Pastitsio is culinary pastiche in the most literal sense. It’s a Greek meat and macaroni casserole inspired by similar Italian compositions such as baked ziti and lasagna (pasticcio, the root of both “pastitsio” and “pastiche,” is an old Italian term for a pie containing meat and pasta); the seasonings are Hellenic; and it’s lavished with French béchamel. The dish is an alloy of language and cuisine.
What makes pastitsio stand out from its Italian analogues is most obvious when you look at a slice of it: Instead of being jumbled together or loosely stacked, the casserole’s components are impressively stratified. The base layer typically features rows of wide-bore tubular pasta held together with a thin mortar of cheese and béchamel. Above that sits a band of tightly bound, robustly spiced ground meat and tomato sauce. Topping it all off is a plush blanket of cheesy béchamel. A well-constructed version holds together so that in each forkful, the layers remain separate but are experienced together.
It’s classic comfort fare and one of my favorite things to order at a Greek diner—the type of dish you find at the center of many Greek family meals. But since there’s no hiding gluey or mushy noodles, dull or dry meat sauce, or grainy béchamel, the best versions take time and care to make. Streamlining the whole package without sacrificing its character was my goal, so I took on the challenge layer by layer.
A layer of neatly aligned tubular pasta bound by creamy, cheesy béchamel sauce is a hallmark of pastitsio; each slice should look like it contains rows of stacked pipes. Traditional recipes call for “number 2” macaroni: long tubes that look like wide bucatini (in prominent Greek brands, the “2” refers to this shape of noodle). I found that ziti, the most widely available match in terms of diameter, was actually easier to work with; the stubby Italian tubes fell into parallel orientation with almost no effort.
Parcooking the pasta to just shy of al dente before assembling and baking was key. Cooked any less, the pasta tasted raw, while fully soft pasta collapsed and ruined the “stacked pipes” visual and pleasing texture.
In many cuisines, béchamel—the classic white sauce made by thickening milk with a roux—is a background component with a subtle presence. It holds together the layers in lasagna, anchors the ham and Gruyère in a croque monsieur, and binds up the elbows in macaroni and cheese. But in pastitsio, béchamel gets its chance in the spotlight. It’s typically thickened with cheese and sometimes egg and spread over the casserole into a distinct layer that bakes up custardy and browns deeply. (A portion of it also binds up the pasta layer.)
I thickened the béchamel in two stages: First, I used it to parcook the pasta, which leached starch that tightened up the sauce just enough to hold the ziti together (see “The Sauce Cooks the Pasta, the Pasta Cooks the Sauce”). Then I strained out the pasta and thickened the sauce further by whisking in cheese and an egg. Now the sauce was spreadable. A sprinkling of more cheese over the top encouraged the surface to brown.
The most obvious difference between the meat sauce in pastitsio and a version you might find in an Italian pasta dish is the seasoning. Cinnamon and oregano are traditional flavors, and dried mint and paprika further distance it from anything in the Italian canon.
The sauce should be tight and concentrated and the ground beef tender—both reasons why most recipes call for a long, slow simmer. But I found a faster way to achieve both goals. Briefly treating 93 percent lean ground beef (which has enough fat to stay supple without making the sauce greasy) with baking soda before cooking altered the meat’s chemistry so that it was better able to hold on to moisture, and skipping the usual browning step avoided toughening its exterior. I had tender meat in about half the original time.
Minimizing the amount of liquid also expedited cooking. One-quarter cup of red wine added brightness, and instead of reducing tomato sauce, I thinned out ultraconcentrated tomato paste with just enough water to make the finished sauce appropriately fluid.