for Sunday gravy and well-deserved glasses of red wine. But lifelong South Philly resident Annie Versace had other plans. With Holy Week beginning, Easter Pies were the only thing on her mind.

A time-honored tradition

Sweet and savory pies made with different combinations of ricotta, rice, spinach, ham, and other ingredients have been a part of the neighborhood’s springtime baking ritual for decades. They’re made on Good Friday in preparation for breaking Lent on Easter Sunday. The tradition hails from Italy where every region has a different name, and different recipe, for the pies.

Annie has followed her mother’s handwritten recipes to a T for the past 55 years.

“When I got married, I asked my mom to teach me how to make the pies. [My husband] loved them. My sister and brothers loved them. And after a while, I just made them for everyone,” she said. “Even today, I make them for the family, the nuns, whoever.”

We joined Annie to see how its done. Dozens of ingredients filled her kitchen table as she meticulously whisked a pasta bowl full of pie filling. Today, she said, is rice and ricotta. Ribbons of cheese and egg were blended effortlessly, while homemade crust was prepared with precision. No store-bought crust is allowed in these pies. “It makes all the difference,” she said. “My mother used to make Easter doll cookies with the leftover dough. My grandkids kept that tradition up, too.”

A pie of many names

Lower Moyamensing-resident Luann Caruso has her another tradition. Her family makes a savory pie called Colombo. According to family folklore, “Colombo” brings peace on Easter Sunday. 

This Easter staple is also known as Pizza Rustico, Pizzagaina, Torta Pasqualina and other names. It’s a deep-dish cousin to quiche that’s packed with two (or more!) types of meat, mixed together with several Italian cheeses, and bound by eggs. The whole pie is enclosed with a pastry top, often festively decorated.

Pizzagaina. Photo courtesy Joseph F. Marino.

“The meats include Italian sausage, which is dried for over a period of six to seven weeks, and cooked ham,” Luann explained. Her cheese choices are “Basket cheese, salted Mozzarella, grated Locatelli Romano. The pie also includes hard boiled eggs that were quartered,” she said. “[Once baked], a piece of palm is placed on the top to bless the final creation.”

The name Colombo, she said, comes from the Italian word for dove. She was told that when the pie was eaten with family and friends, everyone would have peace. “[That] makes sense since a dove symbolizes peace.”

Like Annie’s ricotta pies, Luann’s Colombo is only made for the Easter holiday. Her family also makes a smaller version of the meat pie, shaped into a half moon and just about 12 inches in length. Dried sausage, ham, ricotta, salted mozzarella, and grated cheese are the only ingredients inside the mound they call “Pasticcio.”

These women, though strangers, are connected by a bond of familial traditions. Over the years, Luann has taken bits and pieces of recipes passed down to her for generations. Part of her routine these days includes her mother’s rolling pin, her grandmother’s 3 foot by 3 foot wooden board and her husband’s grandmother’s special bowl for the dough.

“It is our way of keeping their memory alive each Easter,” she said.

Annie Versace’s completed ricotta pies.

Annie reminisced on Easters past as she cut a bowl full of candied cherries. “My mother’s brother was a carpenter. He made her a big cutting board and a rolling pin that we used for years. They got lost over time, and her special frying pan, too. She’d use that to saute the spinach.”

She boasted about her spinach pie recipe, claiming hers is the only one that mimics her grandmother’s. “We’ll make them on Good Friday,” she said.

Not everyone has the nerve, or patience, like Luann and Annie. These behemoth bites take time, and a lot of love, to get right. Luckily, South Philly bakeries have it covered. Termini’s, Isgro’s and even the Shoprite of Whitman Plaza offers these treats every Easter season.