The Neapolitan sartù is a sophisticated timbale – a luxury casserole – made with rice and filled with cheese, vegetables, and meat. The name sartù originates from a silver table centerpiece or surtout, used by the Naples’ nobility to serve the most important dish of a formal dinner.
Rice was imported into peninsular Italy in the XIV century by the Spaniards. For a long time however, the pasta-eater Neapolitans considered it as tasteless fodder and only good for curing stomach illness.
By the end of 1700, rice was all the rage in France. At the time the Bourbons ruled Naples and as a consequence French cooks ruled the kitchens of the Neapolitan aristocracy. Because of their status of culinary authorities, they convinced their patrons to eat rice but they had to make it acceptable using popular ingredients such as tomato sauce and mozzarella.
The traditional recipe involves the use of lard, aged pecorino cheese, a thick meat ragout with chicken livers and no tomato in the rice. To enhance creaminess I prefer to cook the rice in a light tomato sauce like a risotto and I use either grated Parmigiano or pecorino, whatever I have at hand. I use gluten-free breadcrumbs so I can also enjoy the glory. The sartù is rich enough even without the lard, one such casserole feeds a small army. In fact, it’s such a great party dish that if you make it once for your family, they will ask it over and over again.
For the rice “shell”:
- 800 g (28 oz) canned peeled or crushed tomatoes
- 1 small onion, finely chopped
- 1/2 cup white wine
- 700 gr. (1 and 1/2 lb) risotto rice
- 6 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- 3-4 tablespoons breadcrumbs or gluten-free equivalent
- 1 egg
For the filling:
- 500 gr. (1 lb) minced pork (or half pork /half beef)
- 2 tab parsley finely chopped
- 2 tab bread crumbs
- 2 tab freshly grated pecorino
- 2 tab milk
- 1 garlic clove minced through a garlic press
- salt and pepper to taste
Pea and mushroom sauce:
- 400 gr. (12 oz) fresh pork sausages, casing removed and broken in pieces
- 1 small onion, chopped
- 450 g (1 lb) fresh mushrooms of your choice, diced or chopped
- 300 g ( 10 oz) fresh or frozen small peas
- 400 gr. (12 oz) fresh mozzarella, diced
- 100 g (3 oz) ham diced or shredded
Prepare the rice shell:
To make the tomato sauce, saute the diced onion in one tablespoon olive oil until translucent. Add canned tomatoes and simmer for 5 min. Meanwhile, bring to the boil 1 lt/1 quart water or stock. Add the rice to the tomato sauce and cook it like a risotto adding ladlefuls of hot water or stock until very al dente. Season with salt and pepper, add egg, Parmesan cheese, spread it on a wide plate and let it cool. If possible prepare the rice several hours in advance to firm up.
Prepare the polpettine:
Mix the chopped parsley, ground meat, milk, grated cheese, garlic, salt, pepper and bread crumbs. Add a sprinkle of salt and pepper. Meatballs will cook better and faster if you make them small and of the same size. Use a spoon to make equal portions, then roll each meatball with your hands into approx. 1-inch diameter balls. Shallow fry in extra virgin olive oil until golden.
Prepare the pea, sausage and mushroom sauce:
Saute onion and sausage in 2 tablespoon olive over high heat.
Add the mushrooms and stir quickly until very hot. Add white wine to deglaze, reduce the heat to medium and stir occasionally until the mushrooms are cooked through and tender, 5 to 10 min.
Add the fresh peas and cook for 3-4 minutes until tender. Taste for seasoning. Salt and pepper might not be necessary if the sausages are heavily seasoned.
Preheat oven at 200°C (400°F).
Butter generously a round 30 cm (11 inches) ovenproof dish and dust it with breadcrumbs. Line the dish with a 2 cm (3/4 inch) thick layer of risotto. You need to make sure that the rice layer is compact enough on the sides so that it will hold the filling.
Layer all other ingredients in the rice “shell”: the pea, sausage and mushroom sauce, the meatballs, ham and the mozzarella. I use half of the mozzarella to top the sausage sauce and half to top the meatballs (not portrayed in the photo below).
Cover with the rest of the rice. Sprinkle with the breadcrumbs, a couple of tablespoon Parmesan and dot with a butter. Bake for 20-30 min until slightly golden. Allow resting for at least 10 min before serving.