When a person goes out of their way to make for you a very fine Italian pastry the least you can do is go and fetch it. So what if they live 320 miles away. You've got something more important to do? Than eat pastry?
Okay, so I was a lot closer than that when my Aunt Anna called to tell me about the pasticiotti she'd just baked. But I was already in the car when the cell rang, heading up to Maine after a long weekend back home in Brooklyn.
"Where the heck are you?" I heard Anna say. "You didn't go home yet, did you?"
(We do not subscribe to traditional forms of greeting in my family; we get right to what is on our minds.)
"Anna? That you?"
"No, it's your uncle. Who do you think it is, you lousy kid?"
(Nor, I should add, do we always speak delicately to one another.)
"Better lay off those steroids, Dominic," I barked back. "You're starting to sound just like your sister."
I could go on like this, but I'll spare you. Turns out that Anna, whom I'd visited only two days earlier, and who had made me one very fine lasagne and her wonderfully delicate meatballs, decided the prior evening that it was imperative she whip up a batch of pasticiotti (basically a tart filled with custard or, as in this case, cheese). She also decided that it would be a terrible shame if a few of the pastries did not travel home to Maine with her "pain-in-the-ass nephew," an endearment she has graced upon me since, oh, I'd say around the Reagan administration.
Hearing my aunt's enthusiasm come bursting through the headset, I knew right away what I had to do: Lie like hell. I thanked her extravagantly, said that, no, I was still at my brother Joe's place, and that, of course, I would drop by later on to pick up my pastry and to have another visit.
Except that I was in Connecticut already, on I-95 North. Still 270 miles from home, true, but 50 miles from where I'd started out an hour earlier.
What can I say, I love my aunt. I love her pastries too.
So I'd spend another night down there, so what, I told myself turning around. There are worse things than sitting around eating fresh pastries and sipping coffee with a family member you don't get to see all that much.
Not only were Anna's pasticiotti beautiful, they were right up there with the best I've ever had. The pastry was at once flakey and chewy, the ricotta filling just on the right side of sweetness. They were damn near perfect really. My aunt knew it. You can tell when a cook believes in what they feed you, and Anna definitely believed in these pastries.
"They came good, Annie," I said reaching for pasticiotti due. "Call me anytime you feel like making more, you know. Don't be shy."
Just as I was leaving her apartment Anna said that I should try making the pastries myself one day — "Put it on The Meatball" were her exact words — and when I laughed at the suggestion she showed me the book in which her recipe resides. It's a pamphlet really, put out by the Brooklyn-born Polly-O in 1977 as a way to inspire people to use more of the company's cheese products.
This got me laughing even harder, because I have the same booklet. It was my mother's. I had found it amongst her things after she passed and of course had to hold onto it. I look through it from time to time but can't say that I've ever used one of the recipes.
Here it is.
And here's the recipe that Anna uses for her pasticiotti. They don't call it that in the Polly-O booklet; they call it Pasticcini di Napoli, or Neopolitan Pastry.
Call it whatever you want. But if you happen to be making a batch while we're chatting on the phone one day, don't mention it before first inquiring as to my exact whereabouts. You will be saving me from myself, I assure you. I put too many miles on my car as it is. I don't need to be chasing down homemade pastries wherever they might be. No matter how good they are.
Pasticcini di Napoli
Recipe from the Polly-O "Cooking with Cheese Recipe Book"
Makes 8 to 10 pastries
For the pastry
2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup butter, cut into small pieces
2 egg yolks
Zest from one lemon
For the filling
3 cups ricotta
6 Tbs confectioners sugar
2 egg yolks
1 tsp lemon zest
Sift flour, salt and sugar into a bowl. Cut in butter, then add egg yolks, one at a time, while mixing with wooden spoon. Blend in lemon rind. Work dough with hands until it is soft and manageable and clears the bowl. If necessary add a little water. Turn onto a lightly floured board and knead quickly until smooth. Wrap in wax paper and refrigerate 1 to 2 hours.
Roll out to 1/4-inch thickness on lightly floured board. Cut pastry into rounds to fit muffin pans. Grease muffin pans and line with pastry.
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Combine ricotta with remaining ingredients and blend well with wooden spoon. Fill prepared pastry sections. Cut leftover pastry into small strips and criss-cross over filling. Trim edges. Bake 40 to 50 minutes, then cool in oven.