Halfway between Naples and Rome is a small town by the name of Gaeta. This little-known area of Italy was introduced to me thanks to Lidia Bastianich and her cooking show, Lidia’s Italy, on PBS. The food of Gaeta focuses on simple, unpretentious ingredients such as legumes, olives, fresh greens, and goat cheese, which highlight culinary traditions rather than fussy restaurant trends.
Tiella, the signature dish of Gaeta, consists of a filled pizza cooked in a cast iron pan with a savory filling and topped with a semolina crust. The first time I had a tiella, I made it a few years ago for Sunday dinner with my dad and we filled it with the traditional combination of escarole, olives, and capers. It was delicious, but maybe a little bit intense for more “delicate palates.” Imagine it being the food equivalent of having Jon Stewart, Ricky Gervais, and Russell Brand in the same room simultaneously; each one is great on their own but a little much when all together.
I wanted to create a new filling that maintained the traditional integrity of the tiella by using Italian ingredients that were both frugal and readily available. Lentils are used all over Italy for their earthy flavor and easily adaptable flavor profile. In many areas, they are also eaten for good luck. Using lentils as the main ingredient, I developed a filling where lentils and caramelized onions are layered with thinly sliced red potatoes. The result is a hearty rustic dish with universal appeal and an impressively layered cross-section once sliced.
The crust is what sets tiella apart from all other filled pastries like pot pies and quiches, thanks to the semolina crust. Semolina is made from durum wheat, also known as hard wheat. The flour looks like a very finely ground cornmeal, and is bright yellow. It has a very high gluten content, and is what gives dried pasta its chewy, al dente texture.
While the dough rises, you can make the filling, starting with the lentils because they take the longest to cook. I recommend using green lentils or French lentils du puy because they have a firm texture with a creamy interior and their shape stays intact even when cooked.
The secret for adding lots of flavor to this dish is threefold: caramelize your onions until golden brown, salt your lentils (don’t believe that old myth about not salting beans, it’s not true), and use high quality extra-virgin olive oil. This allows simple, inexpensive ingredients to combine into an addictive main course. Preparing the tiella is simple, mainly because the dough is much easier to manipulate than that of a flaky, delicate pie crust. Just brush a skillet with olive oil, roll out the crusts, layer in potatoes and lentils, then add the top crust and flute the edges. To allow for steam to escape, cut a few slits in the top. Finally, brush the tiella with olive oil, and sprinkle it with salt.
Once it’s deep golden brown, slice it and serve it for dinner with a side salad. Or, eat it as they do in Gaeta for an afternoon snack; pick up a wedge and eat it with your hands.
Lentil Potato Tiella
Serves 4-6 as a main dish, or 8-10 as a first course
Adapted from Lidia’s Italy
1 teaspoon active dry yeast ½ cup + 1 tablespoon warm water, 100F
1 tablespoon olive oil, plus more for the pan
¾ cup all-purpose flour
¾ cup semolina flour
½ teaspoon table salt
1. Mix the yeast and water in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with a dough hook. Let it sit for 5 minutes until foamy, then add the olive oil.
2. Add the flours and salt to the bowl and mix on low until combined, scraping sides as necessary. Increase the speed to medium and knead until smooth and satiny, 5-7 minutes.
3. Remove the dough hook and let the dough rise, covered for 1 hour until doubled in size.
1 pound red potatoes, sliced 3/16″ thick
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, plus 4 teaspoons for assembly
1 onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
Pinch of red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon tomato paste
½ teaspoon table salt
1 cup green lentils, rinsed and picked over to remove any stones
3 cups water
1. Put the potatoes in a medium saucepan and add enough cold water to completely cover the potatoes. Place the saucepan over medium high heat, bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook until just barely tender, about 6 minutes. A knife poked into them should be met with some resistance but the potatoes should not feel raw. Drain the potatoes and set them aside.
2. Rinse the saucepan and set it back over medium heat.
3. Heat one tablespoon olive oil in the pan until shimmering, then add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally until golden brown, 8-10 minutes.
4. Add the garlic, tomato paste, and red pepper flakes and sauté, stirring constantly until fragrant and the tomato paste has begun to caramelize, about 1 minute.
5. Stir in the lentils, water and salt and bring to boil. Reduce the heat to medium low and simmer for 30-35 minutes until the lentils are tender and the water has been absorbed.
To assemble the tiella:
1. Preheat the oven to 375F and brush the sides and bottom of a 10 inch cast iron skillet with olive oil.
2. Turn the risen dough out onto the countertop and divide into two pieces, one slightly larger than the other. It should be about 5/8 dough in one piece and 3/8 of the dough in the other.
3. Roll out the large piece of the dough to a circle 14 inches in diameter, then place it in the skillet like you would a pie crust.
4. Lay a single layer of the potatoes directly on top of the bottom crust, and drizzle with a teaspoon of olive oil and a sprinkle of kosher salt. Next, layer 1/3 of the lentils on top of the potatoes and smooth them out into an even layer. Repeat this layering scheme 2 more times until all of the lentil filling is used up. The last third of the lentils should be the top layer.
5. Roll out the remaining piece of dough to a circle 11 inches in diameter and lay it on top of the lentils. Pinch the edges of the top and bottom crust together, and roll the edges towards the edges of the pan. Flute the edges like you would a pie crust.
6. Cut 4 slits in the top crust to allow steam to escape. Brush the tiella with the final teaspoon of olive oil and finish with one more sprinkling of salt.
7. Bake on the middle rack of the oven for 45-50 minutes until deep golden brown. Let cool in the pan for 30 minutes, then slice and serve. The tiella can be served warm, or at room temperature.