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Lecce’s “rustico” Delicious street food found in nearly every cafe in Lecce and the surrounding area.
Nobody knows where and when it was invented but it is certainly a “cousin” of other delicacies made with pastry similar to our puff pastry in the Balkans and the Middle East
by Dario Ersetti
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Freshly baked “Rustici leccesi”. Photo by Dario Ersetti

The only thing we know for sure about the origin of this food is that we have no historical evidence. Some people think it had “noble” origins, being invented in some palazzo belonging to Lecce’s aristocracy, considering that it uses béchamel and puff pastry which probably came from France. We think, however, that the idea came more simply from across the Adriatic. We feel the rustico is more a street food than a dish to serve at an elegant dinner. It can be found in all the cafes, takeaways and cake shops in Salento.

And on the other side of the Adriatic there’s the burek (also spelled börek and many other ways), a roll of phyllo pastry containing cheese, or meat, or vegetables.

If while on holiday in Greece or Albania you taste a cheese burek and when you get back to Lecce you want to make it, first of all you’ll have to replace the phyllo pastry (which in the past didn’t exist in Italy and is still hard to find in Lecce) with puff pastry and also use mozzarella fior di latte made of cow’s milk instead of feta, then add a bit of tomato to make it lighter and béchamel to absorb the liquids: and there you have the rustico Leccese!

Phyllo pastry is a very thin sheet of pastry (flour and water) used all over the Middle East and the Balkans, as far as Austria, to make savory and sweet dishes. It was introduced by the Ottomans who had discovered it further to the east, perhaps beyond Persia. In the Maghreb it corresponds directly to brik pastry, which in appearance and ingredients is the same as phyllo.

On the subject of so-called modern cuisine, it’s worth remembering that gastronomy began in Persia and that, in spite of everything, they have three or four thousand years more experience than us. Evidence of this is the famous Tabriz köftesi (meatballs) and also phyllo pastry.

How are these paper-thin sheets made? The traditional method is to make a dough of flour and water and form it into a small cake which is thrown onto a hot griddle. The skill lies in the speed of performing the action, filling the whole griddle with a sheet of pastry of even thickness, so that the cooking will also be even. It is a kind of magic trick that seems like a miracle.

The pastry sold commercially, factory made, is spread out in a very thin layer, sprinkled with corn starch with potassium sorbate added and then placed between sheets of cotton to absorb the moisture.

To make brik pastry, on the other hand, you have to create a very runny mixture of flour and water and have a cup of oil on hand. The hot griddle is brushed with oil and then immediately, off the heat, brushed with the flour and water mixture. The griddle is returned to the heat and the sheet of pastry is removed when it becomes transparent. Easier said than done!

A well-tried use of phyllo pastry or brik is to create a series of layers with a little fat, usually butter, between them, producing a sort of puff pastry, but with a much more delicate consistency. This pastry, in layers alternated with minced walnuts and pistachios and then practically immersed in honey, is used to make the famous baklava, an exquisite sweet common from Israel and Turkey to Slovenia and Bulgaria. The best baklava is considered to be the kind made in Argirocastro, in Albania, and the most experienced cooks manage to make it with over a hundred layers of pastry.

 

 

The recipe

 

   For 6 rustici:

 

- 12 circles of puff pastry 10cm in diameter

- 90 g of béchamel sauce

- 20 g of grated mozzarella

- 30 g of tomato “salsa”

 

Cut the puff pastry into circles 10 cm in diameter. Place a circle on the work bench, brush with beaten egg. In the center, place béchamel mixed with mozzarella and tomato. With your hands, stretch another circle to a diameter of 12/13 cm and place it over the base circle. Press the edges to close in the filling and with an 8 cm pastry cutter pasta, seal the pastry well. Brush with beaten egg.

Cook in the oven at 180° for about 10 minutes.

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