What is Pastitsio?

Greer Hed

Pastitsio is a baked pasta dish enjoyed in Greece and many other locations in the Mediterranean and Middle East. The dish is quite versatile and many different versions of it exist, with the most typical Greek version consisting of a thick, tube-like pasta, such as bucatini, baked together with a traditional sauce of meat, tomatoes, and spices, and topped with a white sauce, such as a bechamel. It is a hearty, warm meal often considered to be a form of traditional Greek comfort food. Outside of Greece, pastitsio is particularly popular in Cyprus, where it is often called macaronia tou fournou, and in Egypt, where it is often referred to simply as macaroni bechamel.

Pastitsio is similar to a lasagna casserole.
Pastitsio is similar to a lasagna casserole.

The word "pastitsio" is a Greek variation on the Italian word "pasticcio," meaning a hodgepodge or scramble, and indeed this dish combines a number of different ingredients together in a single dish. In the most basic Greek version, the pasta used is usually bucatini, although it may also be penne or any other type of short, thick, tube-shaped pasta. The pasta is cooked while the two sauces, a red meat sauce with tomatoes and a creamy white sauce like bechamel, are prepared. All these ingredients are then layered together in a baking dish or roasting pan and baked in the oven.

Most pastitsio is topped with a bechamel sauce.
Most pastitsio is topped with a bechamel sauce.

Even within Greece, many different versions of pastitsio exist. Some recipes include ground lamb in the meat sauce, while others call for ground beef. Cinnamon, allspice, and nutmeg are commonly added to the meat sauce for flavor. The white sauce used to top the pastitsio is often a bechamel, or a white sauce made with milk and a light colored roux, a thickening agent made with butter and white flour. However, some recipes call for mornay sauce, a variation on bechamel sauce that includes grated cheese, while other recipes use an egg-based custard as a topping for the pasta dish.

On the island of Cyprus, pastitsio is a popular dish that is often consumed on festive occasions and holidays. A common Cypriot variation on the dish substitutes ground pork for beef or lamb. As pastitsio is often eaten along with a roast in Cyprus, some Cypriot versions omit the meat altogether and simply use tomato sauce. The dish is also often topped with a traditional cheese from Cyprus called haloumi.

Another variation of the dish, called macaroni bechamel, is popular in Egypt. This version usually uses penne pasta instead of the typical Greek bucatini. Onions are sometimes added to the meat sauce and the white sauce used to top the dish may be either bechamel or mornay.

Some fish and meat pastitsio are topped with mornay sauce.
Some fish and meat pastitsio are topped with mornay sauce.

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