Pastitsio, an Ultra-Comforting Pasta Bake, Is the Sleeper Hit of Greek Easter. Here’s How to Make It.

updated May 11, 2021
Pastitsio

Greek pastitsio features layers of pasta, homemade meat sauce, and the most delicious topping of creamy bechamel.

Serves9 to 12

Prep45 minutes

Cook45 minutes

Jump to Recipe
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Pastitsio slice on plate
Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman | Food Stylist: Brett Regot

Greek Easter. Just hearing those words should make you hungry. If your Greek friend invites you to celebrate this most glorious holiday, you must cancel any plans and run over immediately with a bottle of ouzo. There’s truly no holiday more food-fueled than this epic outdoor grilling festival.

My family’s Easter celebrations didn’t actually start out as a big production. When I was little, my mom would just roast a leg of lamb in the oven. But one year, an uncle invited us over to his house in Whitestone, Queens, where more than a hundred people gathered outside as a goat and a lamb roasted slowly on spits, their juices dripping onto the hissing coals and creating the most glorious smell in the world. My parents were inspired, and soon after that we started our own tradition, which has now been going strong for 20 years and counting.

Pastitsio: The Sleeper Hit of Greek Easter

Between the goat roasting on the big spit, the lamb on the gas grill, and the chicken souvlaki rotating on skewers on the mini grill (a friend of mine has dubbed this “meat foosball”), you might think this would be enough food. But you would be very, very wrong. There are cheeses and sausages, spanakopita, olives, stuffed grape leaves (dolmades), baskets of pita, a bowl of salad big enough to baptize a pair of twins, crispy potatoes, and of course a large vat of tzatziki. But the real sleeper hit of Easter is the pastitsio. It’s basically northern Italian lasagna’s cousin, featuring layers of pasta, meat sauce, and the most delicious bechamel. Our Greek Easter spread isn’t complete without it, and it’s always a crowd-pleaser — even for the pickiest of eaters.

Like most traditional dishes, every man, woman, yiayia, and pappou has their own recipe and thoughts on pastitsio, and how it’s prepared is up to the cook to decide. It’s traditionally made with an extremely long pasta with a hole in the middle (similar to Italian bucatini, but much thicker), but I personally prefer it with ziti, as that’s how my mom has made it my whole life, and I find it makes a nice-looking dish once cooked. But feel free to use the classic noodles if you’re interested and are able to easily source them.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman | Food Stylist: Brett Regot

4 Tips for the Best Pastitsio

  1. Use a sheep’s milk cheese. One of pastitsio’s key ingredients is a delicious sheep’s milk cheese called Kefalotiri, but it can be hard to find unless you have a Greek store nearby. The best substitute is Pecorino Romano, which has a similar kick to it. Don’t substitute with Parmesan, which is too mild.
  2. Allow the bechamel to thicken. Thanks to the addition of eggs, this particular bechamel is a bit thicker than a classic one, and it acts as a binder for the pasta. As such, it’s essential to thicken it up so you can cut clean slices rather than have everything fall apart on you.
  3. Keep the seasonings simple. I find that a simple meat sauce is best for this dish so it doesn’t overwhelm everything. With that said, my yiayia always put cinnamon in her pastitsio, and many purists would probably hate if I omitted it altogether, so I’ve listed it (as well as a few other spices) as optional.
  4. Set aside time for cleanup. Pastitsio isn’t a difficult recipe, but you will be washing a lot of dishes. Many Greek dishes are truly a labor of love, and there’s not much you can do to avoid the cleanup involved.

This Year’s Celebrations Are Smaller — But No Less Festive

I’m always thrilled when I get to introduce people to the madness of this holiday. They often stare in horror and fascination as some of my older relatives fight each other for the best parts of the goat, oftentimes waiting at the table with knives in their hands until my dad brings the meat over from the spit. My Thea Stella is happy to pull the meat from the goat carcass and place it directly into your mouth while insisting you take home an extra large slab of pastitisio for the next day. 

Unfortunately, COVID has prevented us from these types of celebrations. This year, since it’s just my immediate family gathering, we’re cooking half a small goat cut into big pieces by our butcher. But the meat, called “souvla,” will still be roasted over a charcoal grill, we’ll light our candles and sing “Xristos Anesti” as the clock strikes midnight, we’ll smash our red-dyed hard-boiled eggs against each other for luck, and we’ll have a full tray of pastitsio for all to enjoy. A toned-down holiday is better than not celebrating at all!

As a final personal note, I would like to share that a few days after I was asked to write this recipe, my yiayia in Cyprus (my last remaining grandparent) passed away. Putting together a recipe for something she has fed me during every trip I’ve ever made to Cyprus since I was a baby feels extremely personal, and I would like to dedicate this to her memory. As the world begins to open up again, I can’t wait to celebrate with a proper animal roasting and to introduce more people to my family’s wonderful traditions. Greek Easter is a day like no other, and I truly hope everyone is able to attend at least one of these celebrations during their lives. Xristos Anesti to all my fellow Greeks out there!

