Italian cooks played it straight when they named their foods. Cannelloni, a large, round type of macaroni, translates to "big pipes." Ricotta, skim milk that is subjected to repeated slow boiling, stands for "recooked." Stracchino, a soft cheese from Milan, means "a little tired," in honor of the mountain cows from which it originated and their journey to the big city.
But perhaps the Italians were most sensible when it came to schiacciata (skyah-CHAH-tah), a generic term used for a variety of dishes made with dough or olive oil. It simply means "crushed."
Tuscan-born chef Anna Bini serves a stuffed variation of schiacciata in her Parisian restaurants, consisting of focaccia halved and spread with a creamy fresh cheese, then filled with sauteed zucchini, onions and fresh mint. Closer to home at Ca'del Sole in North Hollywood, chef Soerke Peters offers schiacciata di pollo, a grilled boneless chicken laced with lemon zest and served in an iron skillet with green beans and crisply fried potatoes. There are as many variations on the word as there are cooks in Italy.
Mention it in my family, though, and one dish immediately comes to mind: potato pie. My Great, Great-Grandmother Angela Sbona brought the recipe with her from Melilli, Sicily, in 1905. Every Italian immigrant in the Connecticut river town where the family settled had his or her own variation of schiacciata. Those who could afford it stuffed their dough with meat. Some adorned theirs with no more than cold-pressed olive oil and salt.
Angela stuck to what was in her cupboard and backyard: She fried up potatoes, onions, garlic and olive oil, tossed in a few capers and tomatoes dried in the sun, and wrapped the whole delicious mess in freshly kneaded dough. Then she sprinkled Parmigiano-Reggiano and black pepper over it, put it in the oven and moved on to tackle the next supper dish. My Great-Aunt Pip, Angela's youngest daughter, is now keeper of the recipe. For years at our family reunions, she made sure her schiacciata di patate got as much play as the hamburgers, hot dogs and clams on the half shell did on the red-and-white-checked tablecloth.
Angela's descendants haven't strayed far from her recipe. The secret is to fry the onions and potatoes separately, then marry them into one glossy mound just before adding them to the dough. My husband spices the dough up a bit by adding crushed red pepper and garlic powder. Others toss in some grilled Italian sausage with the potatoes for a hearty one-dish meal.
Aunt Pip says her mother would serve the pie with an oil-and-vinegar salad and green peppers roasted over the stove's gas flame. And that was just for starters.
"There were always one or two more dishes after that," Pip recalls. "You know how they used to cook.
Schiacciata Di Patate
Serves 4 to 6
1 1/3 cup warm water
2 1/4 teaspoons yeast
3 cups flour
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for bowl
Pinch of salt
5 tablespoons cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for pan
2 garlic cloves, minced
5 potatoes, sliced
1 large onion, sliced
2 tablespoons washed capers
2 tablespoons dried tomatoes, diced (optional)
Salt and pepper
Mix yeast and warm water in a large bowl, and let stand 5 minutes. Add flour, olive oil and salt and mix together until smooth and elastic. Cover with plastic wrap and put aside until dough doubles in size, about 2 hours. Punch dough down and divide in two. Wrap each piece loosely in plastic and let stand 10 to 15 minutes.
Heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a skillet. Add one minced garlic clove, then potatoes and salt and pepper to taste. Fry over medium-high heat 20 minutes until potatoes start to turn brown. In a separate pan, heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil and add remaining garlic, onions and salt and pepper. Fry over medium-high heat for about 10 minutes. Just before onions are done, mix in the capers. Combine potatoes and onions in a large bowl and allow to cool.
Roll out half the dough and stretch thinly across the bottom of a lightly oiled 9-by-13-inch baking pan. Spoon potatoes and onions evenly over dough. Sprinkle sundried tomatoes on top. Roll out other half of dough and stretch it across the top of potato mixture. Seal edges all around.
Cut a few slots in the top to allow steam to escape. Brush with olive oil and sprinkle with Parmigiano-Reggiano and black pepper. Bake for 25 to 35 minutes in a 350-degree oven, or until top turns golden brown. Allow to cool before serving.
Laura Randall is a freelance writer in Los Angeles
Food stylist: Christine Masterson