Pastitsio

Greek pastitsio features layers of pasta, homemade meat sauce, and the most delicious topping of creamy bechamel.

Prep time 45 minutes

Cook time 45 minutes

Serves 9 to 12

Nutritional Info

Ingredients

For the meat sauce:

  • 2 tablespoons

    olive oil

  • 2 pounds

    ground beef, pork, lamb, or a combination

  • 2 tablespoons

    tomato paste

  • 1 (15-ounce) can

    tomato sauce (about 2 cups)

  • 1 1/2 teaspoons

    kosher salt

  • 1/2 teaspoon

    freshly ground black pepper

  • 2 cloves

    garlic (optional)

  • 1

    bay leaf (optional)

  • 1 teaspoon

    ground cinnamon (optional)

For the béchamel:

  • 2 quarts

    (8 cups) whole milk

  • 4

    large eggs

  • 2 sticks

    (1 cup) unsalted butter

  • 1 cup

    all-purpose flour

  • 2 teaspoons

    kosher salt

  • 1/2 teaspoon

    freshly ground black pepper

  • 1 cup

    grated Kefalotiri or Pecorino Romano cheese

  • 1/4 teaspoon

    ground nutmeg (optional)

For the pasta:

  • 1 1/2 pounds

    dried ziti pasta or pastitsio noodles

  • 4 tablespoons

    (1/2 stick) unsalted butter

  • 3/4 cup

    grated Kefalotiri or Pecorino Romano cheese

Instructions

  1. Let 2 quarts whole milk and 4 large eggs come to room temperature before making the sauce. Grate until you have 1 3/4 cups Kefalotiri or Pecorino Romano cheese.

Make the meat sauce:

  1. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add 2 pounds ground meat. Cook, breaking the meat into smaller pieces with a wooden spoon, until cooked through, 5 to 7 minutes. If there is a lot of fat in the pan at this point, drain it off.

  2. Add 2 tablespoons tomato paste to the pan and cook, stirring occasionally, until slightly darkened in color. Add 1 can tomato sauce, 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, and 1/2 teaspoon black pepper. If desired, add 2 whole garlic cloves, 1 bay leaf, and 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon. Bring to a boil.

  3. Cover and simmer over medium-low heat until there's very little liquid left, about 30 minutes. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a boil over medium-high heat. Arrange a rack in the middle of the oven and heat the oven to 375°F. Make the béchamel sauce.

Make the béchamel:

  1. Melt 2 sticks unsalted butter in a medium pot over medium-low heat. Add 1 cup all-purpose flour and whisk until smooth. Continue to cook, whisking constantly, until starting to darken in color a little bit and the raw flour taste is cooked out, about 3 minutes.

  2. Add the milk 1/2 cup at a time, whisking with each addition. It will be extremely thick at first, but will thin out. Increase the heat to medium-high and continue whisking. Cook, whisking often, until the mixture starts to bubble and thicken up, about 5 minutes. This happens very suddenly, so make sure your full attention is on the béchamel. Once it's thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, remove from the heat.

  3. Season with 2 teaspoons kosher salt, 1 teaspoon black pepper, and 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg if desired. Add 1 cup of the cheese and whisk to combine. Add the eggs one at a time, whisking very quickly with each addition to prevent curdling, until combined.

Cook the pasta:

  1. Add 1 1/2 pounds dried ziti or pastitsio noodles to the boiling water and cook 2 to 3 minutes more than package directions — you actually want to overcook your pasta a little bit. Meanwhile, cut 4 tablespoons unsalted butter into small pieces.

  2. Drain the pasta and place in a large bowl. Add the butter, 3 cups of the béchamel, and the remaining 3/4 cup cheese. Toss until the butter is melted and everything is well coated.

Build and bake the pastitsio:

  1. Spread 1/4 cup of the béchamel in a 9x13-inch baking dish. If using ziti, arrange 2/3 of the ziti piece by piece in the baking dish in 2 tight, even layers. If using pastitio noodles, just arrange into an even layer. Remove the garlic cloves from the meat sauce, then spread the meat sauce evenly over the pasta. Arrange the remaining pasta evenly over the meat sauce. Pour the remaining béchamel over the pasta until the pasta is completely covered, you may not need it all.

  2. Bake until light golden brown, about 45 minutes. If it’s browning too much after 30 minutes, tent loosely with aluminum foil and continue baking. Let cool 45 minutes so the pastitsio has time to set up so that you can cut clean slices. Serve warm. Once sliced, reheat if desired, serve, and enjoy!

Recipe Notes

Make Ahead: The best part of pastitsio is that it freezes extremely well, cooked or uncooked. You can make this several days ahead of when you're planning to serve it. Just don't cut into it at all after baking so it doesn't dry out. Refrigerated in the tray, covered, up to 3 to 4 days, and let come up to room temperature before baking uncovered. It can also be well wrapped in aluminum foil and frozen for up to 2 months. Thaw overnight in the refrigerator before baking uncovered.

Storage: Leftovers can be refrigerated up to 4 days. Reheat slices in a 350ºF oven until warmed through, 10 to 15 minutes